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New faculty, promotions, and leadership roles in the School of Architecture and Planning

Four join the SA+P faculty, while seven are recognized for work in art, architecture, and urbanism.
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First row: (l-r) Azra Akšamija, Phillip Clay, Dennis Frenchman, Skylar Tibbits. Second row: (l-r) James Wescoat, Sheila Kennedy, Alan Berger, Kristel Smentek. Third row: (l-r) Brandon Clifford, Brent Ryan, Kevin Esvelt.
First row: (l-r) Azra Akšamija, Phillip Clay, Dennis Frenchman, Skylar Tibbits. Second row: (l-r) James Wescoat, Sheila Kennedy, Alan Berger, Kristel Smentek. Third row: (l-r) Brandon Clifford, Brent Ryan, Kevin Esvelt.

The School of Architecture and Planning has announced that seven faculty members have been recognized by being promoted, granted tenure, or given significant new roles.

In addition, four new professors have joined the school in the Department of Architecture and the Program in Media Arts and Sciences. Their research ranges from architectural design to self-assembling materials to genetic engineering.

“This group adds considerable strength to our faculty,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “As individual practitioners and researchers, each brings a high level of creativity, imagination, and rigor to our capabilities. As a group, they offer new dimensions to our teaching and research explorations.”

Recently promoted faculty

Azra Akšamija, an artist and architectural historian, has been promoted to associate professor without tenure in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology of the Department of Architecture, where she has taught since 2012. Her artistic work provides a framework for researching, analyzing, and intervening in contested sociopolitical realities. Her academic research focuses on the politics of cultural memory and the 1990s Yugoslav wars. Her book, “Mosque Manifesto,” (Revolver, 2015) explores transcultural aesthetics and cultural mobility in the context of Islam in the West. Akšamija holds master’s degrees from the Technical University Graz and Princeton University, and a PhD from MIT. Her work has been shown in the Generali Foundation Vienna, Liverpool Biennial, Sculpture Center New York, Secession Vienna, Manifesta 7, the Royal Academy of Arts London, Queens Museum, and the 54th Venice Biennale. She received the Aga Khan Award in 2013 for her prayer space design in the Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria.

Brent D. Ryan has been promoted to associate professor of urban design and public policy with tenure in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he was assistant professor from 2009 and associate professor without tenure from 2013. As head of the City Design and Development Group, he examines the aesthetics and practice of contemporary urban design, particularly in postindustrial cities and neighborhoods. Ryan is author of “Plural Urbanism” (MIT Press, forthcoming) and “Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), as well as a number of journal articles and contributions to edited volumes. Ryan taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was also co-director of the City Design Center. Ryan holds a BS in biology from Yale University, an MArch from Columbia University, and a PhD in urban design and planning from MIT.

Kristel Smentek, a historian of 18th-century European art and design with specializations in the history of collecting, the art market, and the European encounter with Asia, has been named associate professor with tenure in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art Program in the Department of Architecture. An assistant and associate professor at MIT since 2008, Smentek holds a BA from McGill University and an MA and PhD from the University of Delaware, all in art history. She has published extensively, including “Mariette and the Science of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Europe” (Ashgate, 2014). She has received numerous fellowships and awards, and has curated several exhibitions. Smentek’s teaching includes courses on European art from the Renaissance to the present, 18th- and 19th-century European painting, ornament from the Rococo to the 1920s, the history and theory of the art museum, and the history of design.

Faculty receiving new roles or titles

Alan Berger, co-director of the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, has been named the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Professor of Advanced Urbanism. The founding director of P-REX lab, a research unit focused on environmental problems caused by urbanization, Berger studies the link between our consumption of natural resources and the waste and destruction of landscapes worldwide. He uses the term “systemic design” to describe the reintegration of waste and disvalued landscapes into our urbanized territories and regional ecologies. His books include “Infinite Suburbia” (forthcoming, 2017) and the award-winning “Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America” (2006) and “Reclaiming the American West” (2002), all from Princeton Architectural Press. Prior to coming to MIT in 2008, he was associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He holds a BS in agriculture/horticulture from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and an MLA in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

Phillip L. Clay, retired professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), has been named advisor to the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, where he was a faculty member since 1976. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Clay holds a doctorate from MIT. He served as MIT Chancellor from 2001 to 2011 and held other leadership positions at the Institute; he was also department head of DUSP, where he taught courses in housing policy and poverty. Clay is widely known for his work in U.S. housing policy and urban development. His current interests include organizational capacity in community-based nonprofits as well as the role of anchor institutions. Based on his work on MIT international strategies, he is also interested in the increasing role higher education can play in national development planning in less developed and emerging nations. His work now focuses on higher education in Africa.   

Dennis Frenchman has been named the Class of 1922 Professor of Urban Design and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is the inaugural SA+P faculty director of the DesignX entrepreneurship accelerator. He is also on the faculty of the Center for Real Estate, where he founded (with David Geltner and Andrea Chegut) the new Real Estate Innovation Lab.  Frenchman is a registered architect and founder of ICON architecture in Boston, an international architecture and urban design firm. His practice and research focuses on the transformation of cities; he is an expert on the application of digital technology to city design and led MIT research efforts to develop new models for clean energy urbanization in China. Frenchman holds a BA in architecture from the University of Cincinnati and an MArch and MCP from MIT, where he has taught since 1983.

James Wescoat has been appointed co-director of the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Since arriving at MIT in 2008, he has served as the Aga Khan Professor in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, within the Department of Architecture. His research has concentrated on water systems in South Asia and the United States, including water research with the Tata Center for Technology and Design. His publications include “Water for Life: Water Management and Environmental Policy” (with Gilbert F. White, Cambridge University Press, 2003). Wescoat has also conducted research on historical waterworks of Mughal gardens and cities in India and Pakistan. He previously headed the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has taught at the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago. He earned a BA in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University and an MA and PhD in geography from the University of Chicago.

New faculty members

Brandon Clifford has been appointed assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, where as Belluschi Lecturer since 2012 he has taught and conducted research, including the recent McKnelly Megalith and Buoy Stone projects. He received a BS in architecture from Georgia Tech and an MArch from Princeton University. From 2006 to 2009, he worked as project manager at Office dA in Boston and New York. Clifford was the 2011-2012 LeFevre Emerging Practitioner Fellow at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture. In 2008 he founded the award-winning practice Matter Design with Wes McGee. His work has garnered inclusion in the Design Biennial Boston and won the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers as well as the prestigious SOM Prize, which launched his ongoing research into volumetric architecture. Clifford’s work is focused on reimagining the role of the architect in the digital era.

Kevin Esvelt has been named assistant professor of media arts and sciences. He leads the MIT Media Lab’s Sculpting Evolution research group, which invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems for the benefit of humanity and the natural world. Before joining the Media Lab in January, Esvelt wove many areas of science into novel approaches to ecological engineering. He invented phage-assisted continuous evolution (PACE), a synthetic microbial ecosystem for rapidly evolving biomolecules, in the laboratory of David R. Liu at Harvard University. At the Wyss Institute, he worked with George Church to develop the CRISPR system, including its use for gene drive and safeguards. He received BA degrees in biology and chemistry from Harvey Mudd College and a PhD in biochemistry from Harvard. He is a winner of the Harold M. Weintraub Award, the Hertz Foundation Thesis Prize, and the NIH K99, and was among the MIT Technology Review 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2016.

Sheila Kennedy has been appointed professor in the Department of Architecture. Kennedy received a BA in history, philosophy, and literature from Wesleyan University and studied architecture at the Ecole National Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. She received her masters of architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, where she graduated with distinction — the school’s highest academic honor — and received the SOM National Traveling Fellowship. With her partner Juan Frano Violich, Kennedy is a founding principal of KVA Matx, an interdisciplinary professional practice that is widely recognized for innovation in architecture, research on the evolving culture of materials, and the design of resilient, “soft” infrastructure and public space. Kennedy’s work in practice has received Progressive Architecture Awards and American Institute of Architects National Design Excellence Awards for built work in the United States and abroad. Kennedy received a 2014 Holcim Foundation Design Award, the 2014 Design Innovator Award, and the 2014 Berkeley-Rupp Award Prize of $100,000. She is a recipient of the inaugural 2016 American Architecture Prize for her design work with digital brick in the Tozzer Anthropology Building. Kennedy’s design work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, MoMA, the National Design Museum, the Rotterdam Biennale, the Vitra Design Museum, and the TED conference in California. Her work has been widely published and is featured on National Public Radio, BBC World News, CBS News, The Discovery Channel, CNN Principal Voices, Wired, The Economist, and The New York Times.

Skylar Tibbits has been named assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, where he has been a lecturer and research scientist since 2010, teaching graduate and undergraduate design studios and co-teaching MAS.863/4.140 (How to Make (Almost) Anything), a seminar at MIT’s Media Lab. He directs the MIT Self-Assembly Lab, which focuses on programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing, products, and construction processes. Tibbits has a professional degree in architecture with a minor in experimental computation from Philadelphia University. At MIT, he received an SMArchS in design and computation and an MS in computer science. Tibbits has worked at design offices including Zaha Hadid Architects, Asymptote Architecture, and Point b Design. He has designed and built large-scale installations at galleries around the world, and his work has been published extensively. In 2007, Tibbits founded a multidisciplinary design practice, SJET. He was awarded a 2013 Architectural League Prize, among other honors.

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