Alejandro Zaera-Polo
Photo used with permission under a Creative Commons license with Flickr user J Dee Alejandro Zaera-Polo

On Tuesday, Alejandro Zaera-Polo was named the new dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture. He will replace Stan Allen, FAIA, who is stepping down to return to teaching and designing.

In the run-up to this week’s announcement, students began to register public dissent, voicing concerns that have met the search process since it began last fall. On the day after the announcement, the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reported widespread opposition among architecture students concerning the appointment. More than half of the school’s architecture students signed a letter and presented it to university president Shirley M. Tilghman detailing their reasons against the decision.

While the letter to the president has not been released, a few of the concerns have been made public and have been addressed by both the university and by Zaera-Polo.

“I believe that an active student body is a good thing, and I believe controversies are positive because they make people think,” Zaera-Polo says. “A change of leadership always produces anxieties.” And Zaera-Polo, the former dean of the Berlage Institute, says that he looks forward to a dialogue with students “to understand specifically what their concerns are.”

One primary complaint of the students concerns the selection process. These school of architecture students think that they were excluded, according to anonymous student sources. The selection process began with a town hall meeting last fall for students in the School of Architecture, according to university spokesman Martin Mbugua. After the town hall, students submitted letters to the search committee with lists of attributes or the candidates that they wanted the committee to consider.

Zaera-Polo concedes that the selection process was ultimately opaque. “The selection of a dean is something that requires certain conditions of secrecy because of alternative commitments of the candidates,” he says. “I think if you make the search public, there would be many potential candidates that will not enter the process.”

“Many of their suggestions were incorporated into the committee's list of prospects along with nominations from the faculty, deans, and chairs of other schools, and prominent architects and scholars,” says architect and Princeton professor Elizabeth Diller, who led the selection process. “Two of the students' top picks made it to the list of three submitted to the university.”

Another student concern references a 2002 interview with Zaera-Polo, in which he discusses architectural education and says that he opposes the thesis as a means for a student’s expression.

“I always reserve my rights to throw away ideas when they are no longer useful,” Zaera-Polo says. Today, he says that he supports the thesis, though it “has been always a debated issue in graduate schools of architecture." He said that the thesis is “a distinctive part of our identity” at Princeton, adding, “I look forward to a discussion with the students and faculty about how we can make the thesis stronger.”

The Daily Princetonian also reported that students found one of Zaera-Polo’s seminar evaluations to be quite poor, a point he concedes, saying tha tthe particular course “was a failure.” However, he says, “There are four years of records. . . . They show that I am a better studio instructor than a seminar teacher. Fair enough—that is my natural ground, and I will take it into account when deciding what to teach.”

“I like to teach as research. . . . And when you do research there are many chances that some of the experiments will fail,” Zaera-Polo says. “So, I tend to have always very successful students and very unsuccessful ones who crash against the discipline of the studio. I think that sometimes students play it too safe and believe that after being accepted in Princeton they cannot fail in any studio. And that is a mistake. Without the possibility of failure, there is no possibility of success.”

Diller says that risk-taking "defines the school" and stands as the reason that she took her position there. "But as we are defined by experiment," she says," we also auto-critique constantly. It's a good thing."