This is one of a series of interviews with the Graduate Program Spitzer’s new program directors conducted by Erica Wszolek, executive associate to the dean and communications manager, during summer 2020.
Associate Professor Nandini Bagchee directs the Master of Science in Architecture post-professional degree program and is also principal of Bagchee Architects. Her research focuses on activism in architecture and the ways in which ground-up collaborative building practices provide an alternative medium for the creation of public space.
Why did you choose to work as Spitzer?
Gosh, it was a long time ago that I made the decision to enter academia. I come from a family of educators, and I have always been interested in teaching. After completing a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Cooper Union I practiced within the profession for a few years before applying to graduate school at MIT to pursue a master’s degree in the history of architecture with a focus on Islamic architecture. All along, I collaborated within different architectural practices in New York, Minneapolis, Basel, Boston, and then, about fifteen or so years into my career, I thought I would love to be a part of an educational architectural environment. I was lucky to have had such inspiring professors and fellow students at Cooper and MIT. It all happened at the same time: I got licenced; I got some commissioned work; established my own studio, Bagchee Architects in New York; and I started teaching as an adjunct professor at City College. It was called City College then, not Spitzer, and we were in Shepard Hall all thrown together pell-mell in the basement, the first- and second-year undergraduate studios together. City College/CUNY — a public university — seemed like an ideal place to become part of a teaching community. There is some synergy between my alma mater, the Cooper Union, and City College. It is quite interesting but not surprising that quite a few of us teaching architecture at Spitzer are Cooper Union graduates. I think that there is an idea of “education for all” that attracts a certain type of faculty as well as a diverse student body.
This is all me thinking after the fact — I did not rationalize all this at the time I accepted the teaching job here in 2006. I had not thought it through entirely, but over time, I feel like the reason I stayed for so many years is because I feel like I really belong here. I find the students to be very much like I was as an architecture student — an immigrant with similar socioeconomic pressures alongside hopes, aspirations, and the desire for creative change. But all that dawned on me very gradually.
I did not have a very clear picture coming into the job what opportunities it afforded, but I loved the process of engagement through teaching and gradually found my own space within the very tightly circumscribed architectural curriculum. At the time some of the full-time faculty were very invested in having a strong global history and design component and quite simply I was best qualified to do so with my master’s degree from the History and Theory Department at MIT. This was, and remains, my interest — in bringing marginalized histories of architecture and city making into the mainstream discourse and study of architecture. So, having the support and encouragement of the more radical full-time faculty like Michael Sorkin and Marta Gutman at City College, I was able to develop an interesting research-based teaching practice. This focus was appealing, and I am grateful to City College for having provided me this platform. How I came to be here was a bit happenstance, but then why I stayed here is much clearer to me because of the various aspects of the community that was at City College as well as my colleagues and the broader interest of bringing the humanities together with design for social justice.
What ambitions do you bring to the post of director?
So, once again, I hadn’t been thinking of heading a program. I have so far taught mostly in the undergraduate program, and I encountered the graduate students more recently, through the exchange between the advanced design studios that we initiated two to three years ago and also in my seminars on world cities and activism in architecture. And, so, a post within the graduate program was not something I was striving towards. When Dean Lokko asked me to join and become part of the larger GPS team, I think I was taken off guard, but also excited and honored to take on a new role. It is a pivotal moment in our lives in general but also the city and the discipline of architecture. Things that I have been working on for years on the sidelines — activism and how architecture can support communities of color — are suddenly at the front and center of public debate. We had an interim dean for the past four years at SSA and now we have this new leadership and fresh ideas.
The program that I am heading is small at the moment and doesn’t have such a distinct shape of its own. However, it is one of two post-professional degree programs within our school. The challenge is how to form it into something unique by taking advantage of the transdisciplinary research opportunities within our school. Part of the allure of the MS Arch Program is that it offers a flexibility to advanced students that are coming in with an undergraduate degree in architecture and have ideas of their own that they want to investigate at a deeper level. I want to be a part of that process of mentoring them and thinking, yes, we are all trained as architects but, you know, there is so much more to architecture. What is it that you want to do? What types of questions do you have? And what type of research do you want to undertake? And to really help the students achieve the specificity of their goals while opening them up to the interdisciplinarity that is reflected in our faculty and course offerings.
The second facet that interests me is to develop a network of people and institutions affiliated with our program outside the school. To look at the built environment on a global scale and local level simultaneously. I grew up in India and have lived in many different places on at least four different continents, so although my work is locally grounded here in New York, I bring a wider perspective to the SSA. The MS Arch Program currently attracts foreign students, and I want to build upon this constituency as well as encourage our local/national students to dialog with the outside world. I feel with my background and experience I am well positioned to bring an international perspective to our curriculum and to disseminate this idea that the world is a very connected place. We tend to be very New York-centric at City College, and while I appreciate this commitment to the city we can also connect to the outside and see ourselves as part of a larger empathetic universe of ideas and building practices.
What insights from your teaching and professional experience are you hoping to integrate or adopt as program director?
As I mentioned before, I established my own architectural practice in 2005. It is a practice that I continue to work in and take on new projects. I do like building physically out there in the world with teams and folks who want and need something constructed! I love that material aspect of architecture that brings me into contact with clients, engineers, builders, and users of a potential space that I can facilitate and design. As architects we get to work very collaboratively with a lot of different people. We begin abstractly with our own sketches and thoughts and then move on to work on a site with an assortment of issues and people. The “project” is constantly shifting and changing. Integrating scientific, humanist, as well as material and economic principles into the body of a building is truly a heady experience. Architects are passionate generalists. It’s for those of us who really like that nonspecialized but wide-ranging process of engagement with all aspects of the act of getting something fairly complicated realized. So, that’s on the professional side.
On the education end, I’ve been teaching now for more than ten years, plus or minus. Simultaneously, I have been writing about social movements and the ways in which grassroots organizations leverage space for political action and change. Teaching has offered me the resources and time to do conduct deeper archival and ethnographic research and to write. This other facet of practice has also expanded the scope of my professional work. So, things come together and cross–pollinate — the building, teaching, and writing feed one another. And I think this is an expansive concept of a “project” that I would like to bring to the MS Arch Program. The idea of being able to connect a variety of interdisciplinary thinking that goes on within the profession of architecture and thinking more broadly about the purposefulness of your engagement as an architect. Architecture is a career that unfolds slowly. You begin at one end and then you gradually start to look at it, not just plug yourself into “the profession.” That was never the type of architect that I was/am, and I hope my students will also go a little bit against the grain of the very consumer-oriented aspects of the profession and seek what they can do, where they can really be instrumental in implementing change. I think that this is an experience that I have by moving in between the professional and the academic world, and that is the type of synergetic practice that I will cultivate within the program.
I’ve always been fascinated by the projects that you choose and the communities that you work with, and I know that the students in the MS Arch Program, I mean, I’m excited to see what you do. You know, as a program director, even of a small program, there’s a lot of potential to shape it and create that impact that you’re so passionate about. So, it’s exciting — that’s just a side note.
Yeah, I brought some of my work with communities into the advanced design studios. I did this three year in a row with different outcomes. Two of them were very successful — one with an organization, South Bronx Unite, to repurpose and claim a city-owned building into a cultural center, and another to produce modular housing with a Black Socialist movement cooperative in Mississippi. These two workshops were successful since we were working with a democratically self-organized core group. It can be difficult to build trust and actually work with people that are struggling with real-life problems that are systemic and go back years and years and centuries and are deep rooted. These projects have been eye-opening for some of the students. What’s interesting about the people that I choose to work with, and that choose to work with me/my students — there’s a reciprocity. People must allow you into their universe and become a part of the educational project themselves. It’s a profound learning experience being around people so strapped for resources and all kinds of things — yet so generous. Much of this work has been within communities of color, but this is not the explicit reason we got together but rather implicit in the radical nature of the project itself — with a desire for change. The people we worked with are like myself, like our students — trying to find and form a place for themselves in what is a precarious landscape. This level of empathy and understanding is important for all human relationships. I recognize that I am in a position of privilege as a professor and get to do this kind of work with a group of energetic students. Students often ask me, “How can I do this? How can I be an activist-architect?” And I am like, sigh, you know, just work your way through life, and if you are interested in these kinds of endeavors, persevere, and they will come to you. It’s tough to build trust, raise funds, and to engage in questions of space and social justice. But it can and must be done because there is a pressing need. I introduce them to creative people in difficult situations who are exemplary in how they feel they could change their own environments.
Organizing around those changes.
Yes, there is a vulnerability that needs to be explored, but there is power in engagement. I want them to experience that power.
They’re still working their way through the ideas — that’s what they’re doing as students — but I think many of our students already come from a world of experience, so not only am I teaching them. They are teaching me about all of this other stuff — their expertise. So, I think it’s really a great tool for educators to engage multiple audiences by leveraging their position as academic leaders — people are very respectful of this role that we play — but then really making the three-way connection between organizers, students, and the school.
That’s great. It really empowers them, and early. It lets them tap into that power that they have within but don’t feel the confidence to use yet. OK, last question, Nandini, and this is a tough one. In one word, what do you hope your legacy will be?
In one word? . . . All the words that are coming to me are nonarchitectural. I’m thinking compassionate, but it’s the moment that we’re in. I’m not thinking of going out there and building things and going on with business as usual. Therefore, compassionate is a word that comes to me. I don’t know how I will feel about it tomorrow. We need to have just the conversation we had after the [recent Zoom screening of the] film La Haine that was so important about violence and retribution, that you started off, actually. The violence in building and unbuilding, really to bring it back to architecture. We need leaders that have a just and compassionate approach to things on a very general level rather than aggressive . . .
Defensive, combative . . .
Yeah, like all this energy is just not needed. But that’s also a very hard type of leadership to accomplish.