Robert Cowherd is a designer and architectural historian whose work examines the operations of power through architecture and urban form. His work on late 20th and early 21st century Latin American design focuses on the role of government-sponsored architectural competitions to mobilize dramatic social change within the constraints of single-term governors and mayors. His book project Designing For Life is an extension of two international symposia in 2009 and 2013 and is supported by a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar Grant.
Cowherd’s work on late-20th century Southeast Asia has focused on the prominent role of design, real estate, and infrastructure development in and around Jakarta during the dictatorship of Indonesian president Suharto. The power of built form to “change the facts on the ground” (Ariel Sharon) and to establish truths that “go without saying” (Pierre Bourdieu) requires going beyond conventional examinations of built form as a mere reflection of dominant values and meanings. He is drawn to evidence of formal spatial arrangements operating as instruments of power. This work, supported by the Fulbright and Hyzen grant programs, is published in several book chapters including “Constructing Discourse, Constructing Space,” Heterotopia and the City. It is the focus of a book project entitled The Cultural Construction of Jakarta. The earlier history of Java and Bali is the focus of "Identity Tectonics: Contested Modernities of Java and Bali" in Modernities Across Time and Space (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2015).
His “Notes on Post-criticality: Towards and Architecture of Reflexive Modernisation” in T.U. Delft’s Footprint 4 explores the implications of Beck, Lash and Giddens’ ideas of a “second modernity” on architecture particularly in the wake of late 20th century critical theory, so-called. His work with Patrick Haughey (Savannah College of Art and Design University) on Global Modern History is supported with a grant from the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative. Cowherd was President of the New England Society of Architectural Historians from 2010 to 2013.
His work is informed by extensive research and fieldwork in the developing world including as Program Director of the [Royal Palace] Karaton Surakarta Project Office in Java, as local coordinator for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and through work in post-tsunami Aceh where his open-source model for village mapping and planning was widely applied. He is Associate Professor in the Architecture Department at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston (on sabbatical) and Visiting Professor in the History, Theory and Criticism discipline group of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. He holds a PhD in the History and Theory of Architecture (MIT), an Urban Design Certificate (MIT), and a BArch (The Cooper Union).
2002 PhD Dissertation: Cultural Construction of Jakarta: Design, Planning and Development in Jobotabek, 1980-1997