Asher + Oak Photography

As the newly appointed dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA, will be heavily involved in shaping the next generation of architectural leaders at America’s most elite graduate design program. As fall semester was kicking into high gear, we chatted with her about how architectural education is preparing students for practice, and how it can equip future architects in finding design solutions to climate change.

If any generation is experiencing climate change as a reality in their lives, it’s the generation that’s in school right now. It’s a design problem, writ large. It’s been naturalized as part of their world view, and I think, as a result, it’s been naturalized in the design curriculum.

I think we’re moving into a phase where facing climate change, or environmental stewardship, is a way of acknowledging that we can go beyond being responsive and reactive, and be proactive in terms of thinking about how things could change. Landscape and urban planning and [architecture] have to think about climate change—you’re not going to design on the water without being aware that a lot of cities on the water are going to lose that land, but you can also think about different materials or different structural possibilities for responding to those conditions. There’s an ability to talk at different scales in a way that’s productive to all three disciplines.

In terms of the future of practice, there are a series of other electives about practice that have been introduced to the school. The idea that practice is a topic that’s an elective, and not a requirement, reflects the field today, but it also reflects students’ interest in practice as an intellectual topic, not just an obligation to think about because NAAB [National Architectural Accrediting Board] asks us to.

It also reflects an anxiety that I think has been with students, really, since the economic crisis of 2008, where the vulnerability of the market has made students more nervous about jobs. This generation, not just in our discipline but really across all departments in the university, is anxious about the economy. My generation went to school and figured, “We’ll get jobs, we don’t have to be career-focused.” Students don’t feel like that’s true anymore. And so partly, I think the school is responding to both intellectual curiosity about new modes of practice and anxiety about what practice is when they finish school.

I think design has always been broad, but I predict its breadth will be more recognized. And so it’s our obligation, while that breadth is being well-recognized, to make sure that we also define its depth, because that is for us to define.—As told to Katherine Flynn