Contact: Jean Dykstra
Professor Louise Harpman stopped by her Gallatin office in July and found a small blue gift bag sitting on her desk. To her delight, she discovered a white, curvaceous object inside that resembled an oversized cocoon.
It was a digitally printed model of a sleeping pod designed by two students in Harpman’s “Architecture and Urban Design Lab” class who had created it as a gift for their professor.
Harpman often asks students in her classes—which include “Mapping as a Spatial, Political and Environmental Practice,” “Good Design: Scale” and “Good Design: Habitation”—to create solutions for architecture and design problems and present those ideas publicly, in a visual format.
In her mapping class, for example, students examine maps to learn what information is included and how those decisions reflect the mapmakers’ biases. Then they create their own maps. One student mapped out how real estate interests have manipulated neighborhood borders in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Another mapped the changing legal landscape in the United States with regard to women’s reproductive rights over the last 100 years.
Harpman, who grew up in Oklahoma City, pursued East Asian studies at Harvard and social anthropology at Cambridge. After re-evaluating her academic path, she entered Yale’s architecture program.
Within a year of graduating, she was invited back to Yale to teach. Since then, she has combined teaching (at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas at Austin and Gallatin) with private practice at Specht Harpman, a firm she co-founded in 1995. “I love working with students,” she said. “I love the cross-pollination that comes from having one foot in the academy and the other foot in practice.”
Harpman joined the Gallatin faculty two years ago. Along with Professor Peder Anker, an historian of science, and Mitchell Joachim, an architect, she started Global Design NYU.
“Our mission is to bring together urbanists, architects, scientists and historians to reformat the discussion about the environment,” Harpman said. “If we accept that global warming is a crisis that requires our attention, then how do we keep those concerns at the forefront of our work and bring global changemakers together?”
The group organized an inventive one-month exhibition at Gallatin last year that included two days of panels and symposia. Titled “Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned,” it was the first of five similar exhibitions/symposia to be held at NYU global sites in the coming years. This year’s exhibition and related events were held in London this fall.
Harpman is also the force behind the annual Big Walk, which took place for the second time on April 21 in honor of Earth Day. More than 70 students, faculty and staff walked the entirety of Fifth Avenue, stopping along the way to discuss various aspects of the city’s built environment. The first year the walk, which has quickly become an anticipated Gallatin event, followed Broadway, tip to toe. “The city is always here,” Harpman said. “But it’s wonderful to see it in a new way, to show the treasures hiding in plain sight.”