REFRAMING THE FUTURE
A Conversation with Marc Neveu
Mortarr is proud to partner with The Design School in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on its Mortarr in the Classroom initiative.
The Forum recently sat down with the head of the Design School’s innovative architecture program, Marc Neveu, to talk about a little bit about himself and the design school, and a lot about the next generation of design pros.
Marc joined The Design School in the fall of 2018 after serving as the Chair of the School of Architecture at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. He also currently serves as the executive editor of the biannual peer-reviewed Journal of Architectural Education.
Marc, thank you so much for your time today!
You are very welcome, thank you for asking me.
To start, what spurred your interest in design, more specifically in architecture?
Marc: My father lost his job when I was in high school and while I felt I was artistic, I was also practical. I saw architecture as a way to marry both, and it could be a job and a profession, which, I thought, could provide job security. When I was younger, I drew — houses, cars, buildings, etc. — all of those quintessential things. And, of course, I played with Legos. But I remember a moment, right after undergrad when I was teaching full-time that I found myself really enjoying teaching more than professional practice. And I realized that couldn’t continue teaching without another degree.
The opportunity to teach at that moment was a very eye-opening experience for me. Definitely one of the best things I ever did.
Is that why you choose to go back to school?
Completely. I went back to grad school and then returned to Boston to work. While there I continued to teach and remember sitting in on a review and the instructor next to me completely criticized one student — told him he should be an accountant and not an architect. Then that same instructor told another student that their work was exemplary. I remember being shocked at the effect these comments had on both students. I asked the instructor how he knew so strongly that their work had been bad and good, and he said he just knew. I remember feeling that I didn’t have that intuitive understanding, but also thinking how ineffective that was as a way of teaching. I wanted to figure out how to teach architecture in a much more positive and effective way.
Do you consider yourself an architect or an academic, or both?
I consider myself an academic, and not an architect, but the architectural education I received helps me do what I do. I think it helps me frame problems spatially and not logically, which is really helpful. Curriculum, for example, is a design problem.
Before joining ASU, you worked at Woodbury University and the architecture program received quite a number of accolades under your leadership. Tell us more about your time there.
I joined the staff at Woodbury because it was an opportunity to not only teach but get involved on the administrative side of the program. I was, and still am, interested in developing programs, curriculum changes, improvements, etc., equally, if not more so, than teaching a class. And Norman Millar, who was someone I greatly admired, was the dean at the time. He, very sadly, passed away two years after I began. Norman had a good ethical compass. He knew the right thing to do and he did it. He was an important character for me.
Woodbury itself, is small – about 1,200 students from southern California – but the architecture program was good sized. The students were simply amazing. While we're not prepared to get into top schools, we ended up being ranked with top schools. There are great faculty there, and the students – it was incredible to see them transform.
What interested you in the position at ASU?
ASU has over 100,000 students and the president of the university, Michael Crow, has transformed ASU with the model of the New American University. ASU prides itself on who is accepted and how those individuals succeed, and that mantra is very important to me. Rather than keeping research in the university, Crow wants it to be impactful and relevant. These things are exciting for me and ASU is innovating higher education. The architecture program has a big opportunity to leverage those ideas. The Design School’s director, Jason Schupbach, is incredibly excited. He has a ton of energy and has started a redesign campaign for the design school and we are rethinking the curriculum.
Why do you think that redesign, rethinking, is necessary?
The student today is very different from the student that I was. They want mass customization. They are going to change careers multiple times. Their world is on their phone. They want to curate themselves. Their Instagram profile is their identity and any opportunities you provide to curate those identities are important. Here at ASU, we are providing those opportunities. They can weave their multiple interests into their degrees, while receiving a high-quality education.
What are your goals for the program?
My BHAG [Big Hairy Audacious Goal] is to make the design degree, the law degree of the 21st century. Our discipline can lead you to think differently and do other things. We want our students to recognize that they not only have professional options, but options to do other things as well, because their education equips them to think differently. Given all that’s going on these days, it seems like some different thinking might be healthy.
You’ve authored quite a few books and studies over the years, are you working on anything currently?
I’m working on a book about the architect Douglas Darden that I hope to have finished by next summer. Darden was very interested in the stories of buildings and, how as an architect, he could represent those stories through his work.
I’ve had access to Darden’s archives, all of his precise pencil drawings and my project is really to unpack all of his work. Through my work on this project I’ve been able to establish relationships with Darden’s widow, as well as a great friend of his from grad school, Ben Ledbetter.
One of my favorite projects is the Oxygen House, which Darden designed for an imaginary, disabled signalman working for a railroad in Mississippi. The story begins with a letter from this man to Doug and we have all of the correspondence and drawings that lead up to the final piece. The character in this story is really inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as well as Darden’s own experience with his cancer diagnosis.
Darden as a person, as well as his body of work, really resonated with me. The stories of buildings have always fascinated me, and I wish I had learned about him earlier on in my studies and career.
Earlier on in our conversation you mentioned Instagram and how students are using that platform to curate their identities. We’re living in an imagery-dominated culture, what do you think the impact of that will be on the future of the industry?
There is such a fascination with image, with collaging. We do live in an incredibly image-based culture. Your Instagram feed is very important and for students developing architecture projects, the way that happens now is different than it used to be. It’s much more about sampling than it is creation ex nihilo. Our interior architecture students maybe do this more, the curation of imagery and products that tell a story.
I think Mortarr can really meet a need by being able to digitize that curation process.
How do you see this next generation of professionals, your students, changing the industry?
It is our goal to help educate students to change the profession that they enter. They can do this by learning the discipline, first, but then being able to ask good questions and reframe problems. Architects continue to lose credibility in the industry and we need to rethink our role in the construction of the built environment. This can happen through practice, but also through political action, for example.
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