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Lisa Landrum portrait

While universities often stake their reputations on historical pedigree and tradition, Toronto Metropolitan University is a testament to evolution. Established as Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1948, the school expanded to a Polytechnical Institute 18 years later, before becoming Ryerson Polytechnical University in 1993, and then dropping the “Polytechnical” shortly after the turn of the millennium. But while the evolving name signalled the institution’s growth throughout the 20th century, the next change reflected a paradigm shift. In 2022, the Ryerson name — which celebrated an author of Canada’s genocidal Indian residential school system — was finally retired and Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) was born.

Throughout the 76-year history, architecture has been a vital part of the school’s identity. And like the university writ large, the curriculum’s ongoing evolution reflects both institutional and socio-economic change. After expanding to a four-year program in 1973, a master’s program was added in 2007, along with a building science graduate degree the following year. And just last year, TMU launched a PhD program. In 2023, Lisa Landrum was also appointed as the Department of Architectural Science chair, taking the role at a moment when architectural education, and the profession itself, faces a prolonged reckoning. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a renewed focus on studio culture, colonial design legacies and Euro-centric curricula, civic outreach, diversity, inclusion, and the career opportunities (or lack thereof) that await new graduates has animated the professional discourse. It’s a formidable suite of issues — which Landrum is keen to engage.

Landrum led the development of the "Unstacking the Deck" playing cards while at the University of Manitoba.
Landrum led the development of the “Unstacking the Deck” playing cards while at the University of Manitoba.

Formerly an Associate Dean at the University of Manitoba, Landrum’s career in architectural practice and academia has been shaped by engagement and activism. As the project lead for the groundbreaking Canadian Architectural Forum on Education, Landrum has stood at the forefront of a transformation campaign to champion greater equity, explore new pedagogical models and develop a national architecture policy — a movement that helped shape today’s Rise for Architecture program. And as a public advocate, she recently unveiled a playful (and playable) set of cards dubbed Unstacking the Deck, celebrating the historically overlooked women architects of 20th century Manitoba. Azure caught up with Landrum — now a newly minted full Professor — at TMU to discuss pedagogy, public presence, and the future of design education.

Our understanding of design is always evolving, which makes teaching both exciting and fraught. But before we get to that, can you tell me about your own journey? Why did you decide to study architecture — and how’d you like school?

Lisa Landrum

I didn’t come from a family of architects. But I vividly remember spending part of my childhood trying to make my mother feel happier about our house by constantly redesigning it. I did that with my older brother, who went into architectural technology. Then, in high school, I had an amazing drafting class. I took architectural drafting and mechanical drafting in grades 11 and 12, and I loved it. I also had an amazing art class — I remember the darkened room, the slides of paintings on the projector, remembering all the names and the titles of the paintings. And our high school in Orillia was a really beautiful old building, so being in that space while looking at those paintings, I was totally immersed.

At the same time, I was fascinated by big cities. My father worked in Toronto, and my brother and I would come with him when we could. We’d spend the day wandering the Eaton Centre and tunnels in the underground city. I remember watching all the Indiana Jones movies in these old theatres downtown.  And even though many of those theatres are gone now, being back in Toronto feels like a sort of homecoming. But anyway, studying architecture seemed natural to me.

When I got into architecture school at Carleton University, I loved the workshop and the process of making, and I fell in love with the studio environment; the creative mix of people and ideas. I’ll never forget the first project I ever worked on. First year, first term, we were reading Plato’s Timaeus  [a dialogue that examines geometry and the physical nature of the world] and constructing geometric forms in the wood shop, all without any glue or fasteners. And then we took them to this extraordinary landscape just outside Ottawa, where we threw them all into a bog and watched them sink and transform as they slowly absorbed into the landscape.

What an image. Human geometries subsumed into the earth. It strikes me as such a tangible and interactive way to get introduced to architecture — I can almost smell the bog when I picture it.

As a student, I was really lucky. At Carleton, I had Michael Sorkin as a teacher in my fourth year. He was there as a visiting instructor, which was actually the only Canadian teaching job he ever took. We were working on one of his crazy city projects, based on the exquisite corpse drawing game. You draw a little bit, fold the paper to hide your drawing, and pass it onto the next student. And then you open it up at the end — and it’s a metaphor for a crazy eclectic city. Then, we were all assigned roles in our new city. I was something like the “Minister of Documentation and Dissemination” — a kind of  communications job that I think retrospectively set me on the track for academia.

And Michael was all about walking and drawing and feeling and experiencing. We took a field trip to New York City, and went to his favourite bar where they have crayons at every table and we drew all over the paper tablecloths.  He became a dear friend, and I miss him all the time. After I graduated, Michael helped get me my first job working with Gaetano Pesce in New York. This was 1995, when Gaetano was working on a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre, which I was building scale models for. So I was always working with my hands. And later on I worked for a heritage restoration firm, where I’d be hoisted up on scaffolds all over the city, in the underbellies of roofs and face to face with terracotta angels.

That’s also when I connected with my husband, Ted, who is also a creative collaborator and partner. We’re both deeply interested in theatre and performance, and we’ve made all sorts of things together, including some crazy stage costumes. In a way, it was through theatre that I decided to go back to school after seven years in New York. I went to McGill to study with Alberto Pérez-Gómez. I was fascinated by the intersections of theatre and architecture, and the way that architectural imagination is expressed and embodied. All through school, I took acting classes and moving classes, and I was reading all these plays and ancient Greek texts. And you realize a play is not just language on a page, but speech and movement on a stage. And not just on the stage between the actors, but beyond the proscenium where the spectators are assembled. It’s all expressed and embodied through space. So while we think of architecture as buildings and static objects, it’s also part of something living.

This year, the TMU Department of Architectural Science participated in Doors Open Toronto for the first time.

I think easy for architecture, both in practice and pedagogy, to lose that sense of intimacy, and the connections to the landscape, the workshop, and the (civic and theatrical) stage. As an educator, how do you foster that spirit?

This is something that TMU is pretty good at. There’s undergraduate co-operative education, as well as study abroad studios and exchange programs, but we also have an amazing building science lab, which gives students a hands-on opportunity to work with a wide range of material testing tools and conduct original, tactile — and practical — research.

And Vincent Hui, who is the Associate Chair of Experiential Learning, has been running children’s summer camps with students for the last several years. There’s a maker camp, and a digital creativity camp. And while Vincent and the faculty co-ordinate the program, it’s really run by our students. They’re the leaders. And they’re working with 13-year-old kids, which is a way to empower them — and put what we make out into the city and into the landscape. There’s also self-initiated student projects, like the one we have displayed in the atrium now — the SAM light, which is used to address seasonal affective disorder. It started as a small project by our student Sam Hardwicke-Brown, but with support and encouragement it ended up as part of a light festival. And of course, there’s also student design competitions and biennales, which our students have a really strong culture of participating in – and winning all sorts of prizes.

Our students have also been involved with Winter Stations from the very beginning. Every year, there’s a collaborative installation — and there’s a wonderful immediacy to seeing student design out in the world. This year, Jake Levy [an undergraduate student] was the lead designer and project manager for our student pavilion, but there was a big team working on it, sewing the fabric and building the structure. And much of these collaborations sort of happen organically. I learned afterwards that there were about 20 first-year students who went out early morning to help set it up — I only found out because they all skipped my class to do it. But I wasn’t upset. It helped me understand and plan better for next year, and absorb the culture of the school, which is important to the delivery of the curriculum.

The "Nova" installation was designed, fabricated and assembled by TMU students as part of Toronto's Winter Stations.
The “Nova” installation was designed, fabricated and assembled by TMU students as part of Toronto’s Winter Stations.

Tell me about the culture of the architecture program. As an occasional guest critic, I always come away inspired by the student work. And even the campus is woven into the fabric of the city in a way that’s unusual for a university. As a visitor, it all makes it very easy to feel a part of it. But when I was in high school, I remember Ryerson (as it was then known) was disparaged as “Rye High.” It was a dig at a vocational school tradition, though in retrospect maybe one that inadvertently spoke to its inclusivity.

I think that this is a deeply non-elitist environment. The whole institution was founded on helping people gain the skills, confidence, and agency that they need to succeed. We know that universities — and architecture schools in particular — tend to be elitist environments. And there are lots of people that never imagine themselves in a university or in an academic career, or a design career. So I appreciate the fact that this university is sending a different message, providing practical skills and opening doors.

I was the first one in my extended family to ever go to university. I know how important it is to open doors and be accessible. Michael Sorkin has a wonderful quote along these lines — the city is there to be a space for every dreamer and to empower every dreamer. School should be like that too.

Before coming here, I had 15 really wonderful years at the University of Manitoba. And there’s parts of it that I miss. In particular, I think that the leadership of Indigenous communities – and the advocacy of Indigenous students — plays a more central role in Winnipeg than in Toronto. (And there’s deeply rooted cultural and historical reasons for that, including the fact that it’s on Treaty 1 territory.) For example, I was very privileged to be able to learn from and work with Reanna Merasty and Naomi Ratte, who founded the Indigenous Design and Planning Student Association. That kind of energy is gradually coming here, and I think we’re making headway. At the same time, we always need to be critical of ourselves to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make communities feel welcome and included.

The school recently launched a PhD program in architecture. What does a doctorate look like at TMU?

It’ll come into greater focus as our first students arrive in the fall, but it’s an exciting thing — and something that’s been in the works since well before I arrived.  It’s rooted in the idea of research on design and through design. Of course, that means very different things based on what individual students bring to the table. But a foundational part of it is getting the work into the public discourse early on. We don’t want students to be cloistered away from the world for years, and then to just put something on a library shelf. Depending on the modalities of research, it can involve making and modelling, and public events, exhibitions and media. It is research that lives and breathes and exists as part of the life of the city.

Of course, archives and theory can still be a major element. But all of that is rolled into discursive modes that are tangible and palpable. There’s a sense of agency to it — which is something that ought to be fundamental to architecture school at every level, from the first day of undergrad. I think this is a key part of what we’re trying to do at TMU.

Lisa Landrum at the TMU architecture building at 325 Church Street.
Lisa Landrum at the TMU architecture building at 325 Church Street.

What can schools and educators do — or not do — to instil a sense of agency in students?

It’s something that can start at the micro scale. For example, you have agency to change the space that you’re working in — to move a light, to adjust a desk, to open a window. And then you can start to make those adjustments as a collective. A group of students can expand a project, transform a concept into a built work, and bring it into the city, as many of our students at TMU have done over the years. There’s a great culture of experiential learning here. We have to remain sensitive to that, and to nourish it.

The fundamental power that architects have is to adjust the conditions of reality — to imagine things otherwise. To reimagine the world for the better. And that doesn’t mean just doing whatever we want. A deep sense of architectural agency can actually come through the sensitivity of listening and paying attention. Buildings are knowledge carriers. They remember things that we forget. And as long as we spend a little time with them, and we listen to them and decipher their language, they will speak to us.

Designing Agency: Lisa Landrum on Inclusive Architecture Education

The chair of TMU’s Department of Architectural Science reflects on the evolution of design pedagogy.

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