This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of MIT Spectrum.
FOR MORE THAN FOUR DECADES, the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art (HTC) program at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning has been on the forefront of exploring the larger questions and challenges within architectural history. Thomas Beischer, who earned his PhD from the HTC program in 2004, wants to keep it that way.
Tom teaches architectural history and theory at Stanford University, and his spouse, Lily Beischer, is a stock analyst and portfolio manager. Together the pair recently made a significant gift to support HTC faculty, establishing the Beischer Family Faculty Research Fund to ensure the HTC remains on the leading edge of contemporary architectural history scholarship.
“It’s the faculty, with their leadership, vision, and mentorship that really puts the HTC ahead,” says Tom. “These funds will help them do their research in the best possible way.”
Tom credits the HTC faculty, particularly his dissertation advisor, Professor Mark Jarzombek PhD ’86, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, with broadening the vision of MIT’s architectural history program to embrace a global view of the field, rather than a Western-centric one. Jarzombek is the author of the seminal textbook, A Global History of Architecture (Wiley Press, 2006), and was instrumental in starting the new Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative, a group of architectural scholars from around the world who are creating teaching materials for non-Western subjects in college-level architectural history survey courses.
To determine how their gift could be used best, Tom engaged in a series of conversations with Jarzombek, with whom he remains close, as well as other members of the HTC faculty. For Tom, the gift’s ultimate direction was simply a matter of having confidence in the faculty. “As much as I would trust them to help me do my dissertation, I trust them in knowing the needs of the department the best,” he says. Tom, who completed a master’s degree in art history at Williams College, came to MIT searching for a doctorate program with a “density of activity”—something he found not only in the HTC, but also in the wider Institute and Cambridge communities. He discovered that the program had an “incredibly strong alumni network” that helped make MIT a hub for architectural historians from around the world to share research and ideas.
Tom says his experience at MIT also helped him understand the deeper layers of connection between architectural theory and practice and expanded his interests beyond physical buildings. “Now, in my teaching at Stanford, I make sure that the undergraduates I work with begin to understand how buildings, practice, and theory are intertwined,” he says. “I didn’t fully understand that dynamic before I got to MIT.”
The Beischer Family Faculty Research Fund follows a recent gift that the Beischers made to the HTC to support travel. That fund enabled 23 graduate students to go on a 2018 HTC trip to Sri Lanka. Travel is crucial for understanding architecture, says Tom, who believes a large part of thinking about architecture globally is being on site and seeing buildings in context, “alive and at work.”
The Beischers’ gifts to MIT are part of the couple’s efforts to make educational opportunities more equitable. Both Lily and Tom support schools they’ve attended, and Tom serves on the national board for the Breakthrough Collaborative, which offers educational programs for high-achieving, underserved middle and high school students.
When reflecting on the timing of the gift, the Beischers say that it was important for them to make it while they are still “relatively young” and can see their gift bear fruit. “It’s a joy for us to know that the faculty is going to feel supported,” says Lily. Adds Tom, “The reason I have such a great passion for MIT and am still passionate about architectural history and theory is because of the faculty. That’s what inspires us to support MIT.”