“Never ask a dean about his numbers,” says Mark Robbins, dean of the School of Architecture at New York’s Syracuse University. He then proceeds to cite chapter and verse from the school’s admissions statistics. In 2005, a year after Robbins started, the school received 550 applications. This year, it attracted 1,300 applicants from 55 countries. The school’s admission rate used to hover just under 50 percent; now it’s a competitive 24 percent. The aspiring architects at Syracuse boast a 3.8 median high school GPA, score high on standardized tests, and hail from all over the country.
The numbers chart an alternative narrative to the story of decline presented in an Oct. 2 article of The Chronicle of Higher Education that raised hackles at Syracuse. Headlined “Syracuse’s Slide,” the story contrasts efforts by university chancellor Nancy Cantor to position the school as an agent of change in the “sagging Rust Belt city” with its drop in the rankings of national universities as measured by U.S. News & World Report.
Cantor’s critics suggest that the university is devoting too many resources to projects designed to help revitalize the city of Syracuse at the expense of university programs. Yet the counternarrative would have it that the fate of the school and city of Syracuse are intimately linked. Whether or not this affirmating connection between the city of Syracuse is good for the university of Syracuse, it’s been a boon to its School of Architecture—which, under Mark Robbins, has spearheaded the efforts to save the struggling city.
Robbins credits chancellor Cantor with much of the intellectual underpinnings of the drive to reimagine the city of Syracuse. She “understands the city as a layered event,” he says, with social, political, and economic elements. Many of Cantor’s themes—the notion of scholarship in action and the university as a community of experts—can be seen in the Syracuse projects.
The School of Architecture has positioned itself as a center for development of Syracuse’s decaying urban core and as an intellectual laboratory for imagining the reinvigoration of shrinking postindustrial cities. While individual projects proceed on different paths, and are funded by different sources (some public, some private, some nonprofit), many offer opportunities for students and recent graduates to participate. The school has developed a center called Upstate, which acts as a kind of thought leadership incubator for projects and research.
The rehabilitation of a downtown site known as the Warehouse was one of the first of Syracuse’s development projects. Once a cold-storage warehouse and then a furniture showroom for the Dunk & Bright Furniture Co., the rehabbed 1924 building became the interim home of the School of Architecture itself after it was renovated by Syracuse grad Richard Gluckman, FAIA, of Gluckman Mayner Architects, in 2006. The building now houses the design department of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the School of Architecture’s visiting critic studios, as well as a café and gallery on the ground floor. Garrison Architects completed a renovation of the main School of Architecture building, in 2008.
The presence of the 140,000-square-foot Warehouse space as an anchor of the Armory Square section of downtown Syracuse is an example of what Robbins calls “optimistic urbanism.” While it might seem as though nonprofit institutions gobbling up downtown real estate in a city that is starved for tax revenue is counter-intuitive, Robbins notes that the move turned out to be a catalyst for other development. Parcels have been bought up by private developers. A 300-person engineering firm, O’Brien & Gere, moved into a purpose-built building nearby that was developed by Pioneer Partners in 2010.