Q&A: Harrison Fraker

Q&A: Harrison Fraker

Harrison Fraker Jr., FAIA, has been dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design since 1996. Only the fifth dean of the school since it was established in 1959, Fraker retires from his role at Berkeley this year. AN talked to him about his more than 12 years at the school.

The Architect’s Newspaper: You became Dean of the College of Environmental Design (CED) at UC Berkeley in 1996. Why did you come to Berkeley?

Harrison Fraker: In 1995, I was serving as dean at the University of Minnesota, where I created the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture as a new independent college. I wrote the constitution and was the first dean. I was also instrumental in getting Steven Holl to design an addition and renovation to help consolidate the new college.

I was a reluctant candidate for the position at Berkeley, because we were undertaking a lot of important education initiatives, but I got recruited by faculty who had left Minnesota to come here.

I felt Berkeley had a lot of things in place that I was trying to start from scratch in Minnesota. Unlike Minnesota, Berkeley had already combined architecture, landscape, and city and regional planning. Also, the leadership at Berkeley—Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and Carol Christ—I thought was the best in public higher education.

What’s unique about the dean’s role at Berkeley? Well, for one, the university has no job description for its dean.

They let them make it up themselves? More or less, they simply want you to improve the academic quality of your unit. It’s pretty interesting. [Prior Dean] Roger Montgomery advised me that it’s a difficult job because your power is primarily in the power of the veto. If I was to oversimplify everything that’s happened in my 12-and-a-half years, I’ve challenged that model in complicated and subtle ways. The structure is difficult to cope with.

How do you present the college to alumni and outsiders? I try to argue that Berkeley is one of the few places that tries to maintain a balance between evidence-based research and design exploration—design as inquiry. To articulate how you make an argument for a design idea that’s not only empirical, but also inspirational. CED is the first college to put “environment” in its name—meaning that the built environment and the natural environment are seen as a whole system, a critical idea.

I would say a tradition begun by Spiro Kostoff that is multicultural and also more everyday, in J.B. Jackson’s tradition, is the Berkeley “brand.” The last source of inspiration, which I think is probably least known, is the importance of process. This goes back to when Charles Eames taught here. It’s the idea that process really isn’t just a means, it’s evident in the final product, and can be an inspiration for form. Now, of course, it’s translated into all the digital design and manufacturing things that our students do today.

What’s the faculty like at the college? Over the last 12-and-a-half years, there’s been a real generational change. Most of the founding faculty have retired and are being replaced by junior faculty who are excellent. They’ve been winning national and international design awards, international competitions, prestigious campus teaching awards, national book awards, publishing important articles, and moving up the tenure ranks.

What was the most fun about being dean? My work to improve the design quality of campus projects as the chair of the Campus Design Review Committee. I oversaw many new buildings, including the Music Library [Mack Scogin Merrill Elam], the East Asian Library [Tod Williams and Billie Tsien], Stanley Hall [Zimmer Gunsul Frasca], and was influential in getting several plans prepared to guide development of the campus.

In the community, I played a key role in the selection of Herzog & de Meuron as architects for the new de Young Museum. During the process—because in San Francisco it’s difficult to get innovative buildings approved—I went on local television to debate the opposition and helped persuade a very conservative board to stick with it. In the end, the most conservative members of the board were extremely proud of the building, even though, as Pierre de Meuron said at the opening, “They probably would not have us design their house.”

Biggest surprises? It would have to be the seismic retrofit and partial renovation of Wurster Hall. Within my first few months, faculty came and suggested we needed to do a seismic evaluation of Wurster Hall because the building did not behave well in the Loma Prieta earthquake. I worked with the campus to design and build a complex that was first home to parts of CED and subsequently numerous other UC Berkeley departments. All of this was done while maintaining the hard-nosed authenticity of a building I have come to love.

Yet the biggest surprise has been the extent to which Berkeley both fulfills and contradicts the East Coast stereotype of Berkeley as only interested in research and social issues. It is that, but it’s also a really good design school. The quality is achieved by a mixture of full-time faculty, enriched by outside visitors that are made possible by our endowments.

What about the future? There’s an incredibly positive scenario for Berkeley, which is that the designers, planners, and landscape architects are able to engage the empirical researchers, creating a real synergy, which gives the students both the knowledge base and design skill to transform the professions—leading the way to plan, design, build, and operate more sustainable communities around the world.

I’ll be pursuing this vision on my sabbatical. I hope to build the world’s first resource-self-sufficient neighborhood in Qingdao, China, using a whole-systems approach that supplies all the energy from renewables and recycles all the water and waste. It’s in the process of being designated a national demonstration project by the Chinese Ministry of Construction and has received funding from multiple private foundations. I also plan to visit other model sustainable neighborhoods around the world, perhaps organizing the material into a publication.