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Kathleen James-Chakraborty

Year of Graduation: 
1978

"I want my students to have equal opportunities based on their intelligence and their diligence, not on their privilege."

Kathleen James-Chakraborty ’78 remembers entering Exeter’s Louis Kahn-designed library when she first visited the school as a teenager. “I loved that experience of walking up the staircase into an astonishing space,” she says. “I always told people that it was as if you had Chartres Cathedral as the church you went to on Sundays.”

James-Chakraborty is now a leading expert on how certain buildings can imbue impactful experiences. A professor in architecture and art history at University College Dublin, she is the author or editor of seven books, primarily on modern German architecture but also including the scholarly global survey Architecture Since 1400. Last year, she received the Gold Medal in Humanities from the Royal Irish Academy in recognition of her work advancing the understanding of modern architecture, and for championing public art (and the public’s access to it) through her role on the boards of various museums and institutions.

Her time at Exeter, especially in Instructor Stephen Smith’s Modern European History class, she says, helped inspire her to become a historian of modern architecture. “He was a superb teacher,” James-Chakraborty says. “His classes were some of my greatest academic experiences.” She went on to study art history at Yale and earned her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

A 1985 visit to the Bauhaus, a German art school, deepened her appreciation of architecture as a way to convey passion that goes far beyond structure. “The building had a scale of detail that I had never anticipated,” she says. “This was because in 1976 the East Germans decided it was their heritage and renovated the building. That building looked so good that I gave up writing my dissertation on Victorian public library buildings in New England and wrote about German architecture instead.”

Today, in addition to teaching, speaking, and attending board-member engagements related to art history and architecture, James-Chakraborty sits on the Athena SWAN Ireland  committee, part of a larger charter that recognizes educational institutions advancing gender equality. It is work that inspires reflection on her days at Exeter in the mid-1970s, soon after the school transitioned to coeducation.

“We were part of a transformative experiment in terms of the opportunities it opened for me and my cohort,” James-Chakraborty says. “But now that I’m nearly 60, I also see all the opportunities that weren’t there, and how much of that goes back to sexual harassment and discrimination. I want my students to have equal opportunities based on their intelligence and their diligence, not on their privilege.”

James-Chakraborty also believes in teaching students how to shape the environment around them. In her survey course, for example, she spends the final class discussing sustainability and active citizenship. “For the next generation, climate change and the shifts of people into a small group of global cities mean that architecture is at the cusp of the changes that affect every human being,” she explains. “Everybody deserves to have access to spaces that are [planned in such a way] that we can continue as a species in a humane and dignified manner.”

Ultimately, in James-Chakraborty’s vision, architecture has the power to unite us. “When you saw that outpouring of grief over the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” she says, “a lot of that was that people all over the world — whether they’d been there or not — understood that it was special.” 
 

— Daneet Steffens '82

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.