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Liz received her Master of Architecture with a concentration in History Theory and Criticism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning, where she was awarded the Department of Architecture Graduate Fellowship. After completion of her graduate coursework, she studied in Austria as the recipient of the Seebacher Prize for the Fine Arts under sponsorship of the American Austrian Foundation. Her graduate thesis, Life Under the Desert Sun: Dust Storms, Steam Baths and Outhouses for the Unencumbered Desert Dweller, engages questions of housing typology, collectivity, lifestyle, and domesticity in the American Southwest. Liz’s research focuses on American Housing models, with an emphasis on questions of lifestyle and culture.
Can you recall a time when you had a good experience with a mentor? What did that mentor instill in you that you practice today with your students?
I guess I would refer back to a person that I consider my mentor from grad school and I say mentor as a very broad term, he was a mentor for me then and he continues to be a mentor for me today - in the architecture community or the way that architecture school works we don’t necessarily have finals or midterms or anything like that, instead what we have is finals or mid-reviews, which call upon the student to stand in front of their work and present it to a panel of architectural critics which are usually the professor of that school. I had met this person in a not very personal way through this format and later on he reached out to me to be his teaching assistant and our first kind of real interaction he asked me to meet at a coffee shop. So I actually think that was a valuable experience because it really showed me that we were really going to have a real world conversation and connection. He didn’t just invite me to come to his office and get right to the nitty gritty, so he actually asked me for coffee. Before talking to me about the proposal for working with him he actually just asked questions about me and what my goals were, so it seemed like he was just trying to listen to me as a student, as a human to see if it would even be a right fit before he offered that. Whenever students reach out to talk to me about their goals or aspirations I would ask them to meet with me for coffee, which is kind of silly thing, but I think it really showed this new kind of potential for discussing things in a real world setting an not in such a - It didn’t seem like he was meeting with me because it’s his job, so I try to do that with my students.
So what is your actual project in the school of architecture? Give us a little bit of background
Yeah, so my current research project I would term under the umbrella of domestic hydrology, so what this means is the domestic. Things like housing, broadly speaking - single family houses, condos, apartment.etc anything that is the kind of very first layer of interaction between a dweller (someone who lives somewhere) and water. Hydrology being the study of how water moves and water systems, so kind of bringing together something perhaps hyper-scientific and hidden and infrastructural and hidden below ground and kind of as you might see as you look around my office (laughs) trying to really pull that out and bring it to the foreground and experiment with what that means for the dweller and how we can as architects, as designers, as creatives as people as people who care about the environmental crisis and all of these things… How can we start talking about this? And what autonomy? And what tools do architects have at their disposal to bring this to the forefront in a domestic setting? Which for me is most people’s everyday experience and relationship to water, so broadly speaking that’s what I am interested in. For this particular fellowship and for the exhibition I’m putting together, I am looking most closely at the bathroom, so focusing in on one moment where people interact with water within their home, which is the bathroom and trying to challenge our accepted experience of the bathroom. So for example the idea that when we open a faucet the water just comes out of nowhere and disappears - the clean water comes out of nowhere very easily and the dirty water just disappears equally without notice. (The goal is) trying to challenge something that seems so innate through the design of fixtures and bathrooms…
How do you do that? In what ways are you challenging something that seems innate?
I think my interest in this really started with my thesis in graduate school, I was looking at catalogs from Sears homes. Basically I started to zoom into what makes the catalog home. When we say architecture we don’t think of that. We think of buildings like the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) from Frank Gehry or something like that, but most people’s experience with architecture is very vernacular, so I started looking at how these developers were using catalogs to sell their homes. So what is the rhetoric they’re using to sell to create the American dream because before the post war period this idea of the American dream was not as we understand it today. This idea of single family home ownership, I started realizing that this dream was a construct. It was invented by a certain era, by a series of people, by a series of desires, from a certain time. So I believe we can equally create a new version of that dream by studying the ways in which that dream came to be. Part of it was this idea of the catalogue and the rhetoric of it, the happiness that is depicted in these images… So trying to utilize some of that into that - instead of selling homes can we sell new ideas of the bathroom. Trying to understand socially and culturally what it is that people value and what people are after and to see if we can start to embed those values into things such as a sink. Right now people are after prestige, like you want to mow your lawn and keep it neat, that signifies something about your neighbors and yourself and your value system. So can we start creating new products? Selling new products and creating versions of houses that bring these values with. Could a certain style of bathroom be a status symbol and show that you care about the environment? Or you care about water… could we start bring some of that same rhetoric into this?
What’s the role of the student? How are you utilizing UROP students in this work?
I have two UROP students right now, I basically split up the presentation of the project to the first semester and the second semester. So for the first semester we didn’t really know what we were going to show, we didn’t know what to design yet, so the first semester was a little bit more like going online and requesting a bunch of books from the library and sifting through those and creating a timeline. It was simply data gathering and information processing was a lot of what we did in the first half. One format was reading and gathering the information and the second format I had students use was actually drawing. We drew houses, I had them draw their own bathrooms and then redraw them, first by hand and then I had them use the digital software architects use to draw called Rhinoceros and after they got a little more comfortable with that I started assigning them quote unquote “canonical” homes, like famous houses designed by architects. We analyzed those houses through the rhetoric or the bias of the bathroom, so instead of just drawing a normal floor plan, we drew the floor plan and highlighted the bathroom. We started to looked at how much square footage is the bathroom, what’s the logic here? And you’ll start to realize that there’s some really radical architecture out there that I assign them to look at. We read things and we tried to understand things through drawing them.
What led you to become a UROP faculty research mentor?
Acknowledgement of the value of mentorship in the trajectory of learning. I believe that people learn in different ways and at different speeds. Things click at different times and via a variety of incentives for different people. The formal classroom setting is not the end all setting for a fulfilled intellectual life and not all students thrive in this particular setting. I believe that fostering a more conversational / “real-world” relationship with a student may supplement development inside of the classroom. You know, what does it mean to talk about architecture at an office meeting or at a coffee shop as opposed to in a lecture setting? Additionally- as an undergrad I was not very aware of what ‘research’ meant or that it was even an area available for exploration - that is that it existed as a field or concept. I am interested in - my teaching pedagogy- in a method of questioning & challenging norms, especially within the architecture discipline. I see research as a valuable voice in helping undergraduates become more comfortable with uncertainty. Not skepticism, but real, questioning, and also seeking or proposing avenues for looking into that question. By joining UROP as a mentor I hope to enable for young thinkers to find the room to imagine how the world can be - to become critical thinkers.
Now that you are a UROP mentor, what advice do you have for current UROP students?
Not to only become indoctrinated into an uncritical frame of learning and hence thinking.
Additionally- in opposition perhaps to the more lofty ambitions- there are a lot of just practical questions that I wish I had even known to ask as an undergraduate. Important questions that are not usually brought up in the academic setting. What would a job in this career actually require me doing during the 8-hour work day? Do I enjoy this? Am I good at this? And can I afford to make the amount of money that my career will provide for me? What will I actually do with this degree? What autonomy do I actually have to make the change I want to see in the world?