Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fortieth Anniversaries

1969, the end of the turbulent 60's, was a year of national, international and personal milestones. Now forty years later, I find myself reflecting on the events which shaped my generation and influenced my personal and professional path.

The first of the forty-year anniversaries was our February wedding and honeymoon in our semi-complete ski house in Vermont. Getting snowed in so completely we were unable to get to the ski slopes, we spent the first day as newlyweds tiling the downstairs bathroom. That day was not only the start of many future housing renovations and construction projects, but of never missing an opportunity for accomplishment, regardless of the situation. Back in Somerville, we moved into our first apartment, painted some super graphics on walls and a radiator, got some furniture and started our life together. That spring I applied to the new graduate program in architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo and we got ready to set off on another new adventure.

The summer of 1969 marked three more fortieth anniversaries: the New York City Stonewall riots in June, Apollo 11 in July and the Woodstock Festival in August. All were events of our time, marking the start of the gay rights movement, the completion of Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon, and a musical high point of the peace and love era. Along with millions of other people, we watched the Apollo mission on television, and we did drive from Boston to New York State in August - just not to Woodstock. Our trip was to Buffalo, New York for the start of graduate school in the very first year of the architectural program at SUNY Buffalo. What an adventure it was: a new city, a new professional direction and the purchase of our first home together. Very exciting times.

As I think back to the start of the graduate program, I'm reminded of people, process and purpose. Much humbler, but not unlike the goal of the space program to put a person on the moon, the school's innovative, even radical, purpose was to broaden the context of design and architecture by putting man and environmental considerations into the practice of architecture. The history of the school acknowledges John Eberhard as the visionary first dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and provides a thumbnail sketch of how it began. However the following quote forty years later by John in his most recent book, Brain Landscape, the Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture, puts the origin of the school into his own words.
An opportunity I couldn't resist presented itself when Martin Meyerson, president of the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo), invited me to start a new school of architecture at his university. He arranged for my new school to report to three provosts: Engineering, Fine arts, and Social Science. I decided to have this school focus on an inter-disclipinary graduate program, which would have as its purpose educating a new generation of architects who could organize and manage research projects--as contrasted to designing buildings. We formed a nonprofit organization outside the university called BOSTI--the Buffalo OSTI related to my friend Don Schon's research organization in Boston. During the next 5 years, our team of graduate students participated in more than 50 projects--all of which were funded through BOSTI by outside organizations.
The first person John asked to join his mission to build a new school was the late Mike Brill. Mike and John had previously collaborated at the National Bureau of Standards Institute for Applied Technology, using design-research teams that applied systematic analysis to problems in the built environment - a systems oriented, people committed social vision. Mike was the first chair of the graduate school and developed the research/teaching arm called BOSTI, Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation. The first class of twenty graduate students was a mature group from a variety of undergraduate majors, setting up the multi-disciplinary approach. All had altruistic, knowedgeable, energetic restlessness with the status quo. Banding together with purpose, they were rebels with a cause.

Those first months of a teach/learn experience in a program without a traditionally structured curriculum explored the roots of the educational model. A number of components of the vision and process were tested live on our experimental class, including: the multi-disciplinary approach to environmental design, projects as educational vehicles with real design-related problems and real clients, team learning in faculty-student teach-learn mode, research in action education funded through BOSTI, user-based, systems-oriented problem solving, and performance-based measurement of outcomes. The flavor and spirit was clearly activist and anti-establishment, particularly toward the architectural profession and schools which favored visual design education without social constructs. Assigned readings, such as Systems Approach by Churchman, General Systems Theory by von Bertalanffy, Structure of Scientific Revolution by Kuhn, Personal Space by Sommers and Hidden Dimension by Hall, supported systems thinking about social issues. Kuhn's book introduced the word 'paradigm' and John viewed this program as the new paradigm.

Forty years later, I can still see the space where we worked, its walls covered with diagrams, images, charts, and goal evaluation matrices from our projects, research or class assignments, yet I can also see how much of what was set out back then as a way to change architectural schools and practice, still remains incomplete today. Recently I took on a new role in our organization as Director of Research with the goal of completing the research-based practice loop started in Buffalo. While contributions from social science have continued to provide much more useful research about the design and use of the built environment, currently called evidence based design, the bridge between systems-based research and the mainstream practice world is still incomplete. My work started forty years ago with that drive to Buffalo, and the journey continues.

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