Building People: Tulane School of Architecture

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Tiffany Lin is Associate Professor at the Tulane School of Architecture and a licensed architect.

After receiving a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University and a Masters in Architecture from Harvard University, then working for several years in the private sector, Lin accepted a position at Tulane, where she was recently awarded tenure for some truly stunning work and inspired teaching. Lin’s approach to design emphasizes a tactile awareness of the physical world as well as an appreciation for architecture’s clear connection to our own bodies and the human condition.

Pressures from All Sides

With Lin’s impressive academic pedigree, she had no trouble landing a position upon graduation. Starting in 2004, just out of Harvard, she spent three years working on a project in Beirut, which was canceled after a bomb struck just a few blocks from the project site. Then, she switched firms and spent another three years on a project for the Psychology department at Brown University. By the time the project was ready to launch, the financial crisis that started in 2008 was in full bloom, and plans were scrapped. Though Lin notes that about fifty percent of architecture projects never get built, she was still frustrated and disillusioned.

She was ready to see something through to completion. Lin is disarmingly and charmingly direct about the many pressures she faced, both societal and personal when she pursued her love of art and-later-architecture. When Lin begged her parents to permit her to study painting in college, her father responded, “Smart girls don’t make art. Smart girls make money. Buy art.” When she was leaving for Cornell, she recalls, her parents were focused on the fact that they were “putting her in a pool of better suitors,” potential Chinese husbands with promising futures.

Additionally, though Lin has a young daughter whom her parents adore, when she recently announced she was pregnant with a son, based on their reactions, she couldn’t help but flash to the “You’ll Bring Honor to Us All” musical montage straight out of Mulan. She shares that she had somehow managed to forget this patriarchal mindset, until that moment brought it back, along with other lessons that were often-repeated, such as “Boys will take care of you.” It’s an “innate bias,” she notes, “but this is in their blood.”

Feminist Mentors and Masking

As she was studying, well-meaning female mentors would offer strict lessons to follow, advice intended to guarantee her success in a male-dominated field. One established and brilliant woman, of the first-wave feminism school of thought, enforced the message that “women can do whatever they want,” but this was limited to career achievements, and they all seemed to come at a price. This same mentor discouraged Lin from “being light-hearted or not serious enough,” and she suggested Lin should always wear pants and a scarf to client meetings (which represented, to the mentor, the female equivalent of a tie).

While Lin had plenty of mentors telling her to work harder and longer than any of her male counterparts, she was lacking another sort of advice: Lin never had a mentor tell her to sleep enough or eat well. It was all about the work and presenting a presence which was often at odds with Lin’s actual personality.

Tactile Awareness

One of the tenets of Lin’s approach to architecture is that students need a “tactile awareness of the physical world-shapes, colors, shadows, scale, and gravity.” She is currently working with Professor Aaron Collier and several of his colleagues at the Newcomb Art Department to engage abstract painting as a way of helping beginning architecture students work past the fixation on shape-making, something she notes is “one of the most difficult preoccupations to unlearn,” likely an obsession that carries over from playing with Lego blocks as children or attempting to emulate historic architecture. She notes, “The misconception abounds that buildings are primarily to be conceived of from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. Grasping the concept of negative space is paramount to the fundamental education of an architect.”

Lin argues that architecture is not intended to only serve academic design agendas, but to “serve people through a tangible spatial understanding.” She recognizes that early in her work she was-like other top architecture students in the nation-isolated in studio and focused on theoretical design projects to the exclusion of everything else. Being part of a top-ranked design school forces you to “remove yourself from the world,” she explains, “and learn this new language of architecture.” You are often working alone late into the night on projects, unhappy until perfection is reached. Upon graduation, she explains, you are suddenly “reintroduced to the human condition.”

In New Orleans, she was no longer experiencing these buildings as abstract, academic exercises, but places where people would live, meet, and connect. Instead of the “insular culture of accolades and achievement” in the program-which becomes “almost a cult in that way”-in New Orleans, “it’s all about the people,” and it’s focused on “comfort, shelter, and community.” In essence, she explains, the design agenda has to be in service of the people.

Body as a Vessel

In her work and teaching, Lin also focuses on the importance of the body “as a vessel to create-and recreate.” Because she recognizes that she tended to neglect her body throughout her graduate work, focusing instead on staying driven-even when that meant giving up sleep, giving up meals, and giving up downtime-her consistent message to students is to continue to work hard, but not to the detriment of their bodies. She believes the constant pressure she endured for years of round-the-clock working and persistent emotional stresses practically “broke her body,” and she’s had complications from both of her pregnancies, a result of years of pushing her body past its limitations to fully service academic goals and professional aspirations.

From his experience as her student, Nathan Leonard from Tulane Class of 2019 notes that even while Lin was focusing on their work products and effort, she would consistently ask how much sleep they were getting, if they were eating enough, and inquire about their overall mental health; he believes she fully recognized they were sometimes struggling with the first-year transition in a highly challenging and rigorous program. Leonard adds, “Tiffany’s care for the physical and mental health of students was coupled with a pedagogical approach in which she would constantly switch from hands-off to hands-on.”

The Human Condition

In addition to her teaching, Lin is also focused on recognizing students’ need for human connection outside of the classroom, citing a recent study conducted on the Tulane campus that revealed a surprising truth: Freshman students craved more adult interaction. To meet their students’ emotional needs, Tulane began a program to promote more faculty-student interaction to take place where students lived, a Residential Faculty Mentor program, which Lin lovingly nicknamed “Dorm Moms.” She revels in the opportunity and is delighted when people do not even realize she’s a professor. One student mentioned he thought they were just “ladies from the community bringing food.” She loved overhearing one student say, “No, that’s my professor, shucking your oysters.”

Of course, Lin brings that same positive energy and generous spirit into the classroom. Savannah Simenhoff, from the Tulane class of 2015, notes that Lin works to instill the “same passion and love for architecture and education that she embodies every day.” Simenhoff adds that while architecture is an incredibly demanding major, Lin somehow helps students “find a certain joy and happiness that makes all of your challenges and efforts worth it.”

Similarly, Jack Colley from the Tulane Class of 2020 notes that Lin’s energy, attitude, and passion for both design and architecture are infectious. Colley shares, “Tiffany’s personality elevates a difficult and time-consuming major Spotlight continued to a place of creativity, community, and dreaming. Her curriculum embraces the environment and ethos of New Orleans architecture, making the Tulane School of Architecture unique.”

While emphasizing the positive and affirming personality Lin exudes, Colley confirms that Lin “commands a certain rigor.” However, those demands are combined with a passion that encourages her students to “want to work harder than they ever have in school, while still enjoying themselves in the process.” She also has succeeded, he notes, in facilitating a highly effective “Studio Culture,” where groups of students work together to problem-solve, rather than focusing on individual, isolated students focused on a solitary agenda.

Val Warke, Associate Professor of Architecture at Cornell University, shares that one of the most notable aspects of Lin’s teaching persona and personal ethos is “a ubiquitous intelligence and wit.” He goes on to explain that it could be her wit-both intellectually and in terms of her personal humor-that is a crucial component of Lin’s impressive critical abilities. Warke adds, “In my experience, young critics tend to compensate for their youth by being pedantic and almost exaggeratedly self-serious.

Prof. Lin’s considerable success as a critic seems to exist in the fact that she seems to be learning along with her students, that she knows how to use humor as an continued essential tool in defamiliarizing problems and instigating thought, and that her passion for architecture does not reveal itself as an overbearing seriousness but rather as an enthusiastic adventurousness. Her engagement with students has always been prescient and supportive and inspirational, never dogmatic or condescending or stifling.”

Inescapable Reminder of Embodiment

Lin recently read that success in her field requires “fierce devotion,” and she can now say she survived the “rat race” where everyone was competing with one another for a paucity of projects, publications, and design awards, even as she endured a complicated pregnancy. Several years ago, while eight months pregnant with her daughter, she had an opportunity to meet with an idol of hers-Brigitte Shim. At the event, Lin tried to ignore her pregnancy, hoping others would do the same. “I wanted everyone to think I was at full steam,” she explains. At one point, Shim leaned in to tell her, “Honey, just do your good work now because your brain will never be the same.” She acknowledges the wisdom and humility in that advice because, at times, she can admit, “I feel like I have half a brain.”

Perhaps as proof that even half a brain for certain professors puts them at an advantage to many others, she potlight continued has completed incredible projects in her career. For instance, she’s had the opportunity to teach and work in Rome twelve times, including working on a project with the Vatican. She was scheduled to lead the Tulane School of Architecture Study Abroad program in Rome again this fall after receiving tenure, but she learned in April that she was pregnant for a second time; because she had difficulties with her first pregnancy, and her doctor added that she was of “serious advanced maternal age,” a phrase that wasn’t particularly to her liking, she was unequivocally instructed to avoid stress and stay off planes.

Thus, again, her career was on hold because her body was occupied with other matters. Ultimately, she ended up with a flurry of reactions to sort through: “This is unfair. Why do I have to do this now? Why do I have to take this break from work to endure a place where I can’t control my body or emotions?” However, as she prepares to meet her son in a few months, she has felt something shift for her.

Becoming a parent forced her to rethink her priorities and encouraged her to be exactly what she is, not a carefully crafted feminist icon in tailored slacks, not a serious-faced provider of information, and not someone who will sit up all night until a project is nuanced. She can be the free-spirited, funny, self-deprecating woman in a dress, the one who is raising a child and making a child, while still excelling as a professor and somehow finding the time to inspire, to dream, and to design.

A Devotion Divided

She shares, “The devotion changes because now you’re divided.” Now, she forces herself to “hit send at midnight” rather than working until dawn. Because there are others dependent on her health, she has learned when to release herself from work mode and focus on something else. On that same note, if her daughter decides to study architecture one day, Lin will tell her of the demanding-yet rewarding-level of work, dedication, and excellence that will be required, but she will also offer her daughter advice that she wasn’t given, that she should care for her physical health first, and have life experiences outside of the studio too.

As Lin finds herself pushing her students to develop an appreciation for tactile experiences, for seeing and touching things, she starts feeling a need to build again, but this time-as all the conflicting pressures come to a boil-she feels “more confident to own it.”

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About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Currently, she teaches Business Communications at Samford University.