Omar Khan reflects upon time as chair during period of critical growth for UB’s architecture program

Omar Khan

Omar Khan served as chair of the Department of Architecture from 2011-2018. Photo by Alexander J. Becker

by Rachel Teaman

Published October 31, 2018

Over the past seven years, UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and its Department of Architecture has grown its faculty and research portfolio, diversified its programs, won international awards and earned the longest reaccreditation term possible.

Omar Khan, who recently concluded a seven-year tenure as chair of the Department of Architecture, says it was a collaborative endeavor that drew upon the school’s mission and vision and the energy of department faculty.

“The most rewarding experience as chair was the mutual respect amongst the faculty and their willingness to do things that we had previously thought too much for our department to tackle,” offered Khan in reflecting upon his tenure as chair. Khan, an associate professor of architecture, returned to teaching full-time this fall after Korydon Smith became chair along with associate chair Joyce Hwang.

Robert Shibley, professor and dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, says the school’s innovation in teaching and research across architecture, urban planning and now real estate development, has been catalyzed by such departmental leadership.

“Omar brought vision and energy to our program at a critical point it its development,” says Shibley, who was appointed dean in 2011. “He embraced a shared mission in research and critical practice that reaches across the disciplines of our school and university and has been an outstanding component of our collective success.”

The architecture program ranks #3 for total federal research dollars among the 25 institutions in the Association of American Universities with nationally accredited architecture and planning programs. Overall, the school consistently ranks in the top 3 for research generation in the AAU group, which includes such institutions as Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and the University of California-Berkeley.

In 2015, UB launched a $25 million transdisciplinary research initiative with faculty from the School of Architecture and Planning at the helm. Two of UB’s three Communities of Excellence – the Community for Global Health Equity and Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies – are led by faculty in both the Department of Architecture and Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Khan himself is co-leader of SMART.

The school and its architecture program also led UB’s debut in the U.S. Department of Energy’s international Solar Decathlon, winning second place overall with its solar-powered GRoW Home. It was UB architecture faculty and students who led the design and construction of the net-zero-energy solar home that is now installed on UB’s South Campus as a community and university resource center in clean energy.

Working with then director of professional studies Joyce Hwang, Khan also oversaw the department’s reaccreditation through the National Architectural Accreditation Board. The program obtained an eight-year reaccreditation, the longest term awarded by the NAAB, and was praised for meeting three critical criteria “with distinction:” comprehensive design; applied research skills; and collaboration among faculty and students both within and outside the program.

The program’s strength in both the foundations of architectural education and emergent research in the field is the result of years of structural changes in the program, according to Khan. Among these developments has been faculty growth. Since 2011, the department has added eight tenure-track and several clinical faculty members.

“This was critical to develop the foundation around which we could change the curriculum and develop new programs for our students,” says Khan.

All of this took place while the School of Architecture and Planning was in temporary quarters as its historic home in Hayes Hall underwent a comprehensive renovation. The five-year, $45 million effort culminated with the reopening of Hayes Hall in 2016. Khan led the school’s faculty advisory committee for the renovation, which worked closely with university and school leadership to guide the design and programming of the building’s studio, classroom and public gathering spaces.

Shibley says Khan played a pivotal role in what has been a signature project for both the school and university. “Frankly the quality of the Hayes Hall restoration would not have been possible without his dedication and leadership of our faculty advisory committee.”

After seven years in administration, Khan says he is glad to return his focus to teaching, research and practice. A member of UB’s architecture faculty since 2004, Khan pursues research at the intersection of design and computing, particularly responsive architecture and smart technologies. “I’m eager to work more directly with students which I have missed during my time at chair.”

This spring Khan is teaching studio in the program’s Situated Technologies Graduate Research Group. As co-lead of SMART, Khan will continue to build the community’s alliances with industry and the architectural, engineering and construction communities. That work includes the program’s research collaboration with Boston Valley Terra Cotta which has recently expanded into a multi-year workshop in façade prototyping with designers from around the world.

Faculty tributes:

Joyce Hwang is associate professor of architecture and now associate chair of the department. She served as director of professional studies under Khan’s leadership: “As department chair, Omar was incredibly visionary and generous at the same time. He was supportive of junior faculty particularly in ways that enabled them to do their best work. I was one of those junior faculty, as I received tenure during Omar’s time as chair. It is clear in looking at the work emerging from our faculty as a whole how much we all have been able to develop our own strengths and grow under his leadership. His vision was a driving force in shaping the Department as it is now. He holds the rare ability to both open up architecture to broader cultural questions, while insisting on technical rigor and attention to detail.”

Kenneth Mackay is a longtime faculty member in architecture and director of the department’s study abroad programs “The number of students participating in study abroad programs doubled during Omar’s tenure as chair. This increase in both the number of study abroad opportunities and student enrollment was a direct result of Omar’s vision and leadership,” says Mackay, clinical associate professor of architecture. Noting the intensive preparations and scheduling required to develop and enroll the programs, Mackay continues: “He had the patience to listen to all of the potential obstacles and the unique ability to suggest a solution that synthesized all of the positives. He was always gracious and supportive. He was a true leader.”

Julia Jamrozik joined the faculty in 2014 and is an assistant professor in the department. “Omar has been supportive of the different ways that we as faculty understand design and the way we practice research. For me in particular his experiences as practitioner and educator have been helpful in understanding and framing the creative and research work that I do in relation to teaching. His intellectual rigor is inspiring, and his frankness and his approachability have been great characteristics that have helped my transition into the Department. I appreciate that he can both have difficult conversations, can be a welcoming host and can share a good laugh with faculty, staff and students.”