Week 5: Interview About Thesis

You are not working on a Thesis. However, the work you are doing is primarily self-driven and it requires a lot of discipline. Taking intellectual risks through verbal, written, and visual experiments demonstrates this discipline and drive.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nader Tehrani about the role of Thesis in architectural education at Cooper Union. He is the Dean of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union.

Full interview

Paul: I’d like to start out with you sharing a little bit of your own personal perspective on the value of the thesis and the role of thesis in architectural education.

Nader: The value of thesis, in my mind, emerges from the moment when students realize that the programs professors make up in the beginning of the semester, the agendas they produce, and the prompts they create are both motivated and fictional. I have a distinct recollection of coming to this realization in my own undergraduate years, and the marginal, yet productive, relationship these fictions had to the world out there. It is also the moment when you realize how potentially the most potent moment of the design process may be in the development of a program, or an agenda. One of the most creative moments is when you realize you might be asking a unique question for the first time, or a question never posed in a certain way, much like a professor may have to do in the development of a studio prompt, as a precondition for the development of a dozen projects that rehearse its possibilities in the design process. That is, in essence, what happens in a studio, as one establishes a thesis through a conjecture, a series of questions, or problematics, and how students’ project manifest their implications in radically different ways. And I guess one of the things I loved about the discovery of thesis is the sheer independence to conceive of a problem, and the power of being able to construct a pedagogy out of it.

Donna: Do you think that the students understand that earlier in their careers? Or is it really only until they are asked at thesis time to do some defining themselves that they really start to take that on? And I am especially curious how you think that translates them then into their first job in the real world when they have a client, you know. Do you think that they are prepared for being able to ask those same questions that they want to ask themselves in addition to the questions and the problems that the clients are bringing to them?

Let’s postpone the second part of the question for a moment and talk about it in the context of academia. I think that the riddles that are posed to students–whether at RISD, Harvard, MIT, or Cooper Union, the very places I have taught over the past 25 years— are all slightly different. Academic freedom offers faculty the space to develop varied narratives from semester to semester, and from school to school. Consequently, students have an intuitive understanding that there’s something slightly different at stake in each professor’s agenda and that they are each defining a territory through their pedagogy.

So no, students are not completely innocent going into thesis, but they may not have internalized the sheer responsibility that comes with the terrain of defining a set of questions, finding the right analytical tools to research the questions, and how to translate all that into a project of consequence. Somehow, during this process, the cultural, urbanistic and programmatic context of the projects also take shape, forcing a generic set of questions to take on the peculiarities of a specific context. So yes, I think that students have an intuitive understanding throughout their years of study, but the weight of responsibility that comes with the independence of thesis feels entirely new.

In reaction to the second part of your question, I would say, first and foremost, I don’t think we should confuse what we do in school with what happens in the world of practice. If we succeed in creating the right academic environment to demonstrate the agency of the architectural discipline, then beyond preparing students for practice (as we know it to be today), we may yet prepare them to reinvent it, to imagine novel ways in translating thinking into other forms of architectural practice, and to broaden architectural research in the context of an expanded intellectual terrain: consider the ways in which certain architects have adopted their skill sets to become politicians, contractors, developers, or even clients. With many models of practice outmoded, and with so many practices, technological or otherwise on the brink of obsolescence, what students need is the space to learn, to think critically and develop analytical skills that they may need to apply to completely different circumstances afterwards.  

What clients bring to the equation can be demanding of course, and yet not always compelling on their own terms. Thus, the architect’s ability to bring a conceptual project to the client —or to extract it from a seemingly benign prompt— might be one of the most important aspects of what the academic context might help develop, in effect, not so much by solving a prosaic problem inasmuch as inviting a new way of looking at the challenge altogether. In this sense, the real world out there is not so real, as it is a fertile space within which speculations might yield alternative ways of inhabiting the world.

Featured Image: Student work by Laurie Hawkinson, Thesis, 1982-83; Professors: John Hejduk, Anthony Candido, Peter Eisenman, Donald Wall, Regi Weile. Photo courtesy The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive, The Cooper Union.


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