Dean of Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments, Robert Kirkbride moves
between disciplines fluidly, bridging design and scholarship, making and theory.
His multifaceted practice engages the mental and physical infrastructures of
memory, identity, and learning — resulting in provocative objects and architectural
forms. “The close-knit relationship of place and person is critical,” he says; “that is
how we make the built environment reflect who we are.”
After touring the world as a trained vocalist, Kirkbride began his study of architecture as a 12-year-old working at his father’s firm in Philadelphia. As a teenager, he visited construction sites before school, mastered the subtle art of taking meeting
minutes, and designed a modest residential addition, marking the beginning of his career in architecture, design, and preservation. Before receiving his first professional degree, he had surveyed almost all of the historic buildings of the federal park
service’s Independence National Park and had designed a new library and classrooms for a public elementary school. Today Kirkbride maintains his practice, studio’ patafisico, in New York City while teaching architecture and product design at Parsons
and University Lecture courses at The New School.
Architecture has been Kirkbride’s lifelong vocation, equipping him to travel diverse paths. Since
leaving his father’s firm, Kirkbride has tackled an array of creative and scholarly projects:
working with architects in Milan and Turin, Italy; designing furniture for POLO Ralph Lauren
and founding his own furniture company, Studiolo; serving as a visiting scholar at the Canadian
Centre for Architecture (CCA); and establishing a research archive for architect Giuseppe
Zambonini; he has also received awards for his writing. Kirkbride’s design and research projects
have been published in scholarly and popular publications including Vogue, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Mark Magazine.
Several threads unite Kirkbride’s interests. A fascination with memory and identity underlies his on going desire to preserve architectural structures that have “fallen through the cracks.” For him, preservation is a creative and generative art. “It’s about
giving new life to pieces of the built environment, rather than fossilizing them or promoting history that most likely didn’t exist in the first place.”
Kirkbride had the opportunity to revitalize a building in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where he and collaborator Tony Cohn were commissioned to develop the Morbid Anatomy Museum in 2014. Repurposing a three-story industrial structure, they designed the museum as
a cabinet of anatomical curiosities. Wandering through exhibits, visitors could examine cases of taxidermy and other provocative biological specimens. The Morbid Anatomy Museum remarkably echoed Kirkbride’s earlier academic work. His master’s thesis
in architecture and PhD in History and Theory of Architecture plumbed the history of Renaissance memory chambers and later became a multimedia online book, Architecture and Memory (Columbia University Press, 2008), a Gutenberg-e Prize recipient. Kirkbride’s
study of the relationship between information and space also informed his design of a Curiosity Shop, a building that would embody openness and the collaborative pursuit of knowledge. Twenty-four years later, Kirkbride was able to realize elements of
his Curiosity Shop in the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which also included a cozy research library and a lecture and workshop space.
In 2014, Kirkbride became a spokesperson and founding trustee of Preservation Works, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Kirkbride Plan Hospitals, buildings designed according to a plan devised by a distant relative in the 19th century. The hospitals, which
have served as models for psychiatric wards, dot North America and Australia and today stand dilapidated. “Each one is unique, reflecting its geography, local community, and context,” explains Kirkbride. Accordingly, it is important to study and preserve
them because they “compel us to think about complex histories; we won’t learn anything if we simply erase the past.”
Kirkbride Plan Hospitals were built using sustainable methods, and this approach points to another theme running through his career. Having grown up in a cabin that was hand-built with locally sourced materials, Kirkbride has always been keenly aware of
sustainability and has sought to incorporate environmentally responsible practices into many of his projects. In 2003, for example, Kirkbride led an effort to plan and build nine sustainable homes on forested land in Pennsylvania.
Kirkbride’s eco-consciousness influences his work at Parsons as well. In 2018, he was instrumental in developing a partnership between Parsons and Earth Manual Project, a traveling exhibition that promotes natural disaster preparedness. As part of the collaboration,
Parsons students spent a full week developing solutions for human-made and natural events that could threaten New York City in the future. “Earth Manual Project was in perfect alignment with everything I had done and had been doing for years,” says Kirkbride
of the partnership. “It’s about exercising responsibility through design.”
While sustainability and resilience are not givens in the design world, Kirkbride believes that they are quickly becoming absolute necessities. Students must be aware of and think critically about the consequences of their work. “They need to ask questions
like, Are we using healthy materials? When we produce or refine products in other parts of the world, what is the local impact?”
Kirkbride encourages students to cultivate this approach in Poetics of Design, a course he has taught for more than a decade. The class, introduced to complement hands-on making skills with theory and history, has evolved to foster reflection in design
practice. By better understanding themselves as creators and investigating the making process deeply, students become more aware as designers actively shaping the world. “I developed the course as a hinge between thinking and making,” explains Kirkbride,
who was recently recognized with a Distinguished Teaching Award.
In a way, Parsons has been the perfect place for Kirkbride to pursue his varied passions. "Everything I teach and have designed, written about and built, is literally reflected in my experience of working here at Parsons.”