The Master in Architecture thesis at the GSD is the capstone project and the culmination of the MArch experience. The thesis is a synthesis of issues that have preoccupied our students throughout their education, and the focus of a yearlong project of research and design. More importantly, thesis topics have proven to be not the endpoint, but rather a springboard, often foreshadowing a “project” that many of our students will continue to pursue throughout their careers.

In many cases, we see the choice of thesis topics represent the anxieties and aspirations of a class—what Bruno Latour might call “matters of concern.” As such, it is an indicator of a set of generational interests, and a mapping of the contemporary moment. As you will see, the range of topics covered by this year’s class is broad with theses engaging in questions of representation and technique, the legacy of the modern movement, cultural identities, the role of monuments, the historic city, material reuse, and social questions of accessibility and aging.

In the last year, we have continued to teach and design through online sharing platforms like Zoom and Miro. Some of these platforms have afforded us new modes of collaboration as well as different kinds of visibility across the class, the topics being engaged, and the resonance between projects. Through these digital platforms, we were able to see relationships between topics and clusters of shared issues and aspirations. We may continue to learn from and utilize some of these platforms as we come back to in-person education.

The MArch thesis is a way to take the temperature of the age, and as a group, it offers a unique perspective on the contemporary state of architecture, politics, and culture.

Eric Höweler
Thesis Director Department of Architecture

Biru Cao

MArch I

Layered Voids: A Senior Living Community Inspired by Courtyard House Typology

Advised by George L. Legendre

This thesis explores the critical factors in courtyard house typology: the hierarchy and dynamics of voids and how it could provide senior cohousing design possibilities. By 2029, there will be over 14 million middle-income older adults in the United States, and over half of them will lack the financial resources to pay for senior living. This presents a massive opportunity but also a potential crisis for public health and senior housing. This project aims to aid the older adults who will not qualify for public assistance and may not afford private-pay senior housing as it exists today. 

In China, there is a distinctive variety of traditional courtyard houses. Among them, the Beijing courtyard house is considered the most outstanding example. It contains a clearly defined hierarchy of spatial transition from public to private with a very flexible typology and consists of only a few architectural components. The project aims to challenge the traditional senior living community layout by building modular homes inspired by this Chinese courtyard house typology. 

The project tries to design a senior living community that is smaller and more intimate with neighborhoods in the parklike setting of the existing Sumner Houses campus in Brooklyn, New York. The site is home to 2,400 public housing residents and intends to build over 100 senior housing units further. Compared with the typical senior apartment complexes, this design is in a horizontal model, providing more quality spaces for the residents. 

Isometric rendering of a cluster of single-story residential units surrounded by larger buildings.

Entrance to a courtyard of a single-level residential structure showing a person tending a raised-bed garden and a bicycle and dog in the background.

Rendering of an interior room with a large window, a table against the right side wall, a potted plant on the floor and a painting on the wall at the left.

Courtyard of a single-level building showing a stairway going up to the roof level, with a bicycle in the foreground and a person and dog in the background.

Roof terrace of a building with with potted trees and people enjoying the view.

Rendering of an aerial view of a cluster of connected single-level residential buildings with sloping roofs and people taking part in various leisure activites.

Nadege Giraudet

MArch I

Redrawing the Gowanus 

Advised by Mohsen Mostafavi

Over the past few centuries, the Gowanus has transformed from natural to pastoral to industrial to postindustrial. Its history is tied to the development of Brooklyn. Once a tidal inlet with orchards and mills, it industrialized when the local population exploded in the 19th century. A canal replaced the marshland to service the manufacturing plants and factories settling along its banks. Soon one of the most polluted waterways in the country, it remains so today.  

The industrial legacy is one of deep soil contamination and toxicity. Natural events like rain and tidal rise create sewage overflows and flooding of the canal banks, freeing heavy metals and pollutants in new cycles of contamination. Regular flooding is disruptive and dangerous to local communities, as seen during Hurricane Sandy.  

Today the canal is still lined with industry, along with warehouses, artists’ spaces, workshops, retail, and, increasingly, housing. The city is proposing to rezone, massively densifying Gowanus with a mixed-use program that includes over eight thousand residential units, a project encountering opposition from the community. Other proposals for the area focus on mitigating the canal’s ecological conundrum.  

This project considers the Gowanus watershed as its site. It seeks to bridge the neighborhoods now surrounding the canal by making use of the fragmented urban grid and existing structures. Taking inspiration from Japanese models, it proposes to restore horizontal and vertical continuities by developing city blocks as a series of landscapes where floodable and inhabitable surfaces are layered and woven to accommodate ecologies, architectures, and people.

Black and yellow collage

Kofi Akakpo

MArch I

“Functional Follies” for an African Urban Slum

Advised by Mohsen Mostafavi

“The challenge for Africa is no less than the restoration of its intellectual freedom and a capacity to create—without which no sovereignty is conceivable.”1 

The general attitude toward architecture on the African continent is that it must primarily deal with needs, or that it should be involved in a retrospective exercise that imagines what could have been prior to European colonialism. This attitude denies Africans the freedom to create by looking within; instead, it insists on African creativity only as a relative other to whiteness, giving the impression that colonialism is the constant present lens through which to see the continent. This thesis rejects that notion, instead daring to imagine what is possible when African architects are allowed to dream, even while designing within difficult contexts and with limited means. 

The folly in architecture is a symbol of perverse indulgence often reserved for the architecture of the wealthy. Follies are individual sites for architectural expression and exploration. In this way, they allow the free exploration of architectural form. This thesis explores the erection of a series of “functional follies” in Agbogbloshie, an urban slum in Accra, Ghana. In a tradition where beauty divorced from tradition is an alien concept, these follies assume a usefulness that makes it possible for them to be assimilated into the community. These follies, therefore, act as both indulgent elements of beauty as well as tools to reintroduce traditional social and spatial relationships into the community that have been lost in the exodus from rural communities to the current urban reality. 

1COVID-19: An Open Letter from African Intellectuals to Africa’s Leaders,” accessed May 27, 2020.

Digital Spiral tower with figure

Perspective view of plaza, showing a cluster of connected buildings.

A series of six images showing different buildings and walkways.
Circulation follies (top row) and Meeting House, Mallam’s House, and Warchief’s House (bottom row L to R).

A series of four images showing individual buildings and walkways.
Clockwise from top left: Theater House, Chief’s House, Pasture, and House for Commoners.

Animation showing one building with additional buildings subsequently added to form a cluster.
A single folly aggregates with other follies to create new urban densities.

Animation showing aerial view of buildings and roads being added to a densely built area along a river.
A few scattered follies can densify over time across the site to create new and more complex urban networks.

Jeremy Benson

MArch I

Subject-Object Ambivalence 

Advised by Sean Canty and Michelle Wilkinson

The project of “Subject-Object Ambivalence” is to design a cultural institution that privileges, and spatializes, Blackness. In this new vision of cultural space, individuals occupy both the subject and object positions. The simultaneous awareness of being seen by others as an object, while occupying a racialized subjectivity, is a dissonant reality of the Black experience in America. In his seminal 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois referred to this dissonant reality as “double-consciousness,” the “veil,” or, more simply, “two-ness.” 

Occupying a place to both see and be seen, as Tony Bennett writes, collapses the disconnected experiences of either being a subject who sees or being an object that is seen. The resulting ambivalence—of being both a subject and object—is the exact experience of two-ness Du Bois speaks to and Black people experience. My project posits that providing a subject-object experience in an institutional context actively subverts and dismantles the traditional hierarchy, power, and distance imposed by institutions through time. What results is a framework for rethinking institutions and challenging the dominant paradigm of the production of knowledge and culture.

Interior of a dark room connected to a brighter room with an empty bench against a brick wall.

Jamie Han

MArch I

Rooms without Programs

Advised by Jeffry Burchard

The concept of housing has undergone various changes throughout history. Once, it used to be a dwelling where different domestic activities took place in a room or a building without spatial divisions. As time passed, we began to value privacy and efficiency above all things; this was greeted by the rise of single-family homes that were arranged by a set of “rooms,” each dedicated to a specific domestic program. This type of single-family home prioritized certain households and lifestyles over others. The nonheteronormative population then had to adapt their lifestyle to the rigidity of the space. This has frequently resulted in a misalignment between the function of the rooms and the use. The problem persists today, heightened due to the pandemic. The violent intrusion of public life (productive work) into the private sphere has induced fatigue and confusion at another level we have yet witnessed. Although there is a recognition of a more diversified population in the housing market today, the only alternative to the generic single-family home is the micro-unit for migrant single populations. This thesis is a search for an alternative proposal that lies between the micro-units and the single-family homes. The proposal starts out by stripping away the standardized room types of their intrinsic programmatic indicators, maintaining the spatial divisions but bringing back the programmatic fluidity in order to accommodate the desires of various shapes of families we see today.

Building facade with drawn cartoon figures

Steven Young

MArch I

Alas, Poor Yorick! 

Advised by Jorge Silvetti

Koolhaas’s Villa dall’Ava is a riff on Villa Savoye? With what license does dall’Ava pervert the modern icon then? What motivates the rotations, dislocations, and truncations? Can we say they are typically postmodern exuberance, or might they be more carefully considered? The Dutch author’s villa, while obviously referencing its neighbor, responds most directly to Corbusier’s writings. See for yourself: dall’Ava hits every one of the Five Points and then avails itself of the formal freedom that is the points’ collective raison d’être. 

The authoritative text has a long tradition in Western architecture—more so than in other artforms—dating to, at the very latest, the Renaissance rediscovery of Vitruvius. Each age since has produced its own treatises, summarizing its unique architectural outlook, and for the generations that follow these texts provide both a model to be imitated and an authority to be immolated, often both in a single stroke.   

Where are the 21st century’s authoritative texts? They do not exist. Jenck’s genealogy has only further fractalized since 1977, such that today our niche conceptual “interests” bear the full burden of catalyzing rich and communicative design. Something has been lost. The authority of the text is Villa dall’Ava’s foundation, its depth in a way formal resemblance or isolated interests could never be. But now we are chasing our tail: Where might we look for our architectural texts? 

Plan with arced walls

Salwa Alkhudairi

MArch II

The Trojan Cinema

Advised by Mack Scogin

In 1956, the premier of the film Helen of Troy took place in the newly finished building complex of Al Khayam: a 1,500-seat cinema engulfed by a hotel located in Baghdad, Iraq. The opening of the cinema happened to fall at a time when the tale-based film had just recently come out; it was perhaps an innocent choice that fortuitously predicted the Trojan horse-like quality of the architectural vessel. The theater’s witnessing of and adaptation to political events has revealed its double consciousness; it at once houses a spectacle and is one itself. “To be afflicted with confabulation is to be of two minds, to be in two places at once, to experience, counterfactually, simultaneous irreconcilable truths,” write Paul Emmons and Luc Phinney in Confabulation: Storytelling and Architecture. By examining and utilizing the relationship between storytelling/myth and the sustainment of place/architecture, this project attempts to create a cinema of convalescence: a space of celebration of the abject through incantation. The confabulated space is presented through analogical layering, creating, and engendering an epic of sailing shadows.

Black and white stark image

Jon Gregurick

MArch I

Building Characters

Advised by Andrew Holder 

Building Characters arrive at City Hall Park from all boroughs of New York City, some on foot, some by bus, some by car, and others by train. Like leviathans in the mist, they materialize at the park’s gates. Many muscle themselves so prodigiously into the existing City Hall Loop that, at times, they climb and topple over one another to arrive, or more accurately grasp in futility, at its center point. In the ever-growing, hirsute mass, characters are forced so violently by the writhing number at their backs that they begin to merge, deforming around, into, and among one another. Atriums, gallery vaults, “fancy stairs,” and grottos replace their innards as their individuality is subsumed, contorting and folding into the primal whole. 

Others, content to simply observe the writhing corpusculature or too timid to mount a bid for the centroid, home to the ever-growing gelatinous cube, hover around the fringes, established by the edges of the Loop. The wallflower-homunculi thus find themselves intrepidly colonized by passing folk as cafes, pavilion-shelters, offices or, in one particularly strange case, a small storage area housing reflective, multicolored spherical garden ornaments and battery-powered light-up plastic wood sprites, affixed to the ends of long, thin plastic rods, dragged out begrudgingly twice a year, once on Samhain and once on Beltane. 

Building Characters make up this building’s character. There will be construction documents, or maybe just a dance party instead. Either way, hopefully the Turtles show up! 

Digital image of abstract sculptural objects

Ge Zhou

MArch II

Apartment Number: N/A

Advised by Iman Fayyad

“The modern apartment, or that which is referred to as a studio or one-room apartment, is the material realization of a tendency toward cell formation, which can be recognized as the architectural and topological analogue of the individualism of modern society.”  

—Peter Sloterdijk  

Lying beneath the condition of housing as aggregations of cells is the notion of private property. Capitalism has assigned the familial unit the minimum of space required to reproduce itself. The commodity of housing is simply that space where reproduction can occur and labor regenerate.  

Architecturally speaking, commodity housing in a dense urban development consists of individual cells connected horizontally by hallways and vertically by elevators. We should wonder why the universal urban housing typology is undifferentiable from for-profit temporary lodging (i.e., hotels). Is a neighbor just the stranger next door?  

This thesis is interested in how capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our everyday life and the ways architecture orchestrates the endless repetition of work, rest, and consumption. It is an attempt to find moments where a new housing typology can exist within capital’s urban framework. So what if we get rid of hallways and relieve ourselves of the burden of discrete private properties? What if we utilize the embedded possibilities of elevators as collective spaces? If there is no “yours” or “mine,” then perhaps we humans are no longer merely agents to produce and reproduce. We, the people, are communities in spite of the imposition of a dense urban reality. 

Black and white plan with circles