Tulane School of Architecture students have opportunities that go beyond most other schools of architecture in bringing their talents and compassion to bear on real issues of the community

Kenneth SchwartzAt the Tulane School of Architecture we operate in the intersection between disciplinary knowledge in architectural and urban design and direct action through design engagement within the community.

Institutional Context

Traditionally, architectural pedagogy should focus on educating students in the abiding cultural and social roles of architecture and related fields by providing a well-rounded, humanities-based education with discipline-specific coursework that serves to prepare future professionals in design, building technology, theory and professional concerns, with an emphasis on critical thinking. At Tulane, we seek to instill a sense of responsibility and ethical conduct in our students through civic engagement. We provide our students with tangible experiences that yield an understanding of both the possibility and limits of design as an agent of positive social change.

Students who come to the Tulane School of Architecture have opportunities that go beyond most other schools of architecture in bringing their talents and compassion to bear on real issues of the community. Students who flourish at our school are interested in hands-on experience — with clients, community groups, at various scales and with diverse project types, from visioning of urban and landscape issues for a neighborhood or infrastructure intervention to small-scale design/build projects. Students at Tulane succeed by bringing their inherent curiosity with a willingness to explore spatial ideas through a rigorous iterative process, and an awareness of the complexity and interconnection of architectural ideas. Three-dimensional reasoning mixed with critical thinking is something we see in successful architecture students in general (certainly not unique to our school).

Changes in Practice

Architecture as a profession is at a curious and contradictory moment. In one sense, the educational model has never been more relevant in providing experiences that can lead a student in many different professional directions. While the educational model is also very effective in positioning graduates to enter the “traditional” field of architectural practice, there seems to be a continual diminution of the power and potential of that track in contemporary society. To be sure, while there will always be graduates who excel in the normative conditions of practice, society seems to suggest more than this track — as evidenced by the way so many firms have diversified in their practice models over the last twenty-plus years and the financial challenges faced by some practitioners.

When a profession is being pulled from its center to areas that were once considered the margins, there can be questions about the perceived value of education that may seem largely similar to the one that has existed for the last fifty or more years at many institutions. Added to this are the particular characteristics of the millennial generation. Among the high achievers in this group, the ones who are dominantly positioned to study in our top schools of architecture, these young women and men have been “successful” in everything they have done, yet they have not necessarily focused with real dedication and sustained attention on one area of exploration. Traditionally, great students of architecture, like many great architects, are persistent and intense in their desire to develop their ideas over the course of a semester, a full five or more years, and over an entire career. There may be something of a culture shock that is even more jarring for this generation, yet we continue to attract students who approach their studies with genuine curiosity and ambition to develop their talents and intellect in ways that can produce compelling architectural projects.

Proactive Strategies and New Directions

Tulane School of Architecture has made great efforts over the last seven years to provide proactive and diverse support for students in their career development plans. The professional practice course serves as the foundation of this effort and was renamed and re-themed as “Professional Practice and Ethics: Designing Careers.” I co-taught this course in the first year with a young architect from a top firm in New Orleans (as a project architect with AIA Firm of the Year awardee, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, she led their nationally recognized work in Intern Development while she was still an emerging professional and after she became project architect). She continues to teach the course today. The curriculum is structured to highlight the ways students can approach their education as a laboratory to test, develop and define their professional personae in a very real sense, based on the range of practices that architects have been pursuing over the last twenty years, as well as speculation about the future directions of the profession. This initiative also includes a series of focused workshops that have empowered students in more effective ways when they begin their work in various kinds of firms. Many law schools have done this very well. In some ways, I have modeled our approach on watching my daughter’s experience at the University of Chicago School of Law, where they focus on career issues from the moment they begin and then frame a diverse range of options that grow out of a great legal education.

In addition, we have developed a minor in Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE). It is open to students across the entire university and it is the fastest growing minor at Tulane University (with over 100 student enrolled as we enter its fourth year, and more than double that number taking our courses). This cross-disciplinary initiative includes eight endowed Social Entrepreneurship professors from almost every school on our campus and a strong set of co-curricular opportunities including competitions, TedX Tulane talks, guest speakers and participation as a leading campus among Ashoka U’s Changemaker campus network of thirty universities that are similarly committed to social change and social entrepreneurship.

More recently, we received a $15 million gift from a visionary donor who saw the potential of leveraging our success from the past ten years and elevating this work to an even higher level of impact. I was honored to be asked to serve as the founding director of the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University, for which I have been named the first Michael J. Sacks Chair in Civic Engagement and Social Entrepreneurship (the result of another major gift to the institution). There is no other school of architecture in the United State that is similarly positioned to connect architecture and the larger realm of social innovation. We believe that this affords unique opportunities for our students and to establish the architecture program as central to the larger institutional priorities for the future. We also believe that this direction of diversification through impact strategies will have long-term benefits for society in the way we are researching and implementing entrepreneurial activities within the academy. More often, these initiatives have been tied to engineering or business schools at the graduate level, but our university is committed to broad-based impact at both undergraduate and graduate levels that includes faculty from across the institution.

Examples of School of Architecture Engagement Initiatives

Tulane has a unique requirement of at least two semesters of public service/service learning within the curriculum (this requirement applies to the entire university, not just architecture). These experiences are always cross-disciplinary in various ways. For example, work with the unique “Mardi Gras Indians” of New Orleans involves architectural design, film production studies, and engagement with cultural anthropology. Work on urban agriculture and youth empowerment projects demands engagement with hydrology, soils, and business planning. These cross-disciplinary experiences are tangible and not just theoretical at our school.

Water has been a major area of focus for design work and community improvement in post-Katrina New Orleans. Several of our projects have received funding from private and public entities and each has included a cross-disciplinary team of hydrologists, engineers, landscape architects and expertise from the community stakeholders themselves.

The Tulane City Center is the base of operation for our outreach efforts — with over 80 projects for nonprofits and city agencies completed since 2006. All of these projects are student and faculty efforts that work in collaboration with neighborhood organizations, non-profits, and city agencies. We have raised close to $5 million to fund these projects ourselves. The projects, with the extensive pro bono work of students and faculty, have contributed to a strong wellspring of appreciation throughout the community. Most recently, we launched a 7,300-square-foot community design center in the middle of a challenged yet historically significant and integrated neighborhood named Central City. This center is poised to become the headquarters for the city’s resilience initiative.

Four years ago we launched a graduate program in Sustainable Real Estate Development to broaden the impact of our small School of Architecture by engaging in innovative, mission-driven entrepreneurship. New Orleans provides an excellent laboratory of case studies for this program. This past summer, we launched a summer institute minor for undergraduate students in Real Estate, and we intend to continue this to provide opportunities for students from across the university to enhance their undergraduate major with an applied set of skills.

New Orleans is a small city, with fewer than 400,000 citizens (and somewhat more than 1 million in the entire economic region). Tulane University is the largest private employer in the city, and as such, the connections with the community have been strong throughout the history of our institution. Every unit of the university has been involved in the city’s recovery over the past ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Any perception of the university as disengaged from the community has been supplanted with a deep recognition of the positive impact and reciprocal dependence we have with the city and region. The School of Architecture continues to be at the forefront of these efforts.

Hope for the Future

I hope that students and citizens alike will appreciate the unique magic produced by connecting design excellence with social innovation in action. This process builds on a tradition at Tulane School of Architecture that goes back more than 100 years, but the qualities of excellence and engagement have taken on a particularly urgent and highly recognized quality over the last ten years.

Hurricane Katrina forced a fundamental reconsideration of the role of our anchor institutions in a city whose very existence was thrown in question through the human-caused disaster of the levee failures and flooding of roughly 80 percent of the city. The perception of the School of Architecture has emerged over the last ten years as engaged, empathetic, creative and relevant to a city that still has a long way to go in its fully inclusive Renaissance. Across the board, Tulane is seen as an influential and positive force in the city’s recovery, with students and faculty playing the lead role in creating a spirit of relevance through engagement.

We have been working to be adaptable to changing dynamics in society: relevant and diversified in our approaches, collaborative, impactful and ethically focused in our planning and action.


Kenneth Schwartz is Favrot Professor and Dean Michael Sacks Chair in Civic Engagement and Social Entrepreneurship and the Director of the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking.