Responding to John P. Eberhard

Pedagogy & Place

John P. Eberhard.

01.21.2020 | Elizabeth Gilman | Charles Wingfelder | Martha Bohm | Samina Raja | Robert Shibley

Elizabeth Gilman:
 I wanted to see what you guys thought about this kind of spirit of fighting conventions that seemed to drive Eberhard, at least in the beginning. And I guess, is that still a priority with the school? How does it continue to influence the pedagogy?

Robert Shibley: My sense about it is it’s less about fighting conventions and more about critically questioning everything, always. Fighting conventions implies that the conventions drive us, and what I would say, and what I think John would say, is it’s about trying to think through the entire enterprise all the time. A piece of that is a kind of scrappy nature that just goes right into the teeth of whatever’s in front of you, and you try to work your way through it. So, there’s a piece that’s emerging in the 50-year history of the school which takes a thesis that says each dean, whether they intend it or not, and the leadership team that accompanies that dean, tend to follow a fairly consistent intellectual arc of that same kind of inquiry, that pushes the boundaries. And this school, more than most, can show a very consistent aspiration to push those boundaries.

Sometimes the motivation for that push comes from a dean like John Eberhard, sometimes it comes from a faculty that’s been put in place that succeeds a dean but carries the hiring philosophy of the leadership team at the time, even after the leadership team goes, that faculty category is still there. So there’s a kind of an arc of the school which carries the spirit of this piece. At the end of the article, there’s a couple of folks who are challenging whether what he was specifically envisioning was possible. It was a confrontation of the existing norms of architectural education in the sense they actually seem to suggest that architectural registration wasn’t the goal, it was about something more fundamental. It was about thinking about place and circumstance in systemic ways and using evidence to found your movement forward, and I would say that’s been very consistent in the 50-year history of the school.

At the same time, we ultimately owned up to the reality that in order to be successful in terms of the numbers where you’re starting with, you have to deliver an accredited program. That’s both in the economy of the university and why we would emphasize our Master’s as a first professional, but it’s also in the reality that students won’t come if they can’t see the employment after fairly clearly marked out. I don’t think that compromises us. I just think it expands the scope of our mission. What do you think?

Martha Bohm: If fighting conventions is still the objective of the school?

EG: Yeah, or I think better put, pushing boundaries.

MB: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a really interesting question. I would say that the boundaries that are being fought have moved. But I think it’s learning to understand where those boundaries reside and how to effectively make change, whether that means moving a boundary, threatening it, questioning it, or working within it. Some of them work well, some boundaries and regulatory structures or certifications or embedded systemic parameters are good, some are not. And so I think it’s become a more sophisticated process, a more nuanced process. Kind of more of a, in today’s language, “move fast and break things” approach, which I don’t think is quite as much of the ethos in the school. I think “move fast and build things,” not “move fast and break things.” I guess that would be one way to translate it.

I would say the thing that has remained is that the school is endeavoring to train professionals for the way that the world needs them, not necessarily the way that the world is requesting that we provide them. So looking ahead, what does the world need from design professionals, from practitioners? Not just what does it have now?

I would say the thing that has remained is that the school is endeavoring to train professionals for the way that the world needs them, not necessarily the way that the world is requesting that we provide them.

- Martha Bohm

RS: If you go to that position and you realize the work that Martha and others put out on alternatives to patronage, that notion of what the world demands versus what they are consciously and intentionally asking for are two different things, and looking for what we demand is perhaps fighting conventions right down to the core of capitalism.


MB: That’s exactly it. It has to go there pretty quickly, right? Because money and power.

RS: Every morning.


MB: Every morning after breakfast. Hopefully, coffee first, then fighting money and power. But the structures of money and power will demand certain things of the design professions. And unfortunately, we have a long history of relationships, especially within architecture but also when planning the urban environment and associating ourselves with those structures, and if those are creating the problems that we’re also attempting to solve, we have created a real challenge for our profession where the people who give us money and the people who demand our services are not the same, and that’s what we, I think, have to fundamentally address and train our students, train practitioners to be able to negotiate.

RS: Arguably economists record that 50% or 60% of the global GDP is invested in real estate development, so if that’s true in all its various guises, and I don’t have the skillset to assess that, but I’ve read it often, in particular real estate periodicals and some economic periodicals, then if you’re going to make the world, you’re going to have to address the implicit wealth creation that architects and planners serve. And the critique of that wealth creation is essentially the responsibility of any critical thinker, so we aspire to be critical thinkers and we’re right in the teeth of that. It’s huge, it’s the very structure of our profession, and going back to your earlier question, has that always been at the center stage? I think more or less, yeah.

Samina Raja: I guess I’ll speak more to planning as that may be a little bit different and maybe supplementary to what Bob and Martha have already shared. I’ll start with a little anecdote that just happened in the last two weeks. I don’t know Elizabeth if you know this, but I’m right now in India, where we have had seven UB students working with 36 students from Kerala, which is a southern state in India, on developing the food systems plan for a little village in southern India. This plan is probably the first of its kind in the global south, and our students are doing the plan but also trying to make a technique to do it.

When I arrived in the village with the local students, I was chatting with one of the faculty about the importance of pushing conventions and how our School of Architecture and Planning has created the space for faculty to explore interdisciplinary and somewhat unusual paths. And one of the paths that I described to her was our interest in linking architecture and planning with health and with food systems and with many other disciplines. And as I was explaining to her all of this, I said to her some of the topics we pick up are new, but we have a history of challenging conventions, and I mentioned John Eberhard’s name briefly because I don’t actually know a lot about his work. And the funny thing was she responded, and she said, “John Eberhard from the American Neuroscience...” And then she named the organization that he founded.

Long story short, John Eberhard’s organization that he founded provided a grant to this faculty member that we are partnering with in the southern part of India, totally different side of the globe. So John’s history of doing innovative work is being felt in this very far away place from us, so we are experiencing that connection even today.

Student presents project Sustainable Growth.

03.13.2020: Mustafa Ardalan, part of a Real Estate Development, Architecture, and Urban Planning graduate studio led by Mark Forester and Hiroaki Hata, describing their proposal for the redevelopment of the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence. (photo by Yifan He)


ELIZABETH GILMAN: MArch Student, Fred Wallace Brunkow Fellow (2019 - 2020), Editor

CHARLES WINGFELDER: MArch Student, Assistant Editor


MARTHA BOHM: Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Associate Professor - Department of Architecture

SAMINA RAJA: Associate Dean for Research and Inclusive Excellence, Professor - Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Director of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab

ROBERT SHIBLEY: Professor and Dean - School of Architecture and Planning