An Emergent Field


13 April 2017

"There is no such thing as a simple room," wrote the architect and theorist Mark Wigley in the ambitious 2011 anthology Toward a New Interior. It's a statement and a publication that mark the increased critical interest which, in the past few years, has been directed at interior spaces and their attendant design strategies. A graduate course taking part in this re-evaluation of the interior is the Piet Zwart Institute's two-year Master Interior Architecture: Research + Design (MIARD) programme in Rotterdam. On the occasion of the re-titling of the course – the "R" and "D" previously stood for "Retail Design" – Disegno speaks to MIARD's course director, Alex Suárez, about the new remit, ethos and ambition of the course.

"The programme has a funny history," says Suárez. In the five years MIARD has been in operation, he explains, "retail design became a very small component of a much larger interior architecture agenda. Little by little, we’ve realised that the name didn’t fully represent or reflect the type of students we had, the type of projects they were doing, or the expertise of the staff." In keeping with the resurgence of critical discourse emerging in the field of interior spatial practice, the course responded by changing its name in January 2017, and by tweaking its curricular structure. "It's been an organic, bottom-up change," says Suárez. "It came about through conversations with staff and alumni, and an acknowledgement of the type of students we've attracted. What we do at MIARD is really more of a multi-disciplinary design research practice."

The bulk of the curriculum will remain as it has been since the course's foundation in 2011, with subtle revisions that reflect a more open-ended and cross-disciplinary approach. Three curriculum threads comprise the syllabus of the two-year programme. The first is Design Projects, the practice-based core of the course in which the students, numbering 14 to 15 per year, work on design projects in their own studio spaces provided by the Piet Zwart Institute. They are also free to make use of eight workstations – focused on interaction, audio, publication, material, fabric, drawing, business, and research – with the support of specialised technicians. "The different stations and the technical help in the workshops are really incredible," says Suárez. "When you start at MIARD, one of the first things that happens is an introduction to the stations – we want the students to make the most of these internal resources."

The second strand is Critical Strategies. "We think it's very important for our students to consider the critical position of their work in a larger historical and theoretical context," says Suárez. "In the context of interior architecture and interiors, there are very few masters programmes that really have as part of their agenda trying to contribute to the discourse." By this token, MIARD has changed its third curricular strand, formerly Visual Communications, to Multiple Media. "We thought the visual was not fully representative the type of media that our students were working with," says Suárez. "Multiple Media really expands the conventions available to the interior practitioner."

The conventions of interior architecture are circumscribed by adjacent and overlapping fields. "Traditionally, interior design has borrowed heavily from architecture: the histories, theories, drawings, and the modes of representation. If you look at interior design curriculums out there," Suárez says, "a lot of the projects are also grouped by typology: retail design, hospitality and residential." Such classifications are not present at MIARD. "Those typologies are something we want to challenge by looking at the interior space multidimensionally and also at multiple scales: from the local to the global; from architecture to object and beyond."

Delivering the programme is a roster of international tutors and lecturers with a broad range of skills and specialisations including architecture, interaction design, graphic design and design criticism. MIARD's core curriculum is also augmented by national and international guest lecturers, who often visit in conjunction with joint projects. One such project coming up in October 2017 is the traveling exhibition Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association – MIARD will be one of three partners to respond to the show when it comes to Antwerp. The ethos informing MIARD's programming is "making public". For the five past years, for instance, students have shown projects at Milan's Salone del Mobile. They have also exhibited on several occasions at Het Nieuwe Instituut, one of MIARD's closest institutional partners, in addition to yearly graduation shows.

After following the three curricular strands, students will spend the final six to seven months of the programme working on their graduation project with they guidance of their tutors. This project can take many forms, in keeping with the experimental remit of the course. "One of our current students is a filmmaker," says Suárez. "Her films are highly spatial in that they deal with the cinematic experience of the interior as a way of designing space." Other students push the limits of what comprises a thesis. "We have a student with an amazing talent for drawing and representation, who is fascinated by Jacques Tati's critique of modernity and technology. This student has appropriated Tati's critique for modern times and is making a satirical comic looking at the smart house." Another current student is producing her thesis in the form of a memoir set in 2071, looking at the significance of artificial intelligence in 2017. "There still so much to contribute to the practice of the interior and to its disciplinary canon," says Suárez by way of summary.

Upon completion of the course, MIARD alumni have taken accordingly diverse professional routes. "I've seen alumni go into more typical roles, like working in top architecture and interior architecture offices," says Suárez. "But mainly, what I've seen is diversity. We're a very international program, so some go home and set up their own practices there while others stay and do so locally. Others go into research, working for offices here in the Netherlands such as Bureau Europa and Droog. Some go into exhibition design, and a couple continue along the academic route and do PhDs." Local and international institutional affiliations also help develop the students' network and other multidisciplinary forms of design practice. "We have an ongoing collaboration with Het Nieuwe Instituut," says Suárez. "But the collaboration happens on different scales, with our current students also doing internships there."

"I hope that our students leave with a very international, diverse experience and a set of advanced skills," says Suárez. Key to this diversity is not only the fact the the student body represents approximately 20 different countries at any one time, but also the freedom to approach interior space through a multiplicity of media. "I hope the students will also leave with an acknowledgement that they can be a relevant and critical voice in the field and expand the boundaries of the profession."