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ASU architecture professor honored as 2020 Educator of the Year

Elena Rocchi, a clinical assistant professor of architecture in The Design School within Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, was recently recognized as the 2020 Educator of the Year by the Arizona component of the American Institute of Architects at their annual awards gala. 

Elena Rocchi, a clinical assistant professor of architecture in The Design School.

“This recognition means sharing the commitment of those that earned it — to teach architecture with excellence to transmit to future generations the love and the passion for the discipline I have,” Rocchi said. “My father was a salesman, my mother a housewife. I am a first-generation student. My most outstanding achievement has been to study architecture, to be an architect and an educator: I work to offer others that opportunity as I live an extraordinary life as an architect, filled with visions, dreams and people.”

Rocchi has taught at The Design School since 2013 and served as the coordinator for the environmental design program from 2017–2019. This year she received The Design School Faculty Excellence Award in the Humanity category, and in 2019 she received The Design School Teaching Excellence Award for Innovative and Impactful Values. In addition to her teaching experience at ASU, she has also taught in various capacities and exhibited work at universities throughout the U.S., Europe, South America and most recently Johannesburg, South Africa.

“My teaching has a goal,” she said, “which is to transmit to the student a love of design and a passion for the discipline as transaction and transformation.”

In the classroom and studio at The Design School, Rocchi models her teaching and mentorship on a formula she defines as “A+SX = Architecture + the Student Experience." This starts with establishing a relationship with students and building forms of care for the students as individuals. Then, she builds the course as a series of design experiences that engages them through emotional impact using memory and knowledge gleaned from her own professional experiences.

“It is the ingredient of ‘experience’ that, in learning, guarantees the student's success,” she said. “How do we teach architecture as an experience since it requires so much time to be engendered? I believe we can do it by engaging students in human artistic ventures keeping in mind that, under any definition of student success, it is the link between faculty activity and students' outcomes.”

A native of Italy, Rocchi holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture with a specialty in restoration and history from the University of Studies “La Sapienza” in Rome and a master’s degree in architectural theory and history from the Barcelona School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. She completed a resident fellowship at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy in Design, Environment and the Arts program at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU. Prior to her teaching career, Rocchi was a general manager and senior architect at Miralles Tagliabue EMBT in Barcelona, where she worked on projects including the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, the University of Vigo Campus in Vigo, Spain, and the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. 

“Practice trained my capacity to balance free will and determinism. It inspires my teaching and interdisciplinary research for advancing the art and science of architecture to design renewed urban experiences, using as a case study a modern and continuously growing American city," Rocchi said. "Phoenix and its metropolitan area can speak to urban phenomena worldwide."  

The awards gala is usually held at the Phoenix Art Museum, but due to public health concerns this year’s event was presented as a drive-in, physically-distanced experience in the Paradise Valley Mall parking lot. Presenters spoke from a stage backed by projector screen, while participants cheered and honked their horns as winners were announced.

“In the classroom, studio or review session, Elena is engaged and engaging, provocative, and always ready with an apt analogy or awareness that makes the student realize the potential they hold,” wrote Mark Ryan, past president of AIA Arizona and principal of Mark Ryan Studio, in his nomination. “Equally adept at theoretical underpinning or astute historical context, she possesses a unique charm and an intelligent, discerning wit in service of providing students with the best reflective insights. She is tenacious, hardworking, thoughtful, gentle and appropriately supportive of the experimentations of her students, as well as the students of others who often seek out her council. Her commitment and enthusiasm are absolutely contagious; it is why students line up to take her classes.”

rcabrera@asu.edu