Faculty Spotlight: Rebecca Choi
Faculty Spotlight: Rebecca Choi
Rebecca Choi received her Bachelor of Arts in Design|Media Arts and holds a Master’s degree in Urban Planning. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in Critical History & Theory of Architecture in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA. Her scholarship focuses on the history of late 20th century architecture and urbanism, with an emphasis on Los Angeles. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Welton Becket Fellowship and has contributed to journals such as Places, as well as working as a reviewer for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
Her recent faculty exhibit is entitled "1967".
What is your exhibit about?
I’m showing archival research from the 1967 MoMA show entitled The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal. I really wanted to put together something for the wall that could display the historian as producer, the working message of the historian. My goal is to display how we mine archival work, categorize and classify work. So it’s about showing a matrix. Trying to stitch together disparate parts: correspondence, banal information like money being transferred to participants from the university, from the museum, to a bit more visually exciting material like the planned models, drawings, and things that were originally submitted. So it’s taking a string and creating a matrix of all the people involved.
The interesting thing about this exhibition is that it has some really high-profile names. Arthur Drexler, the curator, originally approached Peter Eisenman to submit something to re-envision Harlem after the riots. The story is: Eisenman was just coming off the heels of his practice, not building anything and needing funding. Urban research and urban crisis was at its peak, so all money opportunities were tethered to looking at the city. So he started the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and MoMA was their first exhibition.
After Drexler brought on Eisenman, he also brought on Anderson from MIT—these really big names in architectural history that are known for their formal agenda, looking at the city and trying to promote a conversation with urban renewal. The output is very interesting and thought-provoking.
Can you tell me about your educational background?
I received almost all my degrees at UCLA. I did my undergrad in design media arts and my Master’s in Urban Planning. Right now, I’m finishing up my doctorate there.
What is your doctorate about?
My dissertation is looking at the 1960s and trying to understand curricular changes that were taking place in architecture schools. Specifically tracing these changes in the era of civil rights, black power ideologies and race riots. The histories of the counterculture, environmental movement and even feminism have all been assimilated into the education of architecture, but for some reason civil rights and black power ideology have been excluded.
So I’m trying to stitch together this narrative about this moment in the ‘60s, highlighting the work of architectural agents that had been excluded from the canon. I’m trying to highlight some lesser-known figures in our field, locating their efforts to shift the discipline away from a traditional
Beaux Arts curriculum to include urban research. Architectural pedagogy became more interdisciplinary. The architecture schools, I examine, were closely working with sociology, anthropology, and picking up their terminology like “field work” and “urban research.” These are the terms I’m interested in investigating, and that’s essentially the work of this dissertation.
What prompted your interest in history?
My background is in design. When I was designing for a studio, they had employees go out for site visits to understand the context. And it was basic urban research although they didn’t call it that. They called it market research, but it was really urban research. Working for an agency was the first time I went down to East L.A., South Central, past Crenshaw and down to Florence, Normandy, and I saw different parts of the city for the first time. I talked to people around the area, and when you go down to South Central, people talk to you. They approached me and asked, what are you doing here? I thought they were being territorial, but in fact, it was a genuine question—are services going to be brought, are you going to help us?
That’s when I started getting interested in urban planning. But then I realized that it was heavily rooted in policy. So they were interested in writing and revamping policy. And that’s when I found myself in the architecture school for the last year of my Master’s. That’s where I got exposed to history and methodology, because my quibble with policy and the approach in the social sciences is that it was really positivist. I didn’t understand why they were using certain methodologies, ethnographic, statistical, and I was trying to understand how certain modes were being practiced, which is a historical question.
What courses are you currently teaching?
I’ve been teaching at USC for two years, and I teach three courses. One is an elective undergraduate course called Great Houses. I teach the graduate history theory survey required for all incoming students. Then I also co-teach a course designed to expose incoming undergraduates to the basic theories and conversations that are taking place in architecture. It’s a really fantastic course.
What do you hope the design students get out of this knowledge?
One is that architecture as the production of architectural knowledge is not simply producing built work. Architecture is historically a conversation, a communication device. It’s a discourse. So when I teach history, theory, and criticism, I hope students can see that by engaging in the conversation, they too can be a voice, and their work can be a representation of the social, political, and economic conditions of their contemporary moment in the same way that architecture operated as a device historically from the Renaissance Baroque to the Enlightenment.
Second, for them to understand precedents and case studies. To understand that whatever questions and interests and queries they want to mine have probably at some point been examined and investigated by an architect before them. And they can rely on figures, whether alive or dead, to help them understand these ideas. I am a big believer of students knowing the history and function of case studies and precedents, even if they don’t understand the context from which objects arrive. At least students can see it as a useful work or device for their own work. ■