Cyrus Peñarroyo’s architectural exhibitions have put on full display the technology that has become a fixture of daily life — objects like smartphones, laptops, and televisions.
In his research, Peñarroyo — an assistant professor of architecture who joined the faculty in 2015 — explores questions of media, technology, and architecture. His innovative approach garnered him the prestigious League Prize from the Architectural League of New York in 2019. The award is given to honor a provocative body of work by young designers. “It’s definitely a huge honor,” he says. “It was nice to receive some validation and to know other people thought the work was interesting or compelling in some way.”
As one of the six practices that was honored, Peñarroyo was asked to provide a display at the Parsons School of Design. With Associate Professor McLain Clutter, chair of the architecture program and his partner at the architectural firm, EXTENTS, Peñarroyo developed an installation called “Just Looking.” He explains that it took often hidden objects, like cables, and brought them into the foreground as objects for spatial design. He says that in his work and his projects with Clutter, he tries to think critically about how those objects “condition us in different ways” and encourage people to “walk away and kind of move through the world a little differently.”
He stresses that the installation wasn’t intended to pass judgment on the reliance on technology: “We want to just call attention to the relationships that we collectively might have to our technologies,” then leave “the decision up to the people about what kind of relationship they want to have.” Peñarroyo describes his work as “playful.” He favors bright colors; purple was the backdrop for “Just Looking.” He adds that he and Clutter are not afraid of moving toward aesthetics that are less refined. “We’re interested in messiness or excess,” he says. “We follow the discomfort.”
His interest in technology prompted work on internet inequality, specifically focusing on internet access in Detroit. In the fall of 2018, he received a $15,000 grant from Taubman College to map the city, based on his observation that Detroit is less digitally connected than other cities. The events of 2020 have made the disparity even more problematic, and he hopes his grant-funded work will work toward change. “The pandemic has laid bare all the inequities and the deficiencies in our broadband infrastructure and also showed how dependent and reliant we are on this infrastructure today,” he says.
His project in Detroit will attempt to address the issue of internet connectivity through the design of a building that will be a community anchor, providing internet access. It also will help to create a new social destination with spaces for gathering, where residents can come together. As part of the feasibility study, he’s targeting using two abandoned schools on Detroit’s west side as the location. “We’re exploring ways in which technology might bring people together in different ways or might get us to think differently about spaces for learning or spaces of recreation,” he says. The goal is to build a prototype for a community anchor or a community node, and he has found it fulfilling to meet with those from different organizations and residents of the neighborhood who stand to benefit. “It extends my work beyond the academic sphere and into the public realm,” he explains.
Peñarroyo is also working on a book, due in spring 2021. It’s based on “Shaped Places of Carroll County, New Hampshire,” a project that explores the complex reciprocity between who we are and where we live through the design of three linear cities in an electoral swing state. “It looks at everything from the rural and urban divide to the physical attributes of a place and how that may inform political ideologies,” he says, noting that a takeaway from the project is that the shape of a place informs the people who reside in it.
To help incubate these ideas, Peñarroyo credits Taubman College for its “amazingly diverse” range of faculty, which he says makes them “equipped to handle an ever-changing world.” Being around so many thoughtful people “creates an environment where you feel supported,” he said. “It’s an inspiring place to work where we can address important issues and even have some fun.”
At Taubman, he’s the thesis coordinator and teaches the final studio course for graduate architecture students, as well as an introductory course for the urban design program. His wish for students when they leave his class is that they engage in the world more critically and that they come to “see the built environment in a different way. Hopefully it inspires them to work with others to make a better world, as well.”
— Julie Halpert