Alkis Tsolakis became dean of LSU’s College of Art + Design in 2013. In acclimating to the position after years in an academic post in Missouri, he realized the College of Art + Design was the only college at Louisiana’s flagship university that did not have a post-master’s degree. The college is structured into four units: architecture, interior design, studio art, and landscape architecture, with graduate degrees offered in all but interior design. The master’s degree had long been the ‘terminal degree’ in the design progressions; however, after studying the availability of new areas in which to apply technology and evolving ways of thinking about design and the environment, many concluded that studies beyond the master’s level were needed.
The new dean spent much of his first year in Baton Rouge meeting people (on and off campus), getting acquainted with available resources, and discussing potential new partnerships. After a conversation with then-Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, Dean Tsolakis realized such an advanced degree should be rooted in the cultural heritage of the state, and, significantly, the justification for developing such a degree could be extracted from studies the lieutenant governor’s office had been routinely producing over the last 12-year period. That is, since 2004, the office has gathered data to serve as the benchmark for growth in six areas that comprise the cultural economy: visual arts and crafts; architectural restoration and preservation; literary arts and humanities; entertainment (performing arts); design and communication arts; and the culinary arts. The bottom line was thus quantified: these industries in Louisiana represent a powerful segment of the state’s economy in terms of jobs and income generated. As previously suspected, and then proven, the arts and culture, broadly defined, are good business for Louisiana.
Subsequent studies released in 2010 and 2015 indicated steady increases in jobs and positive economic impacts from Louisiana’s cultural economy sectors and the attendant tourism industry. Representing the first time such statistics had been used in an academic application in the state, this evidence of the importance of Louisiana’s unique identity inspired efforts to offer more advanced and comprehensive training to expand the research and skills that will nurture state resources, leverage public and private resources, and create an unparalleled academic and practical training ground unlike anything in the Gulf South region.
Critical to the gestation of the new academic program was leadership and process. Dean Tsolakis, noting the higher number of faculty members holding PhD degrees (nine), conceived of the advanced degree as an inter-disciplinary program based on the binding backbone of the College: culture. To further develop the concept and curriculum, Associate Dean Lake Douglas and Professor Michael Desmond collaborated and sought additional faculty input in drafting the Letter of Intent. The staff of the Board of Regents, offering crucial support, assisted in sharpening the focus to create solely the Doctorate of Design degree without adding a PhD program, which had been considered initially. The final proposal proceeded to the Board of Supervisors for its analysis before reaching the Board of Regents. The various review panels were in accord: Louisiana industry relies on culture, and with statistics bearing out the imperative of cultural preservation, the possibilities created by advancing credentials and knowledge and fostering relevant technological progress and environmental policy contributions are limited only by the imagination.
The process of developing such a program and moving the proposal through university channels and state agencies took almost a year and a half. In the fall of 2016, the Board of Regents, the agency that coordinates all higher education in Louisiana, gave its approval for LSU’s proposal to create the Doctorate of Design (DDes) in Cultural Preservation.
Significant components of Louisiana’s cultural industries will benefit from the DDes program, these being cultural preservation, design, and the visual arts. Additionally, the DDes curriculum’s specialization in fabricating materials and technology will address new demands in design and construction-related jobs that require computer applications. It is the structure of the DDes program into four specializations that aims to augment the opportunities for invention, growth and scholarship. The four specializations and rich pedagogy to be offered are:
1. History and Theory of Material Culture: This focus will address the intellectual richness of cultural history on a global scale as applied to art and the built environment. The comprehensive, cross-disciplinary concentration will explore works of specific artists and designers, prototypical structures, national and international art movements, design pedagogy, and design trends.
2. Environmental Policy: Conservation and treatment of cultural landscapes depend upon the sensitive interaction among design, planning, and policy-making. The student with prior experience in the design and planning disciplines (architecture, landscape architecture, urban design) will investigate policy and develop technical expertise in areas of environmental and social sciences, public policy, and law.
3. Fabricative Materials and Technology: Digital designers from various fields will study and use prototyping and manufacture in design research that expands the frontier of design disciplines within digital practices. The architect, landscape architect, graphic or industrial designer can work on tools, for example, for the design and integration of sculpture, installations, landscape performances, buildings, and building components. The existing state-of-the-art Digital Fabrication Lab (the “Fab Lab”) will be used for research into experimental digital fabrication projects.
4. Museum Studies: The focus combines art history with training in preservation, conservation, presentation, interpretation and study of cultural artifacts. The existence of the LSU Museum of Art and courses in curatorial practice offered in the Art History department will enhance the students’ experience.
The connective tissue of these specializations is Cultural Preservation, a term the College uses to include practices and research related to the continued innovation of cultural traditions that goes well beyond stabilizing valued elements of the past. The challenge to DDes students will be to interpret established traditions and innovate to meet the challenges of the future.
Various projects illustrate the advancements already made possible in an emboldened academic-practical incubator. This applied research has opened areas of collaboration where art historians and designers can engage in programs and use cutting-edge tools to assist their projects.
• The National Center of Preservation Training and Technology called upon Dr. John Pojman, a LSU chemistry professor and polymer expert, to develop a material that could be applied and cured on demand for use in casting components of architectural features (to create replicas). An art graduate student subsequently experimented with the substance in a sculpture class where its ability to harden with a heat gun, without the use of a kiln, revealed significant advantages in art applications. This intersection of art and science has resulted in a line of “cure-on-demand” products marketed internationally, for the varied uses of modeling clay, wood filler, and home repairs.
• The College of Art + Design was an early user of three-dimensional printing, which, when used in the architectural realm as pioneered by Frank Gehry and employed by Louisiana architect Trey Trahan for their avant-garde designs, can produce radical shapes in three-dimensional formats, enabling engineers to develop structural systems that facilitate construction.
• More recently, scanning devices are in use at the College which have the capacity to scan the surfaces of a three-dimensional object in a non-invasive fashion in order to reproduce it at different scales through three-dimensional printing. One notable use in historic preservation was done by Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) Studio Coordinator Vincent Cellucci in scanning the Enrique Alférez cast aluminum relief sculptures (from the Works Progress Administration era) at Charity Hospital. Artist Brad Bourgoyne then used the scans to create molds and cast recreations for the new LSU Health Services Center in Baton Rouge. This technique has also been used to reproduce the concrete acanthus-designed support of period benches without damaging the originals.
• Applied to medical fields, this technique has been used to make a model of a female torso in order to identify the location of a malignancy and thereby plot surgery with a higher degree of accuracy than otherwise possible.
As to any questions relative to sustaining a new program in a period of massive cuts to education, Tsolakis takes the view that a time of retrenchment invites opportunity, creativity and novel action. The broad DDes degree is relatively new in this country, having been pioneered at the Harvard Graduate School of Design a little over 20 years ago. The unique construct at LSU builds upon what is distinctly Louisiana, its built and natural environment and culture, mixes in business and economic factors, and aims to train students to create practices and products that can have international applications. We eagerly anticipate the bountiful contributions assured to emerge from LSU’s interpretation and commitment to the totality of cultural preservation.