Brian McGrath came to New York’s East Village in the early 1980s, a time when the neighborhood was undergoing tremendous change. Cafés, galleries, and shops were opening, transforming the blocks around him. McGrath, an architect, was intrigued by the shifts taking place in his neighborhood. “A lot of new people were moving into the East Village, and it was a place of great artistic flourishing,” says McGrath. “But it was also a stark moment of gentrification, and that gave rise to conflicts.” Inspired by the creativity and contrasts surrounding him, McGrath began integrating his observations into his architecture practice.
Thirty years later, McGrath is still exploring urban dynamics. “Cities today are faced with complex problems—problems embedded in our daily lives as city dwellers—that can’t be solved by organizations and institutions alone,” says McGrath, now the dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons and an associate professor of urban design. McGrath takes students around the world, from São Paulo to Bangkok, from Rotterdam to Taipei, offering them opportunities to observe firsthand urban centers and explore ways of applying design research methods to improve them. The students learn about not only built environments but also the social and cultural dynamics that shape them.
The design solutions developed by McGrath and his students tend to fall outside of the scope of traditional architecture and planning. In the end, McGrath believes that this is exactly the kind of work needed to help cities thrive. “Creative art has the potential to transform cities in ways architecture and planning cannot.”