Dec. 5, 2008

Completion of Milstein Hall 'critical,' says new AAP Dean Kent Kleinman

Kent Kleinman, who in June was named the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), recently answered questions posed by Cornell Chronicle writer Daniel Aloi. Prior to coming to Cornell, Kleinman was professor and dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design. Read more about his background.

How do you feel about coming to AAP in a time of change and growth, particularly with the impending Paul Milstein Hall project?

Arriving in Ithaca, I immediately felt welcomed by the college and the university. But it would also be fair to say that the college has a dauntingly grand reputation. The bar is high.

I know that Paul Milstein Hall is very much on people's minds. I am, of course, familiar with the long history of searching for the right architectural response to the challenge of expanding the college's physical plant. It is critical that we take care of the needs of our students and faculty who for far too long have been teaching and learning in inadequate spaces. The architecture program is ranked among the very best in the world, yet our accreditation is at risk if we do not rectify our deficient physical plant. We need to address this issue with a sense of urgency, and I am gratified to know that President [David] Skorton and Interim Provost [David] Harris share this concern.

I think it is important that we build in a fashion that respects the architectural legacy of the setting while advancing the standards of excellence and inquiry that Cornell embodies. I am convinced that we have a design that delivers both the pedagogical instrument we need and one that contributes in a very substantial way to the quality and renown of the institution.

I should add that Milstein Hall is just one part of a bigger equation -- that is, what happens to Rand, to Sibley, to Tjaden, to the Foundry? There are new programming opportunities that we are just beginning to explore.

What about the recent expansion of the college's New York City program, in both academics and professional practice?

AAP NYC should be seen in the context of our overall geographic footprint: Ithaca-Rome-New York. Each locale enables students to study art and design methods and approaches that are specific to a place and a culture of shaping the built world. Rome offers lessons in how the form of the city and its elements are constructed from the layers of history, a kind of "archaeological" approach to design thinking and making. The city pushes back on designers with the weight of history. New York is the opposite. It offers unparalleled access to emerging design and art practices and fast-paced speculative design work. New York also offers our planning and architecture students exposure to one of the most fascinating attempts to align market-driven urban development with a vision of sustainable urban growth.

At the time of your appointment, then-provost Biddy Martin noted you would bring "a strong interdisciplinary perspective" to the college and university. How do you foresee applying that perspective?

It pays to take a critical look at what we mean by interdisciplinary. I subscribe to disciplinary expertise; I believe in the deep study of a field, whether in architecture or art or planning. You don't give up your discipline and become a generalist. Rather, as you become deeply knowledgeable in your field you also become profoundly aware of all that you do not know; you touch more and more areas that stimulate your curiosity. It is my hope that expertise breeds curiosity. One role of an academic institution is to open doors for curious minds, and I have found that when such minds meet, true interdisciplinary work can thrive.

More and more problems facing society are of a type where the very formation of the problem is itself a problem. For example, designing a coal power plant for sub-Saharan Africa assumes centralized power production. Wrong problem, no matter how wonderful the power plant is, if one is trying to reduce greenhouse gases. It is interesting to me how many such problems are, in fact, design problems, and how many really demand a fairly flat hierarchy of diverse fields of expertise at the table from the initial conception of the problem at hand.

Have you identified any particular issues you'd like to address as AAP priorities?

Building the next generation of excellent teachers -- the existing generation is world famous as such -- is a priority. In the next five or so years many senior AAP faculty will retire, and finding the next-generation faculty is something we have to pay a lot of attention to. This cuts across all three departments.

The three-department model for the college is not a limit -- we could add a department, we could do dual degrees with other departments, we could do minors in other departments. Landscape architecture, media studies and interior design are fields I want to get to know much better, and I want our students to filter back and forth. Our students shouldn't be limited by administrative structures.

An expanded version of this interview is available on the AAP Web site.