Designing a Better World
The U of M School of Architecture’s new leader, Jennifer Yoos, wants to help rebuild her profession from the ground up.
In its search for a new leader of the School of
Architecture, the University might have had a tough
time finding someone with more connections to the
program than Jennifer Yoos (B. Arch ’91). She was
an undergraduate architecture student at the U of
M and later served as an adjunct faculty member
from 1997 to 2005. She’s a principal and CEO with
the Minneapolis-based boutique firm VJAA, which
was on the team that designed the iconic, angular
addition to College of Architecture and Landscape
Architecture building completed in 2002.
Yoos is also only the second woman to lead the
school: Renee Cheng (2004-2014) was the first.
And if Yoos has her way, she hopes to help change
how her field looks, given that architecture remains
a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
“In my graduating class, there weren’t that many
women,” recalls Yoos. “I think some of that has to do
with the culture. All of my faculty at that time were
all male. I never had a woman instructor. I think that
kind of affects how people see themselves fitting
in the profession that they’ve chosen, if they feel
connected to the people who they see representing
There were approximately 116,000 architects in
the U.S. in 2019, according to the National Council
of Architectural Registration Boards, with women
representing only 22 percent of all architects. Racial
diversity is even thinner: NCARB statistics found
6 percent of architects who identify as Asian, 2
percent as Black or African American and less than
1 percent as Latinx or Hispanic. “I think the schools
are actually ahead of the profession,” says Yoos in
reference to building diversity.
Yoos started her new job in June. That was just
weeks after the killing of George Floyd, which
prompted an explosion of protests and media
coverage. In short order, she issued a statement
calling for the school to address racial and spatial
justice, outlining plans to refocus the curriculum,
improve recruitment, and engage the community.
“The whole first week I just met with faculty and
students and people to talk about what we could
do in the school,” says Yoos.
The group formed a Race and Space Working
Group, which includes roughly a dozen faculty
members, chaired by Jennifer Newsom, who Yoos
describes as “a really fantastic architect.” Newsom,
who is Black, is a principal with the Minneapolis-based
firm Dream the Combine. Yoos and the working group
drove a top-to-bottom review of just about everything
in the department to see it through a new lens.
“We worked on that all summer,” says Yoos. “We
looked at the curriculum, we gathered resources,
we looked at who we have teaching, we looked at
recruitment practices, we looked at funding practices, we looked at bibliographies, the precedents
we used, the way we structured juries, who we invite
to juries … just kind of dug into everything. Then we
put together resources for faculty and asked faculty
to present how they were going to change their
courses in the fall to look at racial justice.” Despite
all the work that’s been done so far, Yoos says there’s
much more ahead: “We’re just beginning.”
Yoos’s firm VJAA has a strong focus on arts and
education-related projects, which have included
the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St.
Paul, the new Walker Library in South Minneapolis, and a lobby redesign for MIA (the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts).
The design for the addition to the School of
Architecture, now known as Ralph Rapson Hall,
was led by New York-based Steven Holl Architects,
which tapped VJAA as associate architects on the
project, The school’s existing building was a stark,
modernist square box; the addition would be a
“Everything was kind of asymmetrical. Instead of
being inwardly focused, it was externally focused,”
Yoos says. “So, it went counter to a lot of the things
that had always defined the character of school,
which was really wonderful. It made you connect
more to the outside. In many ways, it really changed
the culture of the school.” From the exterior it’s
clear: People who design things are inside.
Yoos emphasizes that the Twin Cities has a
national reputation as a center for strong design.
She says that’s due in part to the University, and
it’s bolstered by having strong arts and cultural
institutions in the community. “I think that creates
this synergy,” says Yoos. A chance to play a bigger
role in that design community is part of what led her
to pursue the job leading the School of Architecture.
“I really wanted to be more involved in academia,” says Yoos. “I also saw that as potentially
having a bigger impact than I could just doing
buildings, in terms of how you shape the profession. And also how you support strong design
culture here and even make it better, and then
also make it more visible.”
Burl Gilyard is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.