December 22, 2020
Dear School of Architecture Community,
As the last exams and reviews have been administered, and the remaining students have now begun to disappear from campus for the much-needed end-of-year break, we are beginning to look back on what has been both a difficult and yet successful fall. Unquestionably, no operational or communal aspect of the school was the same as it was in previous years. The energy, the cacophony, the excitement, and, yes, even the anxiety that once filled our halls, our buildings, and our courtyard was replaced by but a gentle murmur that bubbled up now and again in the stillness and quiet that settled on our campus. The studios that were once a hive of activity had just a few students sitting at their desks. The copiers that were constantly spewing out reams of readings and syllabi instead gathered dust. The tables of our favored haunt, Caffe Medici, were no longer the site of the unofficial “office hours” of our faculty. The faces of our classmates, colleagues, and friends that once brightened our days flattened into tiny out-of-focus squares on our laptops. Our experience in the spring after we went on-line did not prepare us for the fall. We were already into the latter half of the semester then, and our attention and energy were concertedly focused on finishing what we had started. Many at the university thought we would be open again before the semester concluded, and were also still hoping that graduation would be in person. No one was thinking that the fall would be anything other than what it had been in previous years.
What was at first thought to be a few week disruption in our lives lengthened into months, and will now extend beyond a year, if not longer. The communal spirit in our country that originally emerged as we were facing an unknown threat has devolved into ennui, cynicism, disengagement, disbelief, mistrust, and anger as the effects and impacts of the pandemic wear on us all. How could a university with over 65,000 students, staff, and faculty re-open in the fall without a commonly held view regarding the seriousness of this disease? Many of the nation’s most prestigious private universities, as well as some of the major public universities, decided to skirt such a question by moving to entirely on-line instruction, even insofar as they did plan to have their campuses open for some research activities. The decision at The University of Texas at Austin to re-open in the fall with a mixture of online, in-person, and hybrid classes was intended to preserve the structure and systems of those educational and research activities that needed physical engagement. This tri-partite organization was not simply a matter of assigning courses to a particular mode but rather necessitated a full-on reconfiguration of every process and space at our school (shout out to our amazing staff and faculty for designing and managing this process and to the many students who helped us make it happen).
By the standards of the pre-COVID past, it might seem odd to call the fall semester successful. Many activities, including all national and international travel, were canceled. The free-wheeling discourse that is a hallmark of our school was subdued and limited by the temporal, formal, and dimensional constraints of Zoom. The ‘open door’ access that kept conversations, machines, and pencils in constant flow and movement nearly 24/7 was clamped down to but a trickle. The amazing resources of our school and university were still available but only under highly controlled and prescribed circumstances. Books could still be checked out of the library, but none of the browsing that so many of us credit with opening up new worlds of ideas was possible. Files could still be sent to laser cutters, robots, and 3D printers, but the hands-on experimentation with new modes of technology had to be restricted. Our greatest loss, however, was of the informal, dynamic, and supportive collaboration that is the sine qua non of our work and educational processes. We are constantly testing our ideas with our team members, our cohort, our friends, and our advisors. We ask for their advice, we offer them suggestions, we discuss next steps moving forward. We lean over their desks to draw with them, we make coffee and taco runs late at night and early in the morning so that all are supported and nourished. None of the professions for which our school prepares students are ones where a solitary individual works independently. The complexity of the many domains and decisions that constitute the design and stewardship of the built environment requires many voices, many hands in constant dialogue and iteration. But we found a way to make it work, to still deliver the quality of education that our school is so renowned for.
We found our moments of success in recognizing our new situation, adapting, and establishing new ideas about what success might entail: the local community engagement of many of our hybrid courses and studios, the sharing of lecture series across our peer university network, the new modes of course delivery that expanded access to academic resources and content, the additional internships that our staff and faculty worked so hard to secure, the intrepid student leaders who served as health ambassadors. And the most important measure of all, we finished the semester safe and healthy. There was no in-school community transmission of COVID to any of our constituents. Indeed, UT, and the School of Architecture in particular, were perhaps the safest places to be in the entire city of Austin. I am proud of the planning and work we did to create and manage this safe haven as I firmly believe that our first and greatest obligation as public servants is to protect the health of our constituents. It took the commitment of everyone to make this happen, and our deep gratitude is deserved by every student, staff member, and faculty member who played a role in preserving this safe community.
The pandemic was and continues to be a disruption for us all, and has had devastating consequences for so many. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to keep our health and livelihoods have had to alter most aspects of our quotidian life, and our hearts deeply ache for those whose lives have been upended and ever more so for those who have lost loved ones. We all keep hoping for a return to “normal,” although “normal” has always meant that someone, many ones, were suffering somewhere even if not within our view. I assume that much of the reason for the repeated references to “getting back to normal” is to indicate that there is an inherent order in our world — a way that things are supposed to be—and that no matter the storm, or how buffeted about we are, our ship will always right itself. We find comfort in the inertia and safety of the normal. All is right when things are normal. Not normal means loss, it represents change, it embodies unpredictability and unknowability.
If normal is indeed safe, steady, and predictable, then it is also the provenance of privilege and exclusivity. Only those who have what they need can suffer loss, only those whose lives are stable can be destabilized. There are not many in this world who can afford to isolate themselves from change. My challenge to all is thus: let us not strive or yearn for a return to the “normal” of the past. Let us instead embrace and build upon the constituent core of endurance that enabled us to adapt and respond to the pandemic. If that which is normal is a barricade against change, then that which endures will flow and expand through seas upon seas of ever-changing waters.
If there is any set of disciplines that are the philosophers, the purveyors, and the producers of change, it is those that comprise our school. We understand ancient civilizations from the traces that remain of their urban form. We still teach Architecture from Vitruvius’ two-thousand-year-old treatise: De architectura. The public spaces that we have created form the scaffolding for how we engage with each other. Our cities and our building fabric encode the cultural memories of societies. Our landscapes and infrastructures guide occupation and development across multiple temporal and spatial scales. And we carry enormous responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of the greater public, just as we are the ones who craft the most intimate and individual of experiences. We are continually building upon that which endures, that which provides for all in the past, all that is now, and all that will be in the future.
If the rest of the world is hoping for a return to the past, a retrenchment to normalcy, then we must be the ones charting a new path forward. Much of what we must do requires that we begin by asking deeper and more critical questions. We have a tendency to leap past the difficult questions and instead demand that quick solutions be implemented. It is easier and more satisfying to see others produce a quick fix than it is for us to question our own beliefs and ingrained methods. How we address the pandemic is not just about following the mitigation protocols or waiting for vaccine delivery but in how we reconsider the very nature and construction of public space in the future. How the world deals with justice and equity for all is not a matter of creating a few more committees or ensuring that a few more BIPOC are brought in so that numbers represent demographic proportions, but rather a matter of peeling back the shroud that obscures the systems, structures, practices, and beliefs that created and maintain such imbalance in the world. How our professions tackle climate change must be more than tweaking a few material and technology choices on a checklist of best practices, but instead initiating a complete rethinking of the why and how we build. How our school and educational institutions develop canon and curricula is not just for facilitating our own disciplines and students, but for elevating the discourse and knowledge for all. These questions, which are fundamentally about who we are, what we value, and how we think and work, are not ones that will readily yield a neat slate of initiatives for a mission accomplished scenario. These are life-long questions that are never set aside, that we must return to again and again—to test, to evaluate, to reconsider, to rewrite.
As we are about to step into 2021, I ask that we as a school begin to formulate our larger questions as we develop a long-term roadmap guiding our planning, priorities, decision-making, and curricula. Every constituent of our school should play a role in this, and we also need to bring in voices from beyond our walls—the communities and professions that we serve, the partners and collaborators we must team with to truly bring change to bear. Progress will likely be slow, and there will be times when we will have to backtrack and readjust. But if we are committed to the hard work of doing this right, rather than just expediently, we lay the groundwork for generations to come. For this, I have great hope in the future that we will have a hand in leading.
During the holiday break, please stay safe, hug your loved ones, and get much-needed rest. I look forward to working with you this spring! And thank you to every one of you who kept us safe this past year.
D. Michelle Addington
Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture