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Donna Robertson:
IIT’s architecture dean as client
Interviewed by Suzanne Stephens


Photograph by Saverio Truglia.

Since 1996, Donna Robertson, AIA, has found herself in the bastion of Miesian Modernism as the dean of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. (The campus was designed from 1945 to 1968 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who ran its architecture school until 1958.) Yet Robertson graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in English and received her M.Arch. from the University of Virginia in 1978. She directed the architecture program at Barnard College from 1985–92 and then became dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture, a position she held through 1996. She is also principal of the firm Robertson McAnulty Architects.

 

Q: Someone said that IIT eats its architecture deans for breakfast. How’s it going?

I’ve been the dean eight years, and I’m still here. Yes, I have a non-Miesian, non-IIT background, and I am female. There have been rough moments. But enrollment in the College of Architecture went from 368 in 2002 to 472 in 2003. We hope to keep growing and not soften our standards. Now, with Rem Koolhaas’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center (page 122) and Murphy Jahn’s State Street Village (page 130), with which I was involved in the role of a client, architecture is again drawing attention to the school.

What have been the most difficult things about your post?

The issue over pedagogy. The faculty has been worried about the status of Mies’s curriculum. It had eroded over the years and needed to be updated if it was to be fully implemented.

What was the basis of Mies’s curriculum?

In the classic Miesian format, you didn’t design a building until the fourth year of your undergraduate education. The first year was devoted to developing visual literacy and craft; the second year to constructing with brick and wood; the third year, steel and concrete. Then the fourth and fifth years were focused on building design. I am interested in teaching construction technology through studio––the central tenet of Mies’s principles—but I want to be sure that any time a student is asked to produce a building form, he or she can take design into consideration.

What about the new generation of architects? Is there a place for them?

Yes––for example, we have Ron Krueck of Krueck & Sexton, Jeanne Gang and Mark Schendel of Studio Gang, and Martin Felsen of UrbanLab teaching at the school. There are still former students of Mies on the faculty, and they are invaluable. We all realize we can’t do stale Mies, however, and so we try to create a balance between construction technology and design. It is so delicate to maintain. And we have to keep finding building forms that are of our time, not of Mies’s.

What about Koolhaas’s effect on the school?

We hear some of the old guard has not been all that happy with the Campus Center’s brash, not-too-detailed approach. It was fascinating to see Rem go toe-to-toe with Mies. We like to call our educational and architectural program “Mies and Beyond.” We are making the studio the locus of experimentation, and the new buildings by Koolhaas and Jahn embody that idea. We want to keep growing and plan to expand by moving upper-level studios and research classes to a building—3410 S. State Street—south of Crown Hall. It too was designed by Mies––so his presence is still felt physically and pedagogically.

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