Working Toward Something Bigger: An Interview with School of Architecture Head Yoos
On June 8, 2020, the College of Design named Jennifer Yoos, FAIA, as the new head of the School of Architecture. Her career in architecture is driven by a lifelong love for art, buildings, and design in general, as well as childhood summers, spent with her artist aunt in Chicago. In our interview, Yoos shares her visions for the school, the fall semester, and the future of the profession.
Why did you choose to come back to academia?
I never really left academia. Even after I graduated from the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture in London, I continued to combine teaching and practice. I have always thought that the two have a reciprocal relationship and enrich one another.
About five years ago, my partner and I published our Parallel Cities book with Andrew Blauvelt (now the director of the Cranbrook Art Museum) and the Walker Art Center. We saw this project, and much of our academic research, as equally important as our buildings; however, as non-academics running a practice, it took us years to complete. Nevertheless, it was one of the most rewarding projects I have undertaken. After completing the book, I began to consider expanding my role in academia.
How will your experience as a practicing architect at VJAA and as a design educator inform your approach to school leadership?
I think there are many skills architects develop in practice, especially in leading a practice, that are transferable to academic leadership. To create great buildings, you have to listen to, communicate, and engage with a lot of people, while being open, adaptable, entrepreneurial, and collaborative. You also have to believe that the quality of the work you are doing—how it supports a larger community and represents a set of interests—is of critical importance. You are working toward something that is bigger than yourself.
What are three priority initiatives you will focus on during your tenure?
Racial Justice: One of my most pressing goals is to support and facilitate the ongoing work surrounding racial justice within the School of Architecture and College of Design. From the perspective of architectural education, refocusing on racial justice involves challenging our understanding and design of buildings, spaces, and systems; examining who is included in these conversations and processes; and questioning whose stories and histories are told. Moreover, it’s about taking action to address the inequities found in and often created by the places we design.
Research: I would like to amplify the impact of research in the school and college by increasing community and professional partnerships as well as connections with other disciplines. Research conducted through the School of Architecture’s Master of Science in Research Practices and Heritage Studies and Public History programs as well as our relationships with research centers like the Minnesota Design Center and Center for Sustainable Building Research are vital assets and connect our academic work directly to real-world problems.
Design: One of the most important things that will empower our graduates entering the profession is an education grounded in design excellence and professional rigor. Design is changing and so is the discipline, and it is an exciting time to shift our normal focus and rethink how we can best prepare architects for this future.
How will you prepare students to succeed in an industry that is rapidly changing?
The rapidly evolving use of digital tools in design and construction—not to mention data and technology, integrated urban environments, and transportation systems—coincides with accelerating social and environmental challenges, which are primary professional mandates. To face these challenges, we must ask: how can architectural education foster and facilitate the kind of innovative thinking necessary to respond to social, environmental, and technological change?
We must create a curriculum based on a foundational understanding of issues relevant to architecture as a practice and discipline. By building a critical relationship with this knowledge base, our students can then work in ways that are innovative, adaptive, and resilient—all indispensable qualities in our changing world.
How will you promote interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Architecture and other College of Design disciplines and with the University at large?
My practice and academic work is cross-disciplinary and overlaps with many of the interests in the school and college. In my practice, I frequently collaborate with designers from related fields—engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, artists, graphic and product designers. These collaborations are born by finding work you admire, by identifying shared interests and forming relationships and then finding opportunities to work together. This process is transferable to academia, and I find the school’s position within a design college and its potential connections to broader research and creative practices particularly exciting. The School of Architecture is poised to create opportunities for more integrated practices between design disciplines in the college and to connect to resources in the broader University and new forms of knowledge.
How do you plan to create opportunities for students to engage and work with the existing Twin Cities design community?
There are great opportunities for collaborations with the AIA Minnesota—one of the leading chapters nationally. We share many interests and goals with our chapter, such as improving racial justice and social equity and increasing the value of architecture and architects beyond our own design communities. I am also interested in engaging with and including the voices and faces of architects and design professionals who are not currently active in the school. From my many years of practice in the community, I have built strong relationships with a wide variety of practitioners, practices, and associated disciplines, as well as regional arts institutions.
Sharing our work more broadly through public lectures, events, programming, exhibitions, and outreach activities will provide avenues to foster existing connections and build new ones. It is essential that we reconnect the school with key partners like the Walker Art Center and find ways to share programming with the architecture, arts, and design communities.
What words of advice do you have for students during this very different semester?
I want students to know: this fall semester may be unusual and, at times, difficult, but our community is here to support you and to help you succeed. I believe in teaching students to both creatively and opportunistically respond to difficult constraints and circumstances that inevitably arise during the design process. These creative skills and the resourcefulness of our graduates will ultimately lead to better architecture, to better cities, and to a stronger design community.