Teaching for the Future: Nataly Gattegno and Liz Lessig Connect

Hydra Cities students and faculty at the Parthenon in Athens.

In summer 2011, MArch student Liz Lessig (MArch 2012) embarked on a summer travel studio in Athens. This opportunity, in addition to being a great learning experience, led her to form a close bond with Architecture faculty member Nataly Gattegno, who became Lessig’s thesis advisor as well as a friend and mentor.

Hydra Cities: Meeting Nataly Gattegno

It was summer 2011, the year before her thesis, when Lessig took part in Hydra Cities, a summer study-abroad studio course in Athens led by Nataly Gattegno. Gattegno is currently an associate professor and chair of the Master of Architecture Program, and she was born and raised in Athens.

The course began in San Francisco, as the students investigated the history, culture, and ecosystem of the Mediterranean and Athens. They then traveled to Athens for two weeks.

While there, among other activities, they joined students from the University of Paltras in a one-week charrette looking at the interface between land and sea of the Athens waterfront.

From Thesis Advisor to Mentor

By the time they returned, Lessig had found her ideal thesis advisor. “Nataly became a vital part of my time at CCA,” she says. “Thesis is an emotional, physical, and psychological struggle. Nataly helped support my focus and design trajectory. She was there when I needed to be pushed, questioned, and challenged, constantly asking me to rethink and retest my ideas.”

Lessig’s hard work and Gattegno’s thoughtful guidance paid off, as Lessig was awarded the AIASF 2013 Unbuilt Citation award for her thesis, “Territories of Nowhere,” as well as the Thesis Award and Jury Prize.

The Master of Architecture at CCA

Lessig came to CCA in 2010 after graduating from Roger Williams University with a bachelor of science in Architecture. “As an undergrad, I visited Mexico City with a studio class, where my professor’s friend Sandra Vivanco joined our site visit. I was exploring the possibility of graduate school, and Sandra, a CCA faculty member, talked to me about CCA.

"The main factors in my decision to study architecture at CCA were the location of the campus being in the urban and diverse environment of San Francisco, and the possibilities that would come with studying architecture within an art school. I loved the idea of looking at design and architecture through a wider lens.”

Building Close Connections

Gattegno believes that making strong connections with students is critical. “Our program is small enough that the faculty can know every single student and track them throughout their academic career. This mentoring and guidance is important in crafting a clear trajectory for the students and eases their transition from school into the professional world.

“We are lucky to have a demanding market in San Francisco for our graduates. What begins as an academic connection between a faculty member and a student turns into a professional and collaborative relationship.”

MKThink: An Ideas Company

Following graduation from CCA, Lessig took a position at MKThink in San Francisco. “MKThink calls itself an ‘ideas company for the built environment,’” explains Lessig. “We integrate research, analysis, and design to conceptualize, visualize, speculate, and, ultimately, provide solutions to contemporary issues at the intersection of culture, architecture, and the environment.

“At CCA, a tremendous part of my design education was about how to listen, observe, brainstorm, and collaborate with people from all different backgrounds. This type of design thinking paves the way to understanding the wider social, ecological, and political systems at work in the built environment.

"Understanding architecture as part of a much larger framework is embedded in all of the work I am pursuing now.”

Teaching and Designing for the Future

Gattegno says, “The energy, innovation and ambition of student work is why I teach. It fuels the work I do and is part of my own professional growth. As an experimental design practice, my office Future Cities Lab looks to the teaching that my partner, Jason Kelly Johnson, and I do at CCA for new territories of experimentation. Our teaching inspires us to continue to innovate in our own design work.

“Liz and I have been in touch ever since she graduated, and I have been keeping track of the fantastic work she has been doing. At MKThink, Liz is literally designing and developing the future of our built environment! That is what we strive to teach at CCA: how to be a leader in the field, and how to design for both the present and the future.”