Preservation Alumni recently shared an interview with Jorge Otero-Pailos that provided information on the direction of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program. PA received a variety of questions, feedback, and request for some clarification related to this interview. While the mission of PA is to support and enrich the program, act as an unbiased forum, and provide a connection between alumni and the university, we encourage people to reach out to the program directly if they have follow-up questions or concerns in response to information shared in interview. It is important to note, the questions were distributed via email for written response; the interview was not conducted in person or in a manner that might allow for a line of follow-up questions. Due to the normal university approval process for a written, published statement by an employee, the questions sent and the answers provided could not address all the questions about this new direction of the program. Ultimately, this interview is meant as a facilitator to conversation, and this conversation is ongoing.

As with any major change, there are exciting new opportunities and directions that might cause concern. PA will share information as it is provided and we would encourage our members to seek answers or share concerns on their own as well.

Here at Preservation Alumni, we have heard about changes to the Historic Preservation program at Columbia University. Looking beyond the departure of Dr. Wheeler, we wanted to get a better sense of how the program is restructuring as well as raise some questions we’ve received from other Alumni. We approached program director Jorge Otero-Pailos with the hope of learning about the new direction of the program.

Preservation Alumni (PA): In your recent email to the Columbia HP community, you mentioned breaking down the old silos of planning, design, conservation, and history/theory. If the program is eliminating the sectors, how will the curriculum be structured? Will students still have the ability to focus on the aspects of preservation that interest them most?

Jorge Otero-Pailos (JO): The preservation profession has evolved dramatically since our current curriculum was set in place in 1978, and the development of a new integrated curriculum is a strategic imperative in order for us to be able to ready our graduates for the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s job market. We are not eliminating any sectors, we are integrating them. The faculty recognized that an overhaul was necessary to better prepare students for the reality of practice today. So as faculty we are currently developing a new integrated curriculum which we believe will be a model for preservation education in the 21st century, and will help Columbia retain its pre-eminence. We plan to have the new curriculum go into effect next academic year.

We have noticed that our graduates tend to make a major shift in their career path around 5 years out of school. Someone starting work as a staffer at a Landmarks Commission might find themselves writing material conservation treatment specifications in a large architectural firm. They are still working in preservation, but the knowledge that they must draw upon is different in each job. The notion of someone doing the same specialized preservation job for 20-30 years is over. Private companies and governmental bodies like the NPS now plan to retain employees for 3-5 years. Our observations were echoed in a recent LinkedIn report that found today’s graduates across all fields change jobs an average of 4 times in their first 10 years of employment. Therefore, the new model of preservation education needs to be both deep and broad; it needs to teach students how to pursue their interests while making lateral connections, and to be creative and versatile in this new environment.

We need to get back to our roots: to Fitch’s idea of preservation education. He always fought for integration, and he would have been opposed to a curriculum that isolates students into separate silos. The sectored curriculum arrived at a critical point when we only had a couple students per year in the architectural conservation sector, which was unsustainable and isolated those students from the rest of the program. One of the reasons for coming to Columbia is to learn in the company of a cohort. The other is to kick off a successful career. We are very focused on that – the future of our students is our priority.

PA: Most alumni we have heard from are concerned with how the elimination of the conservation focus will affect the program. Many are concerned that this will make Columbia less competitive as compared to rival institutions. How do you think this and other program changes will affect aspiring preservationists’ interest in Columbia?

JO: Our alumni can rest assured that we are not eliminating conservation. Quite the contrary, we are working to enhance the importance of conservation across the curriculum. We are changing how we teach in order to better prepare our graduates for how architectural conservation, and indeed preservation as a whole, is practiced in the 21st century. If you look at the most successful architectural conservators today, you notice that they are already operating within an integrated model of preservation practice. They are successful because they are able to work laterally as well as vertically, to deal with the big picture as well as drill down into the details. They can work within a laboratory and take charge of projects, designing preservation interventions, working with clients directly, leading teams, supervising building contractors, and managing the complexities of fieldwork. They are doing many of the things architects used to do. They collaborate with architects and engineers in new and more prominent roles.

With this in mind, the new integrated curriculum will be studio-centric because we found the studio format to be the best way to realistically teach the practice of preservation. In addition to continuing to teach architectural conservation in laboratory courses, we now have a very robust three-semester studio sequence that allows us, for the first time, to also teach conservation in studio as an integral part of every preservation project.  

The integrated curriculum also includes a series of courses for students to deepen knowledge and gain insight critical for future professional success. Especially relevant to conservation architects and architectural conservators, the new curriculum will connect conservation to urgent social questions of today such as environmental quality, climate change and social equity, and in turn make it part of the solutions to the problems that matter most to the new generation of students.

PA: With the elimination of the conservation sector, what will happen to the conservation laboratory? Who will manage its equipment and supplies as well as guide students in its use?

JO: We are not eliminating the study of conservation. We are changing how conservation is taught: within the framework of an integrated curriculum.

The lab is one of my top priorities and will continue to be a cornerstone of Columbia’s preservation program. It is important to acknowledge that after more than twenty years of use it is in desperate need of an overhaul. The laboratory will be brought up to 21st-century standards so that our expert faculty can make better use of it, and guide students in its use. It is thrilling to be embarking on this project with my colleagues, who are some of the world’s leading experts in architectural conservation.

We also need to rethink the lab conceptually as a place that connects students more to conserving buildings, not just individual materials in isolation. The new integrated curriculum focuses on buildings as the lens through which to understand the materiality of systems, the systemic performance of materials, their historical significance, and their social role.

The lab work extends to the field, and we start with the building as the first site of testing and probing. Further testing brings students into the lab with the purpose of informing what they will do in the field. This means that lab work begins and ends at the building site, conceptually extending the lab into the field. This is why we now train all students in scaffolding safety, we send them out into the field more, and from the field they return to the lab.

By rethinking the lab we are ensuring that it remains a vital part of the future of preservation. Look at what has been happening with built heritage in Charlottesville and other cities. Architectural conservators cannot act as if they are separate from this, as if they can look only through a microscope and ignore social unrest, cultural tensions, environmental degradation, the government’s divestment from heritage, digital automation, and other forces acting on preservation and that preservation must in turn act upon. Architectural conservation can be a powerful vector in preservation’s efforts to change the world. We are all in this together.

PA: We have heard that there is going to be a stronger emphasis on the thesis component of the program. Why do you think it is important to expand the project? What do you hope this will add to the student experience?

JO: Columbia’s historic preservation program is known as a place where new ideas about preservation are forged. This happens because we have renowned faculty producing original research, and because we place a premium on educating students in conducting original research. The thesis is the culmination of the curriculum, an opportunity for students to demonstrate their ability to make an original contribution to the discipline. Fitch instituted the thesis, and we continue to uphold this tradition.

All of our alumni have written a thesis and they know it can be incredibly hard. Students require a lot of faculty support and supervision to succeed. Many universities that copied Columbia’s curriculum in the 1970s, couldn’t devote the necessary resources and eventually diminished the importance of the thesis or dropped it all together.

We continue to believe in the importance of the thesis, and have strengthened it to run the full second year. A new thesis colloquium class better prepares students, and a very well-structured advising protocol ensures that everyone gets the support they need.

Our faculty is fully committed to helping students do their best work, and it is incredibly rewarding as a teacher to see them accomplish it.

 While focusing on the thesis may enhance the academic rigor of the program, Alumni are worried that reducing the focus on structured conservation science will leave students less prepared for finding employment. How does the new direction of the program provide students with practical experience to prepare them for employment?

 The new integrated curriculum will better prepare all students for employment, and this includes choosing careers in architectural conservation. The thesis focus on original research is a complement to the practical experience in the studio sequence. Students graduate from our program with tremendous knowledge: in one hand they hold a portfolio of work drawn from their studio projects and internships, as evidence of their practical experience and professional abilities. In the other hand they have their thesis, their masterwork in the form of an original contribution to the discipline. The thesis indicates the graduate’s depth, passion and interests to the employer, and the portfolio demonstrates the graduate’s breadth and abilities. Together, these two books are the passport into successful professional careers.

 What other initiatives can we look forward to from the program?

Building on the school’s global initiatives, we have secured funding for all students to travel internationally in their advanced studios, allowing them to do hands-on conservation work on major monuments around the world.

Digital technology will have an ever increasing role in the future of preservation. We are launching a research initiative to study the impact of digital technologies on the future of preservation. We are bringing the best minds to think critically about what questions we should be asking, and how to engage these emerging opportunities so that we as preservationists – and especially our graduates from Columbia – can drive this change with purpose.

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