Melting Multidisciplinary Diamonds: Faculty welcomes Jennifer Ferng to our academic community

27 August 2012

"In the eighteenth century, scientists were melting diamonds in ovens."

With a PhD from MIT and research experience at the Institut national d'histoire de l'art (INHA), Jennifer Ferng's knowledge of obscure eighteenth-century metallurgy and mineralogy might not seem the obvious fit for an architecture faculty.

But it's precisely because of this outside-the-jewellery-box thinking that Jennifer's approach can invigorate students' interests in architectural history and theory.

"Architects were learning from jewellery makers, engravers, chemists, and geologists. There were transfers of knowledge across fields of study. This means that the multidisciplinary approach adopted by architecture faculties today is much older than we think. The dynamic relationship between these disparate fields is what has, in part, constituted the modern practice of architecture," Jennifer says.

"In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was more fluidity between what we know now as disciplines. As you approach the middle of the nineteenth century, professionalization occurs in the fields of architecture, biology, and physics. In the process, we lost sight of that multidisciplinarity and are just now beginning to find it again, both in contemporary practice and in our understanding of the past."

Jennifer joins the faculty this year as a tutor in Architectural History and Theory and in the final year undergraduate design studio. Her teaching background is extensive, with time at MIT, Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute. But she's had to adjust to some of the peculiarities of Australian students.

"Australian students are much more relaxed than American students, particularly the ones at MIT," Jennifer says. "The students at Sydney are happier to have free-form discussions and find their own way through course content. I'm learning that as a junior scholar, you are able learn a lot from your students and that each student possesses a particular background - differing attitudes towards theory and philosophy - that one needs to accommodate in teaching."

Jennifer says that marked changes in the economy and construction industry have necessitated a response in the way architecture is taught. She says architecture degrees need to both expand and narrow, but in different parts of the programs.

"It's a significant endeavour; you are responsible for framing how these students think about architectural theory and history, which hopefully becomes a fundamental part of their liberal arts education," Jennifer says.

"Our theory courses need to be broader and more historically rigorous, so that they're up to the standards of these other fields, but at the same time our studios need to be focused on contemporary trends in architecture yet pragmatic about which design skills are in demand. And this all needs to come with a backdrop of global experience."

Global experience is something Jennifer has in abundance. Born in Seattle, Washington, she completed her undergraduate degree in architecture at Rice University and undertook further studies at Princeton. She then spent four years in Europe based mainly in Paris travelling archival collections across the continent for her PhD.

"Working overseas provides access to universities and intellectual resources that one would not normally encounter. I went on personalised tours of exhibitions with the curators and experts at well-known libraries and museums such as the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, and Archives Nationales. As a doctoral student collaborating with foreign scholars at this level - and with people who are like-minded- is a life-changing experience."

The Faculty is proud to welcome Jennifer to Sydney and the University this semester and to build on our expertise as a leader of architectural history and theory education.