Mimi’s Teaching at the School of Architecture, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY
Mimi taught in the Undergraduate Architecture Program in the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn New York from 1972 until her death in 2001. She was first visiting (which at Pratt means part-time with up to one half a load), then adjunct (which at Pratt means part-time with up to three quarters of a load), and in 1976 she became full-time. Teaching at Pratt became a defining aspect of her life, and she loved being at Pratt despite many conflicts.
Pratt was difficult during many of her years there, in part due to administrative hostility, but mostly due to administrative incompetence. Many administrators at Pratt had no idea how to administer a school, or anything else. It was very wearing on all, including Mimi. Things have been much better for the past twenty years.
Mimi was a wonderful teacher, loved by most of her students. She herself had had an excellent architectural education at Penn. She had grown up in an academic household. And she was an excellent designer. All of this contributed to her teaching.
From the beginning her approach was to bring the totality of herself and her experience into her teaching. When she started teaching she was concerned about teaching students to enter a profession she was not happy about and was leaving and she came up with the idea of her “Architectural Alternatives” studio in which they visited the offices of architects doing things other than conventional practice. Students then “designed” their ideal practice.
At the time Mimi began teaching she was attending seminars on mythology by Joseph Campbell, studying Tai Chi with Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing, and studying Buddhism at Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s New York Dharmadhatu. She brought this into her teaching in a studio called Cosmological Architecture in which she explored architecture as a model of the cosmos.
She was soon deep in studying the mythologies and cosmologies of just about every major cultures, and began teaching a lecture-seminar course on Non-Western Architecture, focusing on the architecture of each culture as a manifestation of its spiritual world-view. She also became part of the team teaching the required architectural history sequence. The required architectural history sequence changed from two to three to four and then to three semesters while she was teaching. Mimi would do some of the lectures followed by two of the sections. The lectures she gave were Paleolithic, Neolithic, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Gothic, India and Buddhism, China and Japan, and Pre-Columbian American. In all cases she emphasized the cosmological and mythological views of the cultures and how these views were reflected in their architecture.
In the course of the research for these courses, for her Myth & Symbol course, and for her unpublished book, Spatial Archetypes, Mimi accumulated a large library of perhaps 7,000 books and became highly knowledgeable on architecture, mythology, religion, culture, and archeology. Mimi made most of her slides from these books, and together with her husband had a library of about 60,000 slides.
Due to the fact that most scholars must specialize and remain within their fields, Mimi was perhaps one of the most broadly knowable scholars regarding cultural history in the world. Experts in any field would know much more about that field than she did, but she would know far more than they did about other fields. At an archeology conference in 1985 in Malta where she had presented a paper she was having drinks with Colin Renfrew, the “dean” of European archeology. In the course of their discussions Mimi said, “Goddess figurines appear during the Neolithic stage of every culture everywhere in the world.” Renfrew replied, “Everywhere?” Mimi countered, “Well, only where there were people.” Renfrew said, “Let’s see.” Mimi started naming culture after culture, identifying the region, the periods, the dates, the key researchers, etc. Renfrew was impressed and said, “Why don’t you do a paper on “Male Biased Paradigms in Archeology” and present it at a session I am leading at next year’s World Archaeology Congress in Southampton, England. Mimi did, and also presented her Spatial Archetypes work. She knew in situations like this that she was in hostile territory and knew how to handle herself.
Pratt is a school of art, architecture, and design. It had an engineering school along with some other departments that it closed in early 1990s, and it has a library school that interacts little with the other schools. Design at Pratt includes industrial design, graphic and advertising design, interiors, and fashion. It also has film and video departments in both art and design areas, and computer graphics and animation programs. From the 1940s through the 1960s Pratt had a strong reputation for turning out prominent artists and designers.
In 1954 the School of Architecture separated from the Art School. By the 1960s the architecture school had a reputation of being a good technically oriented school that turned out the job captains for the large New York firms, but not the principles or designers.
In the late 1960s the baby boom generation hit adolescence and the whole world exploded, from the Cultural Revolution in China to the barricades of Paris to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley to the riots at Columbia University in New York.
Pratt was also in upheaval, with strikes and student sit-ins and take-overs of buildings. In 1968 the Pratt architecture students went on strike, forced out the dean, formed an All-School-Committee with final decision-making authority, and along with faculty members sympathetic to change (or actually covertly led by these faculty members) developed and installed a new curriculum, removed many faculty members, and hired new faculty members.
Mimi’s husband, John Lobell, was one of the new faculty members hired in the fall of 1969. He suggested to Mimi that Pratt was a zoo and that if she wanted to teach she should try Columbia or Cooper Union first, but she chose to interview at Pratt.
She first interviewed to teach starting in the fall of 1971. She was asked by one of the radical faculty members if she thought drafting should be taught. Knowing the radical mood, she said that she thought it should not be required, but should be available for those students who wanted it. She was not hired. “Straight lines lead to straight thinking.” By the next year things had calmed down a bit and she was hired. She entered into an institution in chaos at a time of cultural upheaval.
Faculty at Pratt were teaching megastructures covering the earth, spray foam domes, social action, etc. One of her colleagues, an architect and video artist, was spending his sabbaticals in the Amazon rain forest exchanging hallucinogens with the Yamamani Indians, teaching them to make videos, and focusing his Pratt design studios around these activities. It was an absolutely wonderful time, rich with experimentation, and probably no other school would have allowed Mimi to pursue her cross disciplinary interests in spiritual, mythological, and symbolic systems and Goddess studies.
At the same time, Pratt was in administrative chaos. One of these days I will do an exact count, but my very rough recollection is that from 1969 until 2001 Pratt had about five presidents, twenty provosts, a dozen architecture deans, and a couple dozen undergraduate architecture chairs. The administrative chaos allowed individual faculty members great freedom, but it also created an instability that brought bad behavior out of a lot of faculty and students. It also resulted in the pay being very low.
Unfortunately, no one at Pratt was systematic about keeping records or archives of student work, so there is little documentation of the wonderful creativity of this time.
In order to help convey Mimi’s experience at Pratt, I should convey something about Pratt. There is no definitive history of Pratt, and no account of what it was like to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I will give a very brief overview.
History of Pratt from the Pratt Web site:
On October 17, 1887, twelve young people climbed the stairs of the new “Main” building and began to fulfill the dream of Charles Pratt as the first students at Pratt Institute.
Charles Pratt, one of eleven children, was born the son of a Massachusetts carpenter in 1830. He managed to scrape a few dollars together and spend three winters as a student at Wesleyan Academy, and is said to have lived on a dollar a week at times. In Boston, he joined a company specializing in paints and whale oil products. When he came to New York, he worked for a similar company and expanded the interest to Astral Oil. When the company split, Charles Pratt owned the oil business and turned it into the most successful such company in Brooklyn, eventually merging with Standard Oil.
Charles Pratt’s fortunes increased and he became a leading figure in Brooklyn, serving his community and his profession. A philanthropist and visionary, he supported many of Brooklyn’s major institutions including the Adelphi Academy and the building of Emmanuel Baptist Church.
He always regretted, however, his own limited education and dreamed of founding an institution where pupils could learn trades through the skillful use of their hands. This dream was realized when Pratt Institute opened its doors over 100 years ago. Only four years after the opening, Charles Pratt died, leaving the job of guiding the Institute through its early years to his sons, primarily Charles Pratt, Jr.
The energy, foresight, money and spirit Charles Pratt gave to his dream remains even today. Here careers are molded, and goals, like those of Charles Pratt, are encouraged. Inscribed on the seal of the Institute is the motto:
Be True To Your Work
And Your Work Will Be True To You
1887 – Art classes opened for enrollment.
1888 – Programs in Liberal Arts and Sciences began.
1890 – Library School opens and has the distinction of being the oldest continuous school of Library Science in the country.
1910 – School of Science and Technology created.
1936 – Industrial Design Department created.
1938 – Foundation Year initiated; First Baccalaureate degrees awarded.
1946 – Interior Design Department established.
1954 – School of Architecture separated from the Art School.
1964 – Cooperative Education Program initiated in School of Engineering; first of its kind in the New York metropolitan area.
End of text from Pratt web site.