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GUEST EDITORIAL – Nicolas Demers-Stoddart – "The Legacy of Change: An Open Letter from students of the McGill University School of Architecture"

« The Legacy of Change: An Open Letter from students of the McGill University School of Architecture
29 June 2011

This letter was written by Jason Crow, Lian Chang, Nicolas Demers-Stoddart, Michael Faciejew, Philam Nguyen, and Lori Riva-Wu—a group of former and current students who wish to question what appear to be fundamental changes in the future of the school. These students are concerned about the implications of recent events on the quality of the education, and hope that the following diagnosis of the situation can generate an open dialogue between McGill University, the Faculty of Engineering, the School of Architecture and the students.

The recent allegedly forced resignation of Michael Jemtrud, Director of the McGill School of Architecture, spawns a host of questions about institutional practices and the future of architectural education. Rich in traditions as the second architecture school in Canada, McGill has long held a leadership position within North American schools.  Its reputation in recent years has been built upon the diversity supported by its robust professional and post-professional streams; in particular, the school’s support for high-level research and scholarship has given it a recognized name in the international community. However, the rapid change transforming all levels of the architectural profession, driven by the adoption of new methods and technologies in design and construction, has forced many schools to reconsider their “tried and true” curricula.  In 2007, McGill acknowledged this impetus for change in its appointment of Michael Jemtrud.

As students, we cannot turn a blind eye to the resignation of our Director.  As we have always been encouraged to do, we must question the situation and raise our concerns based on well-informed, critical and reasonable points. This is precisely what is happening.  We offer as evidence the quality of commentary—much of it in public forums online—stemming from this situation.  But few facts have been made public by the university at this point. We, along with others in the architectural community, detect that decisions have been made that do not ultimately benefit the positive development of either the school or the student.

In the midst of these developments, the school is deep in the process of filling a position for a full-time faculty position. One of the candidates in this ongoing faculty search is Dr. Torben Berns who has been teaching alongside Professor Jemtrud for the past three years. Like Jemtrud, Berns is known within the school for demanding the highest level of discourse from students and from faculty. From our perspective, Berns has been equally as influential as Jemtrud in the success and development of the school. Following the resignation of Jemtrud, we are deeply concerned that a similar fate is in store for Berns. We know that the school cannot survive the loss of two of its finest teachers and scholars.

Unfortunately, the search has not been transparent, and students have been given no voice in the matter. It is our understanding that our exclusion from the search process is unique to our faculty within the university. Despite this, we have been paying close attention. In public presentations by three candidates in total, one stated that he was unprepared to teach the upper level coursework listed as a requirement for the position.  Another candidate is inexperienced, with no track record for teaching studio-based courses in architecture. Based upon the qualifications and the public presentations of each candidate, as well as on the students’ considerable experience with Berns as an educator, there is an overwhelming belief within the student body that the only reasonable decision would be to hire Berns. We sincerely hope that the School of Architecture’s faculty search committee and the Faculty of Engineering recognize this view and will not allow personal politics and external issues to become deciding factors.

As students, we are not privy to the entire context surrounding Jemtrud’s resignation on June 23, 2011. We do know that it has been a devastating blow to the reputation of McGill University. We also know that despite the goal of any university being the education of students, recent events in the school have threatened and lowered the quality of the education we are poised to receive from McGill in the 2011-2012 academic year. We are unsure of our future and the future of our school. We are asking the school and the university to take actions that would allow our faith in both to be restored. The best indication that McGill is serious in its pursuit of excellence in education and that nothing untoward happened in the resignation of Jemtrud would be the hiring of Berns as a full time faculty member. This is the only move that can preserve the momentum and legacy of former Director Michael Jemtrud’s visionary transformation of the School of Architecture.

To explain our position, we need to share with you some context and background on the school in recent years, from our point of view as students.  Jemtrud was encouraged publicly to lead the school “into exciting new territory, whilst maintaining the high standards of teaching and research which the School has established.” (http://www.mcgill.ca/architecture/announcements/#newdirector2007) Jemtrud brought with him an impressive dossier of leading-edge research and pedagogy. At Carleton University, where he was Associate Professor until 2007, he secured several million dollars in research funding from both public and private sources for his laboratory and research centre, Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS).  He established core areas of research in visualization and remote collaboration, integrating high-level research into studios and workshops that he taught at both graduate and undergraduate levels.  But while his research is most often recognized for its innovation in the role of technologies in contemporary modes of creation, a focus on his teaching reveals his critical engagement with history and theory. At McGill, Jemtrud has made it clear that, for him, these are inseparable.  On the unique education of an architect, he has written:

Such an enlightened education must be symbiotic and intertwined with contemporary research and speculative agendas. This is accomplished by a blending of traditional and technological skill sets steadfastly anchored in notions of craft and representation; a foundation in the history and theory of architecture; an understanding of the tectonic and material reality of building; and innovative and often risky practical and theoretical considerations determined by contemporary research agendas. (http://www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/jemtrud/core_binder.pdf)

Jemtrud’s insistence on intertwining these various threads of an architectural education represents a deliberate eschewing of a specialist approach in which niche research agendas are cultivated within vertical towers of expertise. Preparing students for the complex demands of contemporary architectural practice, Jemtrud’s approach promotes inquiry that horizontally spans traditionally discrete areas of study and research—allowing architectural questions to become implicated in philosophy, arts, science and technology in fabricative and demonstrative ways.

When Jemtrud was hired his mandate was clear: build upon McGill’s strong traditions by bringing the school up to speed with technologically enabled practices of research and creation — a necessity for McGill to remain recognized among pedagogically relevant schools internationally. The pace and breadth of change that took place with Jemtrud at the helm was dizzying. Very quickly, funding was secured for a new research facility through a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant which funds strategic infrastructure within Canadian educational institutions. The Facility for Architectural Research in Media and Mediation (FARMM) was subsequently created in order to provide the physical and discursive support for work that critically engages digital media and its impacts on all other areas of understanding in our discipline.

Curriculum changes occurred at all levels of the school. Most significantly, this included reformatting post-professional offerings and the introduction of a Cultural Mediations and Technology stream to embody explicit questions of technology and culture, and the introduction of a two-year research-intensive professional Master of Architecture program.  The latter addition includes a series of preparatory seminars and workshops and culminates in a self-directed, project-based investigation alongside a written research component.  In addition to this two-year option, the school’s one and a half year Master of Architecture program has been retained and reformatted to focus on an intensive sequence of three design studios.  Two rigorous and pedagogically clear options now take the place of a compromise solution that had formerly based itself around a stagnating and often frustrating master’s-level thesis program.

As far as students were concerned, the tone that Jemtrud established as these changes were ushered in was optimistic and discourse was critical and collegial. The list of achievements made collectively by students and faculty under Jemtrud’s relatively short tenure is impressive, and includes new major research funding for a number of faculty members, collaborations with international industry partners, unprecedented levels of student success in scholarships with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and ambitious design-build projects—most recently resulting in the ContemPLAY pavilion in a capstone studio led by FARMM and Arup engineer Maria Mingallon. However, where some have found this ambitious scale of change exciting, for others it has been seen as destabilizing.

It is at this point that the list of verifiable achievements and progress fragments into points of contention and debate.  A major part of the context of this debate for McGill has been our understanding that senior administrators from the Faculty of Engineering have been unsympathetic to the unique demands of architectural education.  The value and necessity of travel abroad programs, studio pedagogy, and the study of history — all fundamental components of our education—have repeatedly been questioned and challenged.  Disagreements occur at every university, of course, but the strength and very possibility of a thriving academia lies in the capacity for differing and diverse viewpoints to play themselves out in civil and ethical processes.  From our point of view, Jemtrud’s resignation is a clear signal that this process has catastrophically broken down.

Jemtrud’s achievements for the school cannot be proven to be “good” in an absolute sense—but when judged against student performance and engagement, the level and nature of discourse, and the recognition of this work in the international community, these achievements must at least be recognized as progressive and productive. Students are not blind nor are we naive about the institutional pressures and mechanisms at hand in universities. But this is not our frame of reference: we are judged, critiqued, awarded, and graded based on our performance and ability. We are expected to be excellent and we likewise demand excellence of those who are in the positions and roles that exist in large part to facilitate our intellectual and professional development. We’d like to think that what occurs and plays out outside this context should not be our primary concern. However, when an event such as what happened on June 23 occurs, we are forced into a situation that contradicts the values that are espoused to us in our pursuit of higher learning. Throughout this process we choose to honour a legacy of change; Michael came to the school to preserve a certain tradition while bringing about progress.  We will preserve this spirit while accepting and acknowledging that things are changing.

Sincerely,

Jason Crow, RA LEED AP, PhD Candidate, Architecture – History and Theory, McGill University
Lian Chang, PhD in Architecture (McGill University), Frank Knox Fellow and M.Arch.I student at Harvard University
Nicolas Demers-Stoddart, Master of Architecture (McGill University), B.Sc.Arch (University of Montreal), B.Eng (Concordia University)
Michael Faciejew, Power Corporation of Canada Award Research Resident (Canadian Centre for Architecture), Master of Architecture (McGill University), B.Sc.Arch (McGill University)
Philam Nguyen, PhD Student, Architecture – Cultural Mediations and Technology, McGill University
Lori Riva-Wu, PhD Candidate, Architecture – History and Theory, McGill University »

(*) The opinions expressed in the « Editorial » section of Kollectif only commit their respective author.
(**) Interested in publishing your own opinion? Here are the modalities!

Marc-André Carignan, b.arch.,
Chroniqueur en architecture et design urbain
Kollectif (section D'ici et d'ailleurs)

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Crédit photo: Marose Photo

Commentaires

J.Palumbo,Architect

Congrats on your presentation of concern for the reputation of our respected School of Architecture.

Being a graduate of the School(1980) and having had the good fortune of having a professsional practise in Montreal,for over 25 years, and having employed a fair number of graduates from McGill, I have high esteem for its graduates. I have never met Mr. Jemtrud,but I have had occasion to see the final thesis projects of this years’ class and to my eyes the results are impressive.Credit to the professors and students is due..
The School has grown in the number of programs it offers, the Urban planning program etc..,the Faculty of Engineering is perhaps no longer the appropriate administration for the School, maybe its time has come to answer directly to the University,and not be a subject of a Faculty not in tune with the unique character of a School of Architecture.

Marc-Antoine Chartier Primeau, M Arch

As part of the seven who first graduated under the two-year research-intensive professional M Arch program last year, I am shocked to learn about this situation. I have completed this program under the supervision of Professor Torben Berns, and held a position as research assistant over almost a year in the FARMM research lab.

These experiences have probably been the most formative in my education to this day. The questions, debates, and the following production that occurred among my fellow students in this new context were beyond all my expectations as a returning student in 2008.

Now, as a young professional presently practising in architecture, I witness on a daily basis how the critical stance and the skill set I developed in the last two years has dramatically improved my ability to conceive, design and produce in the field.

For the benefit and healthy evolution of our profession I can only hope that McGill will hear and listen to what their most important clients have to say; their students.

Thank you to my fellow colleagues for raising this voice.

Annoyed alum

Change is normal. Get over it. McGill will still hand out diplomas and you will all get jobs – where, hopefull, you will really learn something. There have been many dirtectors and there will be many more.
And, frankly, no one knows the circumstances surrounding his resignation. What if he wanted to leave? What would you say then? Not much.
Typical whiny McGill architecture students – you guys really have to learn to toughen up and roll with the punchs.

McGill arch student

I’m currently a McGill architecture student and I have no problem with the departure of Jemtrud, and I disagree that hiring Torben Berns « is the only move that can preserve the momentum and legacy of former Director Michael Jemtrud’s visionary transformation of the School of Architecture ».

Frankly I thought they were pretty fascist about their « direction » and they left little room for alternate approaches, especially those that didn’t use high technology.

Myself and many other students will be just fine without them thanks.

Nicolas Demers-Stoddart

To Annoyed Alum,

Inasmuch as I may not know who you are, as you have not signed your post, your discontent seems shallow and misguided. The architectural education received at any institution always depends on its leaders. The affair of generating knowledge in a complex world is not akin to other hierarchical models whereby any leader will do. When it comes to educating the future architects of our built environment, Michael Jemtrud demonstrated the highest level of professional commitment I have ever witnessed.

Furthermore, your claim that McGill architecture students seem to be complaining only strains the fact that you are dealing with a certain animosity with respect to the school. You should, given the gravity of this situation, try to organise some form of coherent argument with respect to the letter posted by this blog.

Signed

Nicolas Demers-Stoddart

Annoyed alum

Mr. Demers-Stoddart,
If anyone’s « discontent seems shallow and misguided », it would be yours. You are complaining about things that have yet to transpire: what if the next director is better? Better? How to define better? Drummond, Freidman, Covo…was one better than the previous? Different, yes. But better? Hard to say.
Your arguments are purely subjective, refinforced by your claim that  » Michael Jemtrud demonstrated the highest level of professional commitment I have ever witnessed ». So we’re supposed to believe you that he is the best? Some might argue that John Bland was.
Listen…I don’t have time for this. I have a real job.
But tell me, what is so grave about this situation? The director is changing. Big deal.
Your whole discourse is quite insulting to whoever replaces Jemtrud (Adams for now it would seem. I dare you to go tell her she will never be as good as Jemtrud).

per k

Really the only thing we can hold an architectural education accountable for is the gift of insight and bravery to reconfigure practice. It is clear from the letter that a large portion of the student body felt like Jemtrud and Berns were hinting at what this might entail through the tone of their direction. These means are not high tech, nor are they exclusive. They are subtle and if cultivated just might eliminate the need for complacency at your real job.

It’s easy to hide behind truisms like « get over it, » or « it’s happened before, » but those sentences are a waste of pixels and really only serve to say « complacency is my middle name. » The concern of the letter is that of doubt that our educators care to challenge this type of attitude. In order to effectively make the leap from institution to the workplace one must become versed in a certain reconfiguring of attitude – a reconfiguration that produces practice. To say that « McGill will still hand out diplomas and you will all get jobs, » fails in every sense of the word. The concern is for an educational environment where leadership fosters a critical discourse that may openly take the place of intuitive guessing. The school could have taken great strides to pass the baton, but this blunt shift in leadership can only teach one how to tread water.

former student

Nicolas. The word professional could never be used to describe Michel Jemtrud. I had him for a studio course once: we never knew if he’d be there or not – he showed up to a little less than half of the classes, usually over and hour late – and took phone calls while meeting with you at your desk. There was nothing professional about his behaviour. I can only hope these are contributing factors to his departure, I can’t say I’m surprised he’s been asked to leave.

WW

Regardless of your opinion or lack of opinion for either Torben Berns and Michael Jemtrud, both had a tremendous effect on the students who took an interest in the issues and topics that the two men are passionate about. It is demonstrated in the very public student response to these recent events, and the outpouring of support for them both. Yes, the school can and will go on without them. Whether or not this is a loss for the SoA will undoubtedly be debated by those who knew and did not know them… but to me, this is not the central issue.

What I find the most alarming is the lack of transparency behind these recent events. What caused Michael to suddenly resign? There has been no explanation. Why was the recent faculty search, and director search accelerated shortly after the resignation, and completed before the school session resumed in September? A large volume of letters were written by students and alumni in support of Torben’s candidacy for a faculty position, but ultimately he was not awarded the position for undisclosed reasons. And now, in a recent letter from the Dean of Engineering, it is evident that the school began and completed a director search within 1 month of Michael’s resignation. Typical director and faculty searches involve public announcements, a response period from interested individuals, interviews conducted by faculty and students, public lectures, etc… This process should take several months. It is unfathomable that it could be completed during the summer months without any involvement from the student associations. I believe as an institution, McGill should be accountable to its students. On decisions as paramount as the appointment of new faculty and especially a new director, the student body should be given the choice to participate in their education…

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