Introducing Mark Mulligan, the Loeb Interim Curator

Introducing Mark Mulligan, the Loeb Interim Curator

Jim Stockard leaves behind big shoes to fill as he transitions to retirement this month from the curatorship of the Loeb Fellowship. Fortunately for the program, it has a capable and enthusiastic interim curator in associate professor in practice of architecture Mark Mulligan, who will be working in partnership with program coordinator Sally Young for the 2014-15 academic year while the search committee identifies a permanent successor. We tracked Mark down in Japan last week for an email interview about his new role and the year ahead.

markLOEBlog: You are a busy man: you have an active practice, you have enduring ties and activities in Japan, you write, you teach, you sing and make music. What would possess you to take on the interim curatorship in addition to all that?

MM: An excellent question – what would possess me?  The offer of the Interim Curatorship took me completely by surprise, and yet I knew from the first moment that this was something I really wanted to do.  I have long admired the Fellowship and have made many friends among the Fellows of past years.  I love that these accomplished people come to the GSD in the middle of their very active careers–to recalibrate the balance between what they've already achieved and what they want to achieve in the future–and they bring fresh ideas and passion to our community.  They share their experiences and their dreams with students, faculty and staff here, and we find many areas of overlapping interest.

A large part of my admiration for the LF progam, too, comes from very positive interactions I've had over the years with Jim Stockard and Sally Young.  Their vision for the program–particularly their ability to orchestrate and set collaborative projects in motion with great attention to how these projects will bring fulfillment to various individuals­–has been inspiring and instructive for the way I organize activities here at the GSD and in other areas of my life.  I feel that stepping into the role of Interim Curator is, in part, my way of thanking Jim for the example he has set for me and others.  And I am so excited about working with Sally–one thing I've learned is that it's important to spend time with people who give you positive energy, and Sally is one of those people. I couldn’t ask for a better, more thoughtful partner for the year ahead.

As for the juggling: with some regrets, I have secured a release from some teaching duties, and I will also defer some outside design projects.  At the same time, I will reserve time for my own writing and research on Japanese architecture, and I will also probably not be happy without my music... so it looks like my 2014-15 calendar will be a matter of negotiation until the very end.  Probably I will just sleep less.

LB: How have you been involved in the past with the Loeb Fellowship?

MM: Generally I've befriended one or two Fellows a year since I started at the GSD in the late 90s, but my involvement became stronger when I served on the Selection Committee.  During those years, I really knew the Fellows because I'd read their essays, their interviews, and I had researched their past activities.  The Selection Committee was encouraged to remain involved with the Fellows and to develop projects together, and I invited Fellows to studio juries and to give guest lectures in my classes and otherwise joined them for coffee or lunches.

One of the LF interactions that stands out in my mind was the MudWorks project of 2012, led by Anna Heringer and involving the collaboration of the entire LF class.  It was my first year as program director for the MArch students, and just as I was getting up to speed in that position–and orchestrating an NAAB accreditation visit­–somehow we were managing to coordinate the efforts of more than 100 GSD students in constructing rammed-earth walls, a kind of landscape installation, at the most visible corner of Gund Hall.

The result was experienced by the rest of Harvard and the Cambridge community... and suddenly there were a lot more people out there interested in what was going on at the GSD!  I can't claim a lot of credit for ramming earth myself–I was away in Tokyo while most of the construction work was being done, returning in time only to do some finish and clean-up work.  But I had participated in the initial recruiting and design charrettes, and I knew from the beginning that Anna’s idea would set a new precedent at the GSD.

It would be easy to suggest that future Loeb Fellows should do a project like this again... but I feel it's really important not to have too many preconceptions about what's possible or desirable, and to let serendipity play a role.  The mix of interests and personalities in each class should really determine the direction of such projects, if and when they happen.

LB: You served on the Selection Committee for the Loeb fellowship for 3 years. What was it like?

MM: Fantastic – this is where Jim and Sally, with Loeb alums and GSD faculty, really shape each incoming LF class.  Their recruiting and selection process is extremely well structured, thoughtful, and rigorous.  We really had to pull our weight in terms of reading applications and evaluating candidates.  And it was extremely clear that we were not only judging candidates on past accomplishments, but also on future promise and potential contributions to the group being formed.  We needed to consider how meaningful the Loeb Fellowship would be for this candidate's future trajectory, personally and professionally.

In our meetings, Jim was a master of building consensus not only around individuals but also around the group mix.  That's hard when you have such a large pool of promising applicants and a diverse committee with different perspectives and values.  I particularly appreciated how Jim managed conflicts and disagreements among committee members with a great deal of respect.  For example, even when a candidate I was really fighting for appeared to have little chance to reach the final selection, I was still allowed plenty of time to make the case and to engage detractors.  Sometimes I could turn the tide, other times not... but the conversations were always great.  I really learned a lot from Jim’s leadership during these meetings.

LB: What do you see for the year ahead?

MM: I am grateful for the amazing resource I have in Sally Young, who has already laid the groundwork for a fantastic set of events and activities for 2014-15. And grateful, too, for the continuing involvement of Loeb Fellow alumni across the country and around the world in enriching the program; they help shape and participate in our events, while also welcoming and mentoring the new Fellows. Whether it’s in an academic, professional or social setting, I am looking forward to getting to know many more of the Loeb Fellows this year.

To be clear – as Interim Curator, my primary concern is to maintain the momentum of what is already working very well. But at the same time I bring my own interests and personality to the role, and I am curious to see how certain ideas might play out.  I suspect that being an architect makes me more susceptible to wanting to see some tangible, physical projects emerge in some form.  I'm also interested in generating a deeper involvement with MArch students.  I've spent a lot of time with the current classes of architecture students at the GSD, and they seem very committed to issues of social and economic equity–in this, they are similar to MLA, MAUD, and MUP students.  However the MArch program doesn't always allow them structured ways to put their design skills to work directly or continuously on those issues.  Maybe the Loebs can help me think about ways to address this in the future.

LB: You routinely make summer trips to Japan, where you lived for 6 years. What draws you back?

MM: Short answer: the food!  And also many wonderful friendships, invigorating design culture, and an enduring fascination with the city of Tokyo.  In the last couple years have I started spending extended periods in Tokyo when on break.  Part of that has been a change in the way I run my architectural practice – moving away from solo work on residential design towards a model where I'm collaborating with friends and students on shorter projects that allow me more mobility.  And I am working on a book now that attempts to sum up and go beyond the course I've been teaching for several years on Japanese modern architecture and the role that innovative construction techniques play in it.  I seem to get more writing done when I'm away in Tokyo than I do with the phone ringing in Cambridge.  At the same time, I also owe my involvement in projects like advising the "Horizon House" competition and organizing the Reischauer Institute's "Thinking Hand" exhibition to the time I've spent in Japan and connections I've made there.

LB: You have multiple artistic interests and talents. What was it like to grow up in a musical family? And what is it like to sing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus?

MM: It was and is a wonderful thing to have developed a passion for music from an early age.  My dad played piano (he still takes lessons and works on new pieces at age 88), and my siblings and I grew up playing string instruments: my brother and I on violin, my sisters on cello and viola.  But, I also had a particular fascination for drawing, painting, and making things by hand.  In college I decided to pursue architecture rather than music, but I have never lost the sense of enjoyment that comes from playing chamber music with friends and family on a regular basis.

Also in college, I discovered that my voice, which I'd considered to be rather embarrassingly high and penetrating (ask any of my students), qualified me as a high tenor.  This, together with my crackerjack sightreading skills, made me sought-after by choral conductors and a cappella groups.  Singing in church choirs during my student days I learned a different kind of musical repertoire. Many years later, on a whim, I auditioned for and got into the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which performs winter and summer seasons with the Boston Symphony.  I've now completed 15 seasons, performing under the baton of many world-class conductors.  This all goes a long way towards consoling me when, as I answer the phone, telemarketers address me as Mrs. Mulligan.

Photo with students courtesy of Justin Knight; portrait by Tjitske Sluis

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