01/04/19 Faculty Spotlight: Mary Casper


Mary Casper joined the School of Architecture in 2017, teaching first year undergraduates. She comes to USC with experience as a project designer and project manager with Johnston Marklee and as the director of architecture at The Archers. Inspired by her undergraduate work in sociology, Casper’s work focuses heavily on the social realm within conceptions of space.

Can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small industrial town in Wisconsin, where mostly people worked in these large, faceless campuses making paper products for Kimberly Clark or Neenah Paper or Menasha Corporation. While at Vassar, through my interests in social and political theory, I was able to contextualize these landscapes from my early years within the larger structures of capital, labor, and, eventually, space. My first foray into architecture happened by accident, in a spontaneous decision to add a seminar in my last semester that explored the architectural impact of corporate architecture’s migration from the urban center to the suburban edge. At the same time, I was finishing my sociology thesis on the Marxist idea of ideal labor, documented in the art practices of a community of rural quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The many disparate interests I’ve had throughout my life have always seemed to share an interest in bringing invisible forces to the foreground and in how to challenge everyday political and social structures – and today, architectural structures – to improve the lives they engender. I was fortunate to land at Rice for my M.Arch where I was immersed in great urban thinkers like Albert Pope, Neyran Turan, and Lars Lerup and theoretical heavyweights like Sarah Whiting and Reto Geiser, as well as skilled designers like Dawn Finley and Mark Wamble. I moved to LA for my first job at Johnston Marklee about five years ago, and then moved on to lead the architecture team at the multidisciplinary design collaborative The Archers. In addition to teaching, I’m now pursuing my own projects with various collaborators.

What do you teach at USC Architecture?

I started out teaching in the first year undergraduate 102 and 105 sequence. In spring 2018, I taught 302b, the third year undergraduate structural studio. In fall 2018, I taught 302a, the third year undergraduate housing studio, and 501, the undergraduate thesis prep. In the spring, I’ll be teaching the corresponding 502 studio, where my students will develop design projects based on their fall semester research – focused on “Realism” in architecture.

What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?

I chose Los Angeles as the place to start my career because it has a broad range of schools and also a lot of young, active offices, which makes it a very fertile city for architecture right now. I think within this broader ecology, USC has a great internal diversity of opinions, specialties, aesthetics and pedagogy, which is for me, offers an exciting environment to test new ideas and to cultivate architecture. For me, it’s also always been important to teach as well as to practice, and so I was also very attracted to the school’s reputation as somewhere rooted in the pragmatism of building. Right now, that tradition is augmented by a lot of very passionate young theoreticians and designers working across disciplines and that type of diversity among the faculty and the types of designers that [the school] produces is unique, especially when compared to the other institutions here in Los Angeles, but even elsewhere. As someone firmly planted in disciplinarity but eager to posit new ideas and draw connections outward, I felt that USC was the ideal place for me to contribute my voice to an evolving, open conversation. 

What excites you about your faculty role?

I really love teaching because I feel like it has rekindled my belief in the power of design. In practice, the day to day routine of what it takes to get something built can veer away from the exciting ideas that are so much more in the foreground when you’re in school. As an instructor, you basically get to help your students achieve their best work. Being so intimately involved in supporting someone else’s intensive, thoughtful design work is a true privilege. I cultivate a studio characterized by diverse opinions and open dialogue, and in turn, my students have challenged my own ideas and ways of thinking, which has fueled my own work in practice. An ideal design studio, in my mind, is one where we are all learning and teaching – me included. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of architecture across the globe?

I do worry about architecture in the future. For sure, there are challenges ahead for architects, as we strive to remain relevant in the greater economies that seem to increasingly dilute our agency within the process of building. Architects have become – through necessity! – generalists in an economy that privileges monetary value and measurable expertise. But as generalists, we are often more vulnerable to value engineering. I think that architecture as a discipline needs to collectively invest in the campaign to educate the public on the vital imagination and knowledge that architects lend to the projects they do – both on traditional building projects and on broader, less traditional design work. Our training as spatial thinkers make us extremely valuable in a leadership capacity, whether on a small renovation project, a ground up building, a website design, a piece of furniture, a master plan, a music video, a branding package or a piece of set design. Space is everywhere and our skills are many. In my own work and research, I actively pursue more multidisciplinary applications for architecture. That’s largely because I think architecture cannot afford to exist so autonomously in the future.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m often very inspired by documentary work across multiple genres. I’ve always been very interested in memoir and creative non-fiction, and I’ve always loved photography. These methods of storytelling, of creative narrative, have helped me think about architecture productively because they take something that could be seen as mundane or boring and elevate that single person’s experience or point of view to make it meaningful to a broader audience. I think that’s really powerful. Certainly visual artists like Alex da Corte and photographers like Nan Goldin, Zoe Strauss, and Catherine Opie do a similar thing. They force their audience to think critically about their everyday life or environment in a way that makes them feel more included in the world they inhabit, that affords them new perspective on something they’ve seen a thousand times before. That’s what I hope I’m able to do through architecture.

What are your research interests?

The seminar I’m teaching right now for 501, called The Realists: Spaces of Production, is looking a lot at social theory and documentary practices and their application to creating environments, both realistically and unrealistically. We’ve had very productive conversations this semester about Baudrillard, reality TV, Disneyland, Las Vegas, The Truman Show, Robert Venturi, David Foster Wallace, Junkspace, and Ai Weiwei. I think all of these are inextricably linked to our ideas of architecture today and I can’t wait to see how we design for this reality in the spring.

Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?

The idea of the social space has always run through my work. In fact, in my master’s thesis, I actually declared that public space, which is increasingly hard to find in the world today, ought to be replaced in our urbanistic lexicon with social space as a better descriptor for the current and future incarnation of those spaces formerly described as “public.” Social space is more nimble. It can exist in a plaza as well as a private office building, and if we begin to imbue it with the same power as the agora of our nostalgia, it may actually foster social friction and serve the public sphere in a way that the literal plaza increasingly cannot. Extended to the realm of social media, social space as the new public space becomes even more important. As architects, we have yet to fully take on new methods of design that acknowledge the fact that much of our interaction with other human beings is done through an interface like a computer or a social media platform.

Any advice to current students?

A student of mine asked me the other day if I thought architecture should be political. I told her that it wasn’t a matter of should it be political, but that it was inevitably political. There’s no way to escape engaging the systems within which architecture exists, and politics is certainly one of those–the economy and society as a whole are others. My advice to students would be: keep your eyes wide open to the things you initially see as challenges; don’t hide from them, as they will be the most interesting parts of your projects. Imagine your work as part of a larger discourse with history and therefore, take your work seriously. Believe in your point of view, because your ideas are important, and because no one else will do that for you.

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