Amid Gaza protests, Cooper Union thesis students move the End of Year Show off campus

For architecture school students, administrators, and faculty members, this year has been… different. As Gaza encampments occupy campuses from Cal Poly to Yale, academia has been forced to react.

This month, some CUNY students chose not to host their final reviews at the Spitzer School of Architecture, but rather at citygroup, a New York Chinatown gallery, out of solidarity with their school’s protesters. Washington University students staged boycotts. Yalies built a pop-up library for Palestine. And at Harvard GSD, students hung banners from the trays with messages that said WE WILL NOT ALLOW THE GSD TO STAND SILENT TO INJUSTICE not long after the student government passed an unprecedented divestment resolution.

banners on display at Harvard GSD
Banners at GSD (Courtesy Cory Page)

In solidarity with protesters around the country—breaking away with years of tradition—Cooper Union’s very popular and very public End of Year Show (EYoS) isn’t being held at the Cooper Union. In response to a letter from Cooper’s administration announcing the show would no longer be open—instead allowing registered visitor access during a limited time slot—students removed their work from studios and mocked up a full-scale exhibition off-campus at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center.

The relocation is in response to an order issued on May 14 by Cooper Union President Laura Sparks. The order came as a shock to students and faculty alike, who had not been consulted. The order said that “Attendance at the End of Year Show will be exclusively for students and their registered guests. Each student will reserve a specific time and will be permitted to invite up to 4 guests per time slot. If schedules permit, students may be able to book multiple appointments on different days to allow them to show more than 4 guests their work. Students will register their guests in advance. Guests will need to show photo ID to check in upon their arrival.

Sparks described the “new protocols” as a response to “end-of-year events being canceled at campuses across the country” and “disruptions to planned events.” In turn, Cooper students and faculty quickly condemned the action in an open letter, but to no avail. Cooper Union’s Student Justice for Palestine (SJP) chapter also criticized the protocols. The announcement came one month after Cooper Union president Laura Sparks voted to install surveillance cameras throughout the architecture school, sparking outrage among students and faculty.

In response, there were first letters and statements: a letter from faculty included voting members such as Diana Agrest, Nader Tehrani, Benjamin Aranda, Elisa Iturbe, and Lauren Kogod, among many others. There were six points expressed to communicate faculty disapproval of the order, one of them being: “The protocols unnecessarily pit legal and security concerns against the creative and intellectual interests of students and faculty, who value the opportunity to freely share their work with the profession, other schools of architecture in the city, and to alumni of The Cooper Union.”

cooper union students on stage
The Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture’s fifth-year thesis class presented their work off-campus in protest. The students addressed the packed auditorium at the Clemente and reflected on the decision, their time at Cooper, and the importance of free and open exchange for education, and architects and designers in particular. (Emily Conklin/AN)

Student statements were also shared as posters during the staged walk-out as well as at the Clemente presentation. One reads: “I feel ignored. I feel distracted. I feel overwhelmed. I feel afraid for what the future will bring. I don’t recognize what The Cooper Union has become, and I really, really wish I did.” This statement followed a reproduced quotation from founder Peter Cooper’s trust-deed, which sought to establish “a community where [the student’s] capacity and talents can be usefully employed with the greatest possible advantage to themselves and the community in which they live.”

In an emotional off-the-cuff presentation on the stage of the Clemente’s theater, the thesis class made collective speeches to a packed, standing room-only auditorium filled with alumni, underclassmen, faculty, and Cooper community members alike. Fighting back tears, fifth-year student Julia Penchaszadeh Robert said, “For five years, we’ve been trying to learn as a class how to be architects in this world of multiple crises. What we know is that collaboration and open knowledge is what makes our work possible, our profession possible, and schools as places of free knowledge and exchange function. All we wanted is a place to exercise this freedom and this learning, and adequately celebrate five years of work that unfolded remotely, online, and amid international upheaval.”

Robert’s work in the exhibition gallery, titled “A Grammar for Caring Architecture,” was a meticulously crafted, handmade object, just like many of the works of her peers. It invited visitors to lift, fold, and “co-agitate” leaves of table into various spaces of care, evocative of a family kitchen. This complex sculpture, as all the other drawings, models, and large-scale interventions on display, had to be transported by hand from studio to the Clemente in protest—no small undertaking in New York City.

students holding models
(Elisa Iturbe)

The Cooper students, and other students holding protest reviews and exhibitions across the country, had to plan their alternative events in a matter of days, whereas planning for a show at the scale of EYoS takes institutions months. Unique to Cooper, the thesis class modeled and mocked up the Clemente space in the lobby of Cooper’s Foundation building, independently allocating wall space, square footage, and hanging mechanisms for each project originally meticulously planned for an entirely different type of gallery. The process of this admirably logical architectural skill on display is presented in a video playing in a dark, cool viewing room at Clemente.

student work on view
Julia Penchaszadeh Robert’s “Grammar for a Caring Architecture” on display at the Clemente, alongside the transported work of her thesis classmates. (Emily Conklin/AN)

In a statement on social media, Cooper students explained their rationale to relocate: “The elimination of any public event effectively limits our freedom of speech and education, along with any sense of community that this event has historically represented. […] The Clemente allows us to share a moment of mutuality and collectivity at a crucial time when the administration of The Cooper Union hopes to extinguish these such moments. Through this collectively produced and curated exhibition, we present the work of this year’s thesis class, and bring the spirit of The Cooper Union with us into this new space.

architectural models with black veils
Back at the Foundation Building, underclassmen models and final projects shrouded in black in protest and solidarity. (Elisa Iturbe)

Meanwhile, underclassmen continued to display their drawings and models at Cooper but, in solidarity with thesis students, they decided to place black veils over their work. The underclassmen also staged a walk out on May 21 at about 4 p.m. as protest and proceeded to walk to the Clemente. The underclassmen also brought models and drawings out into Cooper Square for a “public crit.” Supported by the many faculty members, alumni, and locals in attendance, the showcase of solidarity across the boundaries of space, academic hierarchy, and most of all across the city, reflects an unwavering alignment between the entire community. “This decision to close the show without student and faculty consultation makes us question what a school is, at its core,” Elisa Iturbe told AN. Another Cooper alumna, Lily Zand, said, “I and my fellow alumni condemn this tactic of fear-mongering in the name of safety. By inclusion and compassion we create community and equity.” Zand was one of many who responded to VP of Alumni Affairs and Development Terri Coopersmith’s memo to the alumni network in protest and condemnation. 

Overall, the powerful thesis showcase and aligned solidarity at the Foundation building speak to, in the words of Distinguished Professor Adjunct Elizabeth O’Donnell, “These students were handed something ugly and it turned into something beautiful.” The students are not a threat to the school, they are the school.

The EYoS show is open to the public at the Clemente, located at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side.

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