Rashida Ng talks with Lacey Rivera (left) and Sonia Shah (right) who are School of Arts and Sciences students taking her seminar on racism and climate change
Q&A: Rashida Ng, Presidential Associate Professor of Architecture
After teaching for more than 16 years at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture and serving for six years as department chair, Rashida Ng (MArch’01) returned to her alma mater as Presidential Associate Professor of Architecture in the spring of 2022. This July she will become chair of the undergraduate architecture program. A registered architect with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, she is also the principal of RNG Design and has practiced with firms in Georgia and Connecticut as well as Pennsylvania. In an interview, Ng talks about her exploration of urban housing and new materials—and why this is a watershed moment for both the profession of architecture and architecture education.
How does it feel to be back at Penn?
So, it will be 21 years in May since I graduated. What’s unexpected is that the questions that I’m exploring through my research now are ones that were a part of my graduate education. In my final semester, I worked with James Timberlake [MArch’77] and Stephen Kieran [MArch’76, both of KieranTimberlake] in a research studio. There were two threads to my work for the studio. One was an exploration of new materials. I designed a modular foamed aluminum brick that was lightweight, energy-efficient, and easy to install. The other thread posed questions about housing equity as the project was a house for a couple, sited in North Philadelphia near the Village of Arts and Humanities. The motivation for me at that time was to start asking urban design questions and technology questions at the same time.
When I began my academic career, I initially focused on material performance. As my work matured, I started to ask more questions about the ethical responsibilities of architects to the environment and then the social conditions of the world. I think that architects have acknowledged that buildings and people cause climate change and that we have an ethical and professional responsibility to address this issue. However, we are still developing an understanding of our moral obligation to support the biodiversity of the natural world and to social equity.
The work that I'm doing now is once again focused on housing, specifically housing insecurity through the lens of social equity and environmental justice. This includes flood vulnerability, urban heat, gentrification, and the economic and social factors that lead to unhoused populations. It also examines correlations between historical practices of redlining and persistent health disparities in communities of color.
These same curiosities were there in 2001 when I was doing graduate research with James and Stephen. I have followed this trajectory almost full circle to the point that I now feel ready, and I think the world is demanding, that architects address the social consequences of the work that we do.
Coming to Weitzman, you are joining a number of colleagues interested in issues related to housing.
That was actually a huge attraction to me. Within the School, there are a number of practitioners and scholars that are looking at housing policy, urban design, and urban history, plus the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the work of PennPraxis—it’s all interconnected. As the chair of undergraduate architecture, which is situated in the School of Arts and Sciences, and a faculty appointment in Weitzman, I thought, “This is perfect, an opportunity to work within the School, but also to reach out and collaborate across the University.”
You have done research on phase change materials–substances that release and absorb energy and can be used to provide heat and cooling. How does this materials research intersect with your work looking at such issues as aging housing?
There are many ways to address issues like aging housing. Some of them might be as simple as thinking differently about the building envelope. A lot of older housing has little or no insulation. Much of my research into materiality has focused on phase change material through facade panels that are able to facilitate energy exchange between the inside of the building and the outside. The approach shifts the paradigm away from creating an energy-efficient and hermetically-sealed environment, to building envelopes that store and release heat energy in more dynamic and responsive ways. For aging housing, this could be a kind of energy efficient coating, almost like paint or a layer of spackle with integrated phase change material to make them more energy efficient.
There are also equity issues with our current paradigm of materiality and technology where environmentally conscious buildings are only for the most wealthy. We’re never going to solve climate change if we need the Tesla version of a building, or a house, to do it. We need to develop technologies that are accessible to everyone.
What are you teaching this semester?
I am teaching an undergraduate seminar on racism and climate change. It’s important to me that the students understand that race is a social not a biological construct. Then, we explored how the social hierarchies of race are interconnected with issues of climate change—for example, the impacts to indigenous communities, the location of people of color in low-lying areas increasingly threatened by flooding, and the dangers of urban heat. Students are now working on independent research projects and the final presentation of the work can be in either graphic format, video, or a written paper. I’ve learned that giving students greater agency over their work improves the quality of the final product.
For an upcoming book you have written an essay called “Breaking the Chains: Beyond the Beaux-Arts Tradition of Architectural Education in the United States.” Can you tell us about it and how it relates to the ways you teach architecture?
Architectural education in the United States was formalized in the late nineteenth century by faculty that were educated in the Beaux-Arts School in France. Traditions of architecture reviews, or “juries,” the relationship between an architecture faculty member and students, and the overall studio structure, were adopted from the Beaux-Arts School. The model was attractive to American universities as we developed curricula and established ourselves as a scholarly discipline, not just a trade. At the same time, it also proved useful in satisfying the needs of the profession, especially in meeting the staffing needs of larger architecture firms at the turn of the century.
I believe that we have held to some of the Beaux-Arts practices for too long. They were never designed to solve the kinds of social and environmental questions that we are charged with solving today. Students in the Beaux-Arts School—and in U.S. architecture schools at that time—were typically white, male, and wealthy. Today’s students are much more diverse, racially, socioecomically, and in gender. We aspire for even greater diversity. To get there, we may need to work very differently.
I also think architecture is far too insular. Architecture reviews tend to be made up of other architects and architecture faculty. It’s a little bit self-fulfilling. Within the academy, we're not allowing our ideas to be regularly informed and challenged by thinking and knowledge creation from other disciplines. I'm not suggesting that architects shouldn’t be reviewing architecture students, but there are a lot of other professionals and scholars that have well-formed opinions about the things that we are teaching.
We also don’t routinely invite the public into our architecture schools to hear their thoughts about the world and buildings. Ultimately, the public become our clients, so we are missing an opportunity for them to develop a greater appreciation for what we do. I’d like to shift the discipline in response to the thoughts and perspectives of the rest of the world.
The Beaux-Arts model was the atelier model in which the students learned from “the master.” Students gained credibility by being able to learn from well-known architects and educators, similar to the way I that I cited James and Stephen as my professors. If you go to an architecture review at almost any architecture school, they all look very similar. The format of these reviews hasn’t changed much in over 100 years. The prevailing tool used to assess architecture students still looks very similar to the Beaux-Arts School. We are creative people. I believe we can do things differently and better.
I have been researching and writing about pedagogy, and testing different pedagogies in teaching. In my studios, the review formats are structured as workshops, which are more conversational. The invited guests serve as consultants to the studio who are there to help advance the students work. They are more generative and less evaluative. For me, the review is an educational space. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from students and I plan to continue to refine this approach in the undergraduate architecture studio that I will be teaching in the fall.