Today, Harvard Graduate School of Design named Sarah Whiting its new dean. Her tenure will begin July 1, after Mohsen Mostafavi, who has served as the dean of Harvard’s GSD for 11 years, steps down from the position. Notably, this appointment signifies that four of the country’s most prestigious and influential architecture schools will be led by women. Last year, J. Meejin Yoon, who previously served as the first female head of the Department of Architecture at MIT, was named dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University. In 2016, Deborah Berke was named dean of the Yale School of Architecture. And in 2015, Mónica Ponce de León was named dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture.
Since 2010, Whiting has served as dean of the Rice University School of Architecture. Prior to joining Rice, Whiting was an assistant professor of architecture at Princeton University from 2005 to 2009. Fittingly, Whiting worked at Harvard GSD’s Department of Architecture as an assistant and then an associate professor of architecture from 1999 to 2005. While Whiting is an accomplished academic (her own education began at Yale, and continued on to Princeton and MIT, where she earned her masters in architecture and Ph.D. in architectural history, theory, and criticism, respectively), she is deeply experienced outside of the classroom.
Whiting’s reputation has been forged thanks to her ability to effectively marry the theoretical underpinnings of architectural design with its reality. At the beginning of her career, she worked with Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves. In 1999, she launched WW Architecture, of which she is still a partner alongside cofounder Ron Witte. Whiting, who is widely published, is also the founding editor of Point, a series of books that focuses on topics related to architecture and urbanism. That emphasis on urbanism is another touchstone in her own work, as is the built environment. The contemporary interplay of architecture and society is a continued area of interest for Whiting. Whiting’s focus on public life, and architecture’s frequent intersections with economics, politics, and society at large, was also reflected in the additional work she took at Rice. While participating in work related to the university’s grounds and relationship with the city of Houston, Whiting also chaired search committees for the dean of graduate studies, the dean of humanities, and the director of Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts.
The list of Whiting’s accomplishments goes on (she has recently been named educator of the year by a series of publications). However, an understanding of her talents can perhaps best be understood by the glowing words shared by her future colleagues. As Harvard University president Larry Bacow, who announced the news, said in a statement, “She has a keen understanding of the intellectual dimensions of design and its distinctive power to shape the world of ideas. And she has an equally keen understanding of design as a force for shaping the communities we inhabit and for engaging with some of contemporary society’s hardest challenges.”
“Sarah Whiting has earned an extraordinary reputation as dean of the School of Architecture at Rice, where she has pursued educational innovations while building connections across the university,” Harvard provost Alan Garber added. “At a time when the role of design is increasingly important, and when design education and practice face an array of challenges, her creativity, wisdom, and leadership experience will help the GSD navigate the changing demands of the design professions and the evolving interests of our faculty and students.”
"In 1935, philosopher Walter Benjamin famously noted that architecture, unlike other arts, is experienced in a 'state of distraction,'" Whiting tells AD PRO. "Even when we’re inattentive, however, design affects us at all scales, ranging from infrastructure to furniture, and that makes it an extraordinary field. The GSD is an amazing nexus of innovation—I look forward to joining this community of forward-looking designers."