D-ARCH Evaluation 2019

2019 External Evaluation

Department of Architecture

ETH Zurich

Report of the Association of Assistants at the Department of Architecture (AAA)

1. The Mittelbau

A Fundamental Part of the Department

The Department of Architecture (D-Arch) features a broad mix of mid-level faculty (referred to as ‘Mittelbau’ or ‘AAA members’ hereafter), which plays a key role in conceptualizing, executing, and completing the professors’ directions for the Department’s teaching and research activities. As of Spring 2019, the Mittelbau consists of approximately 390 members, which include ca. 200 teaching and scientific assistants, ca. 60 advanced scientific assistants, ca. 20 senior assistants, ca. 60 doctoral students, ca. 20 postdocs, 2 senior scientists, and numerous lecturers. In accordance with the Department’s vocation to combine architecture, art, planning, engineering, scholarship, and practice, the Mittelbau consists of a similarly diverse group of disciplines and practitioners. This diversity allows the Mittelbau to contribute to the Department’s teaching and research in many different capacities, from teaching design studios and elective courses, to organizingseminars and conferences, and from conducting doctoral research, to coordinating large research projects. Moreover, next to these tasks, the Mittelbau is also active in a broad array of activities within and without the D-Arch, seizing opportunities for career development, fostering interdisciplinary exchange, voicing common concerns, and connecting the Mittelbau with the local and international realities of architecture.

The AAA Represents the Mittelbau

Institutionally, the Mittelbau is represented by the Association of Assistants at the Department of Architecture (AAA). While AAA membership is given automatically to whomever the Department hires as part of the Mittelbau, AAA members can become more involved in AAA activities by serving either as a member of the association’s board or as a delegate of the AAA at the various departmental committees. Accordingly, the AAA not only represents the overall interests of all members of the Mittelbau, but plays – via its delegates – an institutional role at the departmental committees. These are the Department’s main governing body, the Department Conference [Departementskonferenz – DK], the Curriculum Commission [Unterrichtskommission – UK], the Department Committee [Departmentsausschuss – DA], or Appointment Committees for new Professorships. In representation of the Mittelbau, one quarter of the DK consists of AAA delegates; the students’ association takes also one quarter of the DK seats, whereas the professors take the other half. Compared to other ETH Departments, this ratio speaks for a quantitatively important representation. It reflects the role that the Mittelbau has within the Department’s activities, and it assigns to the Mittelbau a significant mandate to participate in departmental politics at the D-Arch.

2. Achievements

An Excellent Performance

What hereby follows is a summary of an unprecedented survey of Mittelbau performance that the AAA conducted in preparation to the 2019 external evaluation. The briefly highlighted achievements and activities show that the D-Arch has been able to build a working environment that has attracted excellent research and teaching staff in the past five years. This gave the possibility to doctoral students, assistants, and lecturers to build a record of professional and scholarly relevance, both nationally and internationally, thus providing them with access to academic and professional careers outside of ETH Zurich.

Beyond aiding the AAA to collect details about Mittelbau activities, however, the survey has also shown a minor degree of fragmentation in both the duration of Mittelbau activity for and affiliation with multiple Chairs. This condition limits the possibility of conducting a systematic survey including also of formerly employed Mittelbau, and, perhaps more


During the past five years, the work of AAA members has received numerous national and international awards, demonstrating that research and design excellence can be mutually beneficial for the D-Arch and its Mittelbau. Most prominently, a group of four Mittelbau members has won the Golden Lion of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale with a curatorial project for the Swiss Pavilion, which in turn became for the first time in history the recipient of this prestigious prize. Within a Swiss context, two projects of AAA members received the annual Swiss Art Award in the category of architecture, and numerous other projects have been shortlisted and exhibited within the Swiss Art Award competition over the past years. In the context of research, AAA members have collected a vast number of fellowships, scholarships, and funds ranging from the Richard Rogers Fellowship of Harvard University to the EU Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship, and from SNF doc.mobility grants to the ETH Pioneer Fellowship. The scientific work of AAA members has been awarded numerous prizes in international paper and innovation competitions. Their doctoral work has been lauded with the ETH Silver Medal (with distinction) in 7 instances, equaling the already high number of medals from the previous assessment period. Finally, Mittelbau members have also won over 20 national and international architectural and urban design competitions with their own offices.


During the past five years, the Mittelbau organized initiatives to raise awareness on issues of concern for the Department, and to stimulate research exchanges across fields and generations of scholars. In 2016, a group of AAA members started the initiative Parity Talks in response to the enduring gender imbalance at the professors’ level. The initiative consists in a yearly gathering on March 8, including roundtables and conference panels. These Talks have focused with the role of women in architecture, from higher-education to practice, and have discussed concrete measures that the DArch could adopt in order to improve its case of gender imbalance. To fulfil this objective, Parity Talks led to the creation of the Parity and Diversity Commission. The fourth edition of Parity Talks took place in 2019, and, with the support of the D-Arch. This was a major event led by the Mittelbau, with a participation sourced from throughout the whole school, and with the ambition to affect the national debate about the state of the profession in Switzerland. In the context of research, the Mittelbau organized various series of events. In 2013, AAA members from the doctoral programs of the gta and ITA Institutes launch Schwerpunkte, a yearly two-days workshop that aims to foster dialogue across research fields within architecture and between senior and junior scholars. Werkstattgespräche is a Mittelbau series focused on discussing current work. Among the initiatives that have been discontinued in the last five years were the PhD Talks, which focused on transferring knowledge of doctoral research from scholars who had completed their dissertation to doctoral students still in the process.


With their various activities, AAA members have also expanded the Department’s visibility and reputation beyond the school. In the past 5 years, Mittelbau members have held over 100 lectures in Switzerland and abroad, they have been invited as guest critics at numerous other schools, they have acted as external evaluators of diploma work, have performed as external examiners, and have acted as jury members for various competitions. AAA members had the lead in organizing international workshops, symposia, conferences and summer schools. They have been appointed to editorial boards and operate as peer reviewers for journals like The Journals of Architecture and Architectural Theory Review. The Mittelbau has contributed to over 300 publications overall, uncluding peer-reviewed papers, journal articles, book chapters, edited publications, monographs, etc. They also have been awarded prestigious curatorial work – such as the International Architectural Biennale of Sao Paulo – while their own work has been featured in over 50 exhibitions worldwide. With over 70 architectural offices and other practices, the Mittelbau is an important part of the emerging architectural scene of Switzerland and beyond, establishing an important layer of exchange between the academic institution and the world of practice. In addition, AAA members have ventured into other fields and, for instance, have founded spin-offs – such as Scanvision – or have developed open source software. Finally, a number of AAA members have been appointed as guest professors, assistant professors, senior lecturers nationally and internationally, expanding their expertise as well as the Department’s reputation towards new contexts and academic environments.


Although the Mittelbau is involved in most of the teaching at the D-Arch, there are several areas where AAA members play a particularly role in conceiving and conducting teaching. A first area is the conduction of elective seminars and summer schools. In setting up these teaching activities, the Mittelbau often establishes partnerships with other entities within and without the D-Arch, to offer students stimulating learning objectives, such as the gta Archives, the gta Exhibitions, the ETH Baubibliothek, and the Werner Oechslin Library Foundation. Sometimes these activities coincide with major architectural events, such as the 2018 Venice Biennale. Other partners have included the Japan Foundation, the Vitra Design Museum, the Swiss Embassy in Copenhagen, and the Norman Foster Foundation. A second area is the development of week-long traveling seminars (Seminarwoche), a teaching mode that is unique to the D-Arch and that falls in the architectural tradition of the journey as a learning experience. Destinations have included Jerusalem, Athens, Sarajevo, Japan, and Finland. These seminars are craved by the students, but they often require very intense preparations such as establishing networks of local contacts that have to be restarted almost every semester at any change of destination. Finally, a third area consists in the participation of the Mittelbau as guests in design studio assessments, either within or without the D-Arch. These are typically short commitments, but are indicators of the Mittelbau’s positive reputation in design and its academic network.

3. Career Development

The Opportunity: the D-Arch is an Excellent W0rking Environment to Prepare for an Academic Career

The D-Arch offers unique working environments and career opportunities for members of the Mittelbau, which explains its excellent performance. In the ideal case of producing synergies between available resources, the freedom of teaching and research given to the Chairs, as well as a Chair’s supportive attitude towards its assistants and scholars, qualified and motivated Mittelbau members are enabled to excel with their careers in a way that is difficult to find elsewhere at this level. The resulting amount and quality of work is extensive and has to be considered deliberately when assessing the Department’s overall performance. On the one hand, this excellence has contributed to the individual Chairs and Institutes within which AAA members operate. On the other hand, this working environment has also allowed AAA members to initiate and contribute to activities beyond the limits of their own working groups, either by innovating teaching practice and by conducting independent research initiatives, or by voicing the concerns of early-career architects and researchers. Furthermore, the support of Chairs and Institutes has enabled AAA members to demonstrate excellence also outside of ETH Zurich, through awards, public outreach, and professional service. Finally, the inception of doctoral and postdoctoral programs has allowed an unprecedented growth in staff performance, as these have become opportunities to excel in and focus full-time on independent doctoral research. The doctoral programs at the gta and ITA Institutes as well as the first fellows of the postdoctoral program of the gta Institute have all been positive examples. The launch of an additional doctoral program by the NSL in the Fall of 2019 reinforces this direction. The creation of the Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture further contributes to the Department’s commitment to give to excellent candidates the possibility to prepare for accessing a scientific career.

No Independent Entry-Level Positions to Start an Academic Career at the D-Arch

However, the Department has a clear structural deficit, when it comes to the next level of academic career development – meaning positions like junior faculty positions such as assistant and guest professorships, or those of senior scientists that are between postdoc and tenured professorships and that are independent of tenured Chairs. Both for candidates from within ETH Zurich, and for candidates outside of ETH Zurich, the Department currently does not offer possibilities for promising scholars and designers to start and develop an independent scientific or teaching career at the level of junior faculty positions. In this sense, there is a clearly identifiable gap between the opportunities given to the Mittelbau, and those given to the full professorships. Yet, it is precisely within this gap between postdoc positions and full professorships, that early career opportunities for emerging scholars and practicing architects usually take place in the form of assistant and guest professorships, lectureships, and tenure track positions.

Missed Opportunities: A Structural Question for the D-Arch

Against this background, the AAA misses a clearly visible and comprehensive long-term strategy to establish such frameworks and positions at the D-Arch. From the perspective of the AAA, the Department has even made steps backwards in several instances, and has missed chances to permanently establish formats that are dedicated to emerging scholars and practitioners during the past five years. Three examples in particular demand closer attention. First, in the field of design, the Department transformed two previously existing Assistant Professorships for architecture and design into four “Extraordinary Professorships” (Ausserordentliche Professuren). This resulted in the recruitment of rather well-established architects, instead of promising junior professors. Moreover, the four existing “guest lectureships” in design (Gastdozenturen) – which would be a great format to partly dedicate to young and upcoming designers – have been awarded by criteria set by the senior faculty that unfortunately lack transparency, and do not follow best practice, as for example routinely organizing an international call for applications with clearly formulated profiles. Second, in the field of architectural theory, a 2-year lectureship that the gta Institute awarded so far to two emerging scholars in the past four years risks being discontinued, as the term of the current lecturer ends with this academic year without a planned replacement. Third, in the context of the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore (FCL), only one person has successfully tenured out of the three tenure track positions established for design within this program. Although it is understood that not every tenure track can be successful, this case was a particularly complex one, the difficulty thereof derived from unclarities regarding how to establish reasonable criteria and processes for evaluating the performance of candidates for design-based tenure track professorships. These three examples show how the identified gap is not limited to individual institutes or domains, but that this is rather a structural question to be addressed by the D-Arch as a whole, ensuring that the future development of the Department becomes more diverse and competitive by providing entry-level positions. Accordingly, the AAA sees a lot of potential to improve current appointment processes, advocates for installing binding guidelines on how to develop a sound tenure track process (for design-based Chairs in particular), and calls for adopting a comprehensive strategy for entry-level positions at the Department.

4. Recommendation

More Assistant/Visiting Professorships and Guest Lectureships at the Department

As already mentioned, what is missing at the D-Arch are positions at the Assistant Professor, Visiting Professor, or Guest Lectureship level, which would allow promising scholars and designers to start their academic track at ETH Zurich. This is not only an administrative gap, but a gap in the broader objective that the D-Arch has set for itself to foster excellence and mobility, and which the AAA advocates that it should unfold at all levels.Therefore, the AAA recommends a restructuring of the Department’s faculty, proposing the creation of new positions at the Assistant Professor and Visiting Professor level within all Institutes, with the understanding that these positions would be devoted to excellence and innovation in research and teaching. This measure could be obtained, for example, by relocating an equal number of FTEs from the current Chairs to the new Professorships. This measure would benefit students, Chairs, and the Department. The measure would offer students a greater pedagogical diversity, allowing them to choose from a greater number of classes with a higher student-faculty ratio and with a more diverse pool of subjects. Moreover, the measure would decrease the administrative burden of Chairs for duties associated with a large staff. Finally, the measure would increase the competencies of the Department, which would encompass a greater number of subjects. In response to possible, anticipated concerns (e.g. the creation of more search committees, endangering the integrity of existing Chairs), the AAA stresses that the measure proposed is for neither exclusively long-term positions as those of the Chairs, nor for short-term positions as fellowships, but for non-permanent, medium-term, and – in the case of successful tenure track processes – occasional full-time positions, which would not substantially compete with the Chairs. Moreover, the gains that the measure will bring to the Department as a whole would outnumber any individual loss. The AAA suggests, that this measure would increase the Department’s competitiveness by positioning it on the market for early-career candidates. This change would also fit in the trend of previous years of moving duties from the Chair level to the Institute level, as for example in the case of the admission and supervision of new doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers via doctoral and postdoctoral programs. Overall, this measure would expand the positive working environment that the Department has fostered in the past five years to early-career scholars and designers who could strive for excellence independently, beyond the limits of short-term fellowships and precarious adjunct positions, and towards research breakthroughs and teaching innovation.