Laura Belik graduated from MA Design Studies in 2016 and has since been accepted to the Architecture PhD program at University of California Berkeley. We got the chance to catch up with Laura this summer and asked her to reflect on her time at Parsons.
What have you been up to career and life-wise since graduating MA Design Studies?
After graduating in the MA program in Design Studies I have decided to stay in NYC. I already had a couple of jobs lined up and I figured I would stay in the city afterwards, as I was preparing to apply for PhDs for the following year and it would be easier to reach out to schools or to get support from colleagues and former professors from here.
During the summer of 2016 I was invited by Professor Clara Irazabal to collaborate as a research assistant at the Latin Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. They were working on a few projects related to Brazil. and I had the opportunity to join the group for a few months. It was a great learning experience in being both a researcher and a resource for undergraduate students who were involved in the program as well.
Around that time, I was also selected as a Latino Museum Studies Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. Every year they select a group of graduate students to spend the season in Washington D.C. to work on various projects, and I was granted the opportunity to join Curator Michelle J. Wilkinson at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) doing research on Black and Latino architects and designers for their collection and database.
Back in New York for the semester, I was working as part-time faculty at Parson while also collaborating with Terreform-Michael Sorkin Studio on an upcoming book release on Marshall Berman’s legacy (which I had been involved in for over a year) and preparing and organizing for the PhD applications. I also participated and presented work in a couple of conferences, citing my work from my Master’s thesis. It was very rewarding and interesting to see a different perspective on my research from academics outside of The New School.
The following semester I was done with the applications, and could take more work as a part-time lecturer. I’ve been teaching three classes at Parsons this last spring, mostly within the realms of design and architecture, and I feel that I’ve been learning so much! Although I’ve been a TA before, teaching my own classes has made a great difference. It is almost as if it was a natural continuation of the Master’s program.
What was your master’s thesis on?
My Master’s thesis was about urban democracy and the understanding of our cities through their social interactions within the built environment. I focused the research on a case study about the Minhocão, an elevated highway in São Paulo, my home-town, which was built in the 1970s and has been extremely controversial ever since. Today the highway faces debate over whether it should be torn down or transformed into an elevated linear park. I used the Minhocão discussion to trigger larger considerations regarding rights to the city, modern cities palimpsests, contemporary understanding of the built space, the multiplicity within the users, and so on.
During your time in the program, you also were awarded an impressive Latino Museum Studies fellowship at the Smithsonian Latino Center. How has this experienced shaped your view of the relationship between theory and practice?
I have worked with museums and exhibitions before, and I really believe that the museum space can be a great connection bringing theoretical discussions from the classroom space to a general public. The Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies was one of these great opportunities where I could see this happening. My fellowship was precisely that. I was being instructed by the curator Michelle J. Wilkinson on how to do research in order to create a collection and understanding of a certain theme that will eventually be shared with the viewers.
It was very interesting to have worked on that the summer right after graduation. The previous months I was extremely focused on my own theoretical research, and the best way for me to share all those hours and effort I put on my thesis would be maybe presenting it on conferences or publishing parts of the paper. I like this side and depth of the research, but academia can also be very isolating within its own world. In this sense, the mindset of the research for NMAAHC was already completely different from the one from my Masters, once the goal was different from the beginning. I also had a similar experience when co-curating the “Futurographies: U.S., Cambodia and France” exhibition here at The New School in 2015.
As an architect yourself, did your understanding of the dynamic between theory and practice change or evolve in any way after graduating with a master’s in Design Studies?
During my undergrad in Architecture in Brazil I had already started being fascinated by the sociological aspects of architecture that would go beyond the constructed form. I started getting frustrated about the way architects and urban planners can actually dictate the way people should live their lives and use certain spaces, and that lead me to start researching the consequences of modern planning. At that time, I was fascinated with Detroit’s bankruptcy and possibilities of “reconstruction,” which drove me away from the architecture “practice” into a more theoretical overview of our cities and ourselves. By the time I graduated from college, I also understood that I still had many questions regarding how we live in the urban environment and pursuing an MA was the right move for me at that point.
The MA Design Studies program was very different from my experience in architecture school. The courses are theoretical, which gave me a broader base to understand and build my arguments on. You get exposed to so much and realize how in-depth certain conversations can go. Nevertheless, my background was still very much built on a practice-based field, and I believe that was essential for me to even start thinking about the theory.
Even though I have been trained through different methodologies of study, what we here call “practice” and “theory,” I understand that architecture goes beyond this idea of the dichotomy between them. Once we are discussing the construction of a social environment, you necessarily need to reflect on the user and context around them. Graduate school gave me the space to understand “practice” from a different perspective, and to realize that “making” can be a much broader term that I was first exposed to.
Was there any connection between your research during your time at Parsons and your interest in pursuing a PhD in architecture?
Yes, Parsons was extremely important for me, as I learned and felt extremely motivated by the possibilities Academia can give. Being a design school, faculty and students are constantly involved with multidisciplinary projects and discussions that fascinated me. This also highly influenced my own research and was a great incentive for me to continue on this academic path.
What courses were most influential to you during your master’s?
There were a few classes that were really important for me during my master’s. Some of them were “Urban Theory Lab,” by Professors Miodrag Mitrasinovic and Miguel Robles-Duran; the intensive course “Mapping Based Design,” by visiting Professor Peter Hall; and “Curating in the Public Domain,” by Professor Radhika Subramaniam. I also had amazing advisors and mentors that I would meet on a regular basis to discuss my work, and that was extremely important to how my personal research outside of the classroom would evolve. One important thing for me was to take an Independent Study with Professor Joseph Heathcott, as well as consulting with my advisors Jilly Traganou and Miodrag Mitrasinovic while writing my thesis.
What kind of research do you hope to contribute to the field of architecture in this next phase of your life?
I hope to continue on building from discussions and the understanding of the built spaces through their uses and practices of social life, ultimately leading to more just spaces in our cities. I am particularly interested in observing and reflecting on urban public spaces, focusing on the role of the “streets” as a prime expression of gathering public spaces–whether planned as such or not, and how they can both represent a struggle for democracy and an expression of power.
Tags: Alumni, architecture, laura belik, phd