Fall 2020 Welcome and Thank You

Dear all,

Welcome to the Fall semester; and a particular welcome to those joining our community for the first time, as I did myself a few months ago. 

It is apparently a tradition for the Department Head to send a welcome letter at the beginning of the Fall, with updates on all the remarkable things all of us have been doing while away from MIT. 

This summer, however, so many of you — faculty, staff and students — have been setting aside your own work and achievement to do remarkable things for all of us. And so, since our department and lives have been turned inside out, I think it’s particularly appropriate to turn this usual letter inside out. I would like this message of welcome, most of all, to serve also as a record of my, and our community’s gratitude to all those who have served us this past summer.

These contributions, at one of the most challenging times in our shared history, have gone towards two efforts. The first, which began before my time as Head, is our larger institutional response to the public health crisis that still encloses us. This crisis affects this department’s work profoundly even as it affects the diverse communities we are connected to unevenly, and often brutally. The second surrounds our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion within our own community itself, an ongoing conversation in the department which gained renewed urgency after the murder of George Floyd, and which was the subject of a June 8 Town Hall that was our last broad gathering as a community before this week. 

It is important to me that decisions and actions around all these issues of pivotal importance to our whole community be guided by our whole community. As such, I am particularly glad to those faculty, students, and staff who joined ad-hoc committees and new institutional bodies to help conceive and implement strategy on all these most urgent of concerns.

In the area of Strategy and Equity, I am grateful in particular to Associate Department Head Terry Knight, who agreed in April to help lead these efforts, as well as to Larry Sass, whose own long-term efforts and urgent questions prompted many of our conversations. Early this summer, we reached out to create a larger team for these efforts to join myself and Terry, including Katharine Kettner as Student Representative, Inala Locke as Staff Representative, and Tonya Miller as an administrative assistant in this essential work. Through their efforts, and as will be discussed in a follow-up Town Hall next week, we have completed, or accomplished substantial progress towards all twenty-nine of our agreed, immediate goals in our department — and begun to set more. In coordination with this work, Faculty members, including Judith BarryBrandon CliffordSheila KennedyLiam O’BrienNasser Rabbat, and Rafi Segal have helped conceive and implement immediate changes to admissions and other administrative processes. Staff members including Darren BennettRenée CasoAmanda MooreAndreea O’Connell, and Paul Pettigrew have helped us begin to re-imagine fundamental structures of our department surrounding communications, recruiting, admissions, student support and the evaluation of merit. 

Most deserving of special mention here are the students of NOMAS, who alongside their colleagues in the ASC, have played a particular role in highlighting how the department can and should expand its outreach, as well as the social and intellectual inclusion of BIPOC histories and people in our community. In this work, they have expanded the work of their organization beyond its usual role, at enormous effort, and to all our ultimate benefit. So I would like particularly to recognize Ruth Blair Moyers and Mohamed Ismail as NOMAS co-chairs, as well as board members April Du Gao, Nare Filiposyan, Christopher Masahiko Moyer, ElDante Winston, Jola Idowu, Jia Li Song, Katharine Kettner, Mariana Gonzalez Medrano, and Yesufu O'ladipo. 

We have an urgent imperative to model in our own institution the justice, inclusion, and excellence we wish to see in the world. This summer, we have also faced challenges in simply continuing our work at all as an institution. Imagining how to continue doing what we do well, and doing it ethically, inclusively, and creatively while dispersed from each other has been an enormous challenge.  

To this end, I would like to thank three special committees that met over the course of the summer to conceive and strategize the ethics, logistics, and possibilities of our ongoing work together this fall, as well as Associate Department Head Les Norford, who helped me particularly interface with the organizational realities and traditions of MIT in conceiving and implementing our strategic planning process. 

In conceiving our plan for hybrid making and teaching this fall, and in particular its balance of maximizing physical opportunity alongside the ethics of individual choice, I am particularly grateful to the members of the summer ad-hoc Space and Curriculum committee, who met with me weekly to conceive, develop, and continually improve our planning efforts amidst all the ongoing uncertainty that the summer has brought — and the fall will include as well. They played a particularly essential role in conceiving and implementing strategies — like kits for making, remote making instruction and TAs — that will have an enormous impact on our experiences this fall far beyond the MIT campus. So please join me in thanking staff members Renée Caso, Gina Halabi, and Jim Harrington, students Ginevra D'Agostino, Jola Idowu, Rania Kaadan, Daniel Landez and Mohamad Nahleh, and faculty Sheila Kennedy, Timothy Hyde, Ana Miljački, Liam O'Brien, Rafi Segal and Skylar Tibbits for their sustained and deliberate work on all our behalf. In addition, I would like to thank those who supported the most immediate outcome of these discussions — the making kits going to all studio students this fall, coordinated by Jennifer O’Brien, and our new capacities to support remote making, coordinated by Zain Karsan

As important as the intellectual and spatial logistics of our community are, they are not what really makes us a community. Alongside the Space and Curriculum committee, I am incredibly grateful to the ad-hoc Community and Support committee, which helped conceive a range of strategies — from continued support to our radio station, to lectures and film series, to new communications strategies around social media and inclusion — that will help thread together this community across time and distance in the coming months. I am particularly grateful to staff and faculty Gina Halabi, Rania Ghosn, Amanda Moore and Paul Pettigrew, and students Jola IdowuRania Kaadan and Athina Papadopoulou, for their service and contributions to this essential discussion.

Helping survey and coordinate thinking in all the above areas this summer was a special, summer “super-cabinet,” which combined our regular faculty cabinet of program directors and discipline group heads with staff and student representatives. These essential conversations included Judith Barry, Jonathon Brearly, Renee Caso, Ginevra D’Agostino, Gina Halabi, Timothy Hyde, Sheila Kennedy, Terry Knight, Ana Miljački, Liam O’Brian, Andreea O’Connell, Nasser Rabbat, Cristoph Reinhart, Larry Sass, Rafi Segal, Kristel Smentek, Skylar Tibbits and Jim Wescoat.

Included in this summer cabinet but serving as essential allies in our community’s whole operation over the summer was our student government, the ASC. Thanks to all who serve us in this way, and particularly to Jonathon Brearley and Ginevra D’Agostino, for whom this work has been more than a full-time job this summer, and who have done essential and remarkable work.

This summer, our community was strengthened and sustained by summer classes and employment. All our thanks should go to those faculty who volunteered to support students by teaching during the summer, including Mark Jarzombek, Jeremy Jih, Axel Kilian, Daniel Marshall, Caitlin Meuller, Yijiang Huang, Les Norford, Cristina Parreño Alonso, Susanne Schindler and Cagri Hakan Zaman, as well as guest instructors Miko McGinty and Tom Sachs. And our thanks go as well to the many additional faculty who employed and collaborated with students in their own research and activities, sustaining and supporting them, as well as our whole community.

Against this background of activity and more than in any usual summer, our day-to-day communications and operations were sustained by enormous efforts this summer. This included a special team of Amanda Moore and Gina Halabi producing our Distributed Department Digest. It included our new IT support organization, STOA, staffed by Eduardo Gonzalez and Matthew Harrington. And it included our remarkable SA+P director of facilities, Jim Harrington. 

Jim has also served as organizer for what would be an intensive and all-consuming administrative effort even in any normal summer — the newly-restarted programming and planning for our Department’s new home in the Metropolitan Warehouse. We are all served this summer as well by the staff and faculty who have served as our representatives in conceiving the spaces and environments of yet another new architecture for this department beyond our current moment. Thanks to Chris Dewart, Matthew Harrington, Sheila Kennedy, Miho Mazereeuw, Jennifer O’Brien, Liam O’Brien, John Ochsendorf, Cristoph Reinhart, Larry Sass, Kristel Smentek, and Skylar Tibbits for serving on SA+P-wide programming committees, and to all in the department who have shared their concerns, hopes, and ideas with the architects, campus planners, and project organizers.

Particular thanks from me go to our department’s Administrative Officer, Andreea O’Connell, who, alongside outgoing Interim Department Head Andrew Scott, have helped me up a particularly sharp and steep learning curve these last months, even as we undertook projects — like the creation of 60+ positions and twelve courses through our summer SWAP, or the re-design of our TA application process — that would have taxed our organization even in normal times. Here last, but far from least, my thanks go to all of our Department Staff, who have worked tirelessly from living rooms, bedrooms, porches and basements to do — often in twice the time and triple the effort — all the things it takes to make this place go over the course of the last few months, and more. Please help me in sharing our gratitude in every interaction we have. 

A last, very personal thanks goes from me to all of you. Joining a community in a leadership position is challenging at the best of times—and these are not the best of times. For your welcome, for your compassion, for your generosity, I thank every member of our community it’s been my pleasure to know — and more whom I look forward to meeting in the days and weeks to come. 

As I have seen so clearly this summer, MIT Architecture is a place of almost infinite possibility, with enormous care and passion for our discipline, and a dedication to its capacity to make the world a more just, more ecological, and more beautiful place. As I described in my first welcome letter to you as Department Head, our discipline is fundamentally optimistic, but intentionally so.  In the context of a larger struggle to re-shape the world, Angela Davis has written “I don't think we have any alternative other than remaining optimistic. Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it's only optimism of the will.”

Today, I welcome you with an optimism based not just in will, but also based on my experience of your generosity and commitment to our shared efforts over the short time I have been with you. May our work together this fall shape the whole world, as well as our own part of it, closer towards the architecture we would like to see. 

As ever,
Nicholas de Monchaux
Professor and Head of Architecture