The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a place where the phrase mens et manus (Latin for “mind and hand”) is not just a catchy motto—it’s a sweeping institutional creed. Theoretical experimentation sits side by side with hands-on problem solving, and nowhere is this exemplified more than at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.
Neri Oxman, who studied to be an architect, received her PhD in design computation at MIT and now concentrates on material-based processing at the school’s celebrated Media Lab—in other words, emulating natural scientific principles with digital fabrication technologies to transform the construction process. She advises her students to approach design with a beginner’s mind: “The best works I have witnessed provoke beauty without bias. Master your art as if you possess all skill and none at all.”
Somewhat less esoteric in her interdisciplinary design practice is J. Meejin Yoon, associate professor and director of the university’s undergradate architecture program, as well as principal at Boston firms MY Studio and Höweler + Yoon Architecture. Spanning architecture, public art, and fashion, Yoon’s recent projects include the new Boston Society of Architects space and the Sky Courts in Chengdu, China.
Another practicing architect, Adèle Naudé Santos, is the dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. As coprincipal and founder at San Francisco–based Santos Prescott and Associates, many of her projects focus on urban design and affordable housing environments around the world.
Each woman has been extremely successful in her chosen field and at MIT as an institution, and each considers the gender question differently. Naudé Santos takes an equanimous approach, urging her students to “think of yourself as an architect first, not a female architect!” But as the industry’s demographics evolve, Yoon predicts, “We will see design diversify and the workplace change. If the profession wants to keep its female talent, the nature of professional practice must shift to be more flexible and supportive of women.”
The primary challenge according to all three is how to maintain balance between teaching, research, practice, and a personal life—or, as Oxman explains, “turn the friction among the many parts of life into productivity.” Naudé Santos is characteristically straightforward: “You have to learn to multi-task and be prepared to work all the time.”