Architect Stephen Slaughter was recently named as the chair of undergraduate architecture at the Pratt Institute. In this exclusive interview, he explains how he aims to bring his ethos of activism and inclusion to the school.
"Our student body is the most important thing and the change they can make in the profession," he told Dezeen. "The change they can make in the world is what I consider paramount."
As chair of the programme, Slaughter will lead the department of 180 faculty and 700 students as one of the most high-profile Black academics in US architectural education.
At the Pratt Institute School of Architecture, he aims to continue his work pushing for diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI], which has been a core element of his time in academia, he said.
"DEI has been an integral part of who I am," he explained.
"My role as an educator and my role as a private citizen, and my role as designer, has always been to leverage my talents and my position to somehow bring benefit and value through design to the community I'm a part of and represent," he continued.
"These are the things that I'd like to be able to impart on Pratt."
Change students can make is "paramount"
Slaughter, who will take up the role in July, currently teaches at the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati, and formerly at the Pratt Institute, where he was a visiting professor on the Graduate Architecture and Urban Design (GAUD) program.
While Slaughter will be focused on helping to enact change within the school, he believes the greatest impact he can have is through the change his students can make.
"I am a servant of the institute, and I'm the servant of the students and the faculty," he said.
"It takes one's own activism to make change"
His community-focused work has seen him collaborate with not-for-profits including Watts House Project and Elementz Hip Hop Cultural Art Center and he hopes that graduates from the Pratt Institute will contribute to improving communities.
"Academia is part of a larger social, civic, societal, cultural system and I think the larger system has issues that hopefully, we as educators can address through the education of the next citizens," said Slaughter.
"It's a bigger problem than could be solved specifically through academia alone. It takes one's own activism to make change within culture and society," he continued.
"I hope that we'll be graduating smart, intelligent, caring, compassionate activist students."
"I'd like to have a Pratt grad building shiny new opera houses"
However, this does not mean that Slaughter expects all his students to end up designing solely community-focused projects. He hopes that graduates from the Pratt Institute will be able to bring his ethos of inclusivity to all projects they work on.
"I also like the idea that students will be interested in building the next shiny new opera house, it's just that that opera house will be different," he explained.
"I'd like to have a Pratt grad building shiny new opera houses and leveraging the experiences and the perspective to make that opera house inclusive and sustainable."
Slaughter was previously diversity, equity, and inclusion coordinator for GAUD where he contributed to the Pratt's DEI strategic master plan. As head of the school's undergrad programme, Slaughter will have a key role in enacting many elements within the plan.
"One of the planks of the DEI strategic master plan is hiring and recruitment, as well as creating a welcoming environment," he said.
"These are the things I understand and want to set forward, as part of the mission for the school. And these are the things that I'll be following up on and expanding in my role as undergraduate chair."
"I was taught by a diverse array of professors"
Slaughter has a wide and geographically diverse career. A first-generation university graduate, he completed his undergraduate and masters at Ohio State University, where both his parents worked "as a way of affording me an education".
His experience at Ohio set the course for how he developed his career to focus on community and inclusion.
"I was taught by a diverse array of professors that influenced my opinion and my position in architecture today," he said.
"Mabel Wilson, who's an amazing educator and writer was one of my professors, as were Jeff Kipnis, Peter Eisenman and Nathaniel Belcher," he added. "I had a wide variety of educators and academic perspectives."
From Ohio, Slaughter moved to California to work for Thom Mayne at Morphosis and lived in Los Angeles for several years, before returning to Columbus, Ohio, to help look after his sick father.
During this time he taught at the University of Cincinnati, which he said: "turned into a tenure track position and launched me as a dedicated educator".
"I feel like there's a commitment from the school"
Based in New York, the Pratt Institute is one of the best-known architecture schools in the US. It is led by British architect Harriet Harriss, who was made dean in 2019.
Slaughter took the role at the school as he believes that there is an appetite to tackle many of the issues surrounding the lack of diversity in both academia and the wider architectural profession.
"It's going to take commitment and I feel like there's a commitment from the school, from administration to the students," he said.
"Unfortunately, in both professional and academic career, I've been a part of more than a few initiatives that spin wheels and actually aren't interested in making a substantial difference," he continued.
"At Pratt, my colleagues in this effort were committed and that was the first time I've seen anything like that. It was more than invigorating to know that administration, staff, students, and faculty were committed."
In the US, as in many western countries, architecture is largely a white profession with Black architects making up only two per cent of the profession, compared to 14 per cent of the population.
American architect Tiara Hughes recently launched a website called First 500 to showcase the work of Black women architects working in the country.