University of Minnesota Alumni Association


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 the profession.”

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 bold departure.

“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.

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