This summer the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (UTSoA) will be the latest school in recent years to appoint new leadership, welcoming Professor Michelle Addington of Yale University as its new dean. Addington will succeed Interim Dean Elizabeth Danze, who took the helm of the institution last year after the abrupt departure of Frederick Steiner.
According to Maurie McInnis, the executive vice president and provost at UT Austin, “Michelle is a perfect fit.” She added that Professor Addington “brings fresh eyes and new ideas that will continue supporting the robust breadth and depth of interdisciplinary work happening at the school, and she will lead conversations that advance the field in the 21st century.”
The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) spoke with Addington last week about her vision for UTSoA, emerging issues for designers in the built environment, and her eagerness to be walking distance from Franklin’s Barbecue.
AN: What initially interested you about UTSoA as an institution?
Michelle Addington: I wanted this position for a very long time. I always kept my eye on different deanships and interviewed off and on over the years, but none of them felt right to me. When this became available, I knew it was one I really wanted.
Part of it has to do with the fact that I come from a Texas family and there is a sense of home. My mother is from Austin, so it is a part of the country that really resonates with me. Another part of it has to do with the fact that [UTSoA] has such a storied legacy in the development of contemporary design education. One can look to the Texas Rangers… [they] were an incredibly formative part of architectural education.
And, the fact that the full range of design disciplines are represented, everything from architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, urban design, community and regional planning, sustainable design, and historic preservation. And a robust combination of degrees from undergraduate to PhD.
I feel that it’s a place that is right for me as an individual but also a place where I feel as though I can bring my experience to the existing faculty and students and build on their strengths.
In the last few years, the school has attracted significant funding and progressive initiatives. Examples include the U.S. DOT Transit Research Grant, a new faculty position for the study of Race and Gender, and a high-tech Robotics Lab, to name a few. Though these are early days, can you talk a little about these initiatives and the direction you see the school going under your leadership?
If you think about the field of architecture writ large—about all of the design disciplines—they were heavily product-centric for centuries. The digital turn at the end of the 20th century brought forward methods that enable us to deal with multiple contexts, multiple terrains, and different kinds of content. We became incredible masters at manipulating this varied terrain but mostly in terms of dealing with what I consider to be ‘contested boundaries.’
It’s easy to think about a building as being bounded by its site and envelope. But when you start to look at [architecture] as an insertion for instance in ecological, economic, spatial, political boundaries, [it] can accurately map and open up questions that I don’t think any other discipline can do.
All of these initiatives—the DOT, the Robotics Lab, the program dealing with gender and racial diversity—are looking to insert [designers] into the center of questions that heretofore have been addressed by other disciplines. I think the University of Texas has been on the mark in recognizing what we need to do [in this respect] and it is one of the reasons I’m so excited to be there.
One of the things that I spoke to the [UTSoA] faculty about was that I see interdisciplinarity differently than I think many traditional schools of architecture have seen it. All too often we think about how we fold in content from other disciplines—that is not interdisciplinarity to me. That’s cherry picking information to support what it is one wants to do. Real interdisciplinarity actually means that you have to be involved in, understand, and affect the ‘other’—other frameworks and conflicting points of view. And, you have to de-center yourself in order to do that.
You are making some news as the first woman to be named dean of UTSoA, succeeding Elizabeth Danze as Interim Dean. Your credentials I think speak for themselves but do you perhaps have any thoughts about the increasing prominence of women in leadership positions at architecture schools? And in the profession?
I have to correct that because Elizabeth Danze is the first woman dean [of UTSoA]. She may be interim but she is the trailblazer here. She is one of my favorite people.
There are many ways that practice leads academia in terms of its reflection of the world at large. However, this is a case where practice is lagging. It’s going to take some time. I think one of the things that would be interesting to talk about with a larger number of women in the field… is this idea of the ‘other.’ [Women] are used to being on the margins, away from the center, practicing on the edges.
A number of years ago there was a book put together by Lance Hosey and Kira Gould called Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design. They had noticed there was a disproportionate number of women who were working in sustainable design. You are going to find this for a lot of interdisciplinary areas that are on the edge. I think that as we start looking, again, at this negotiated terrain that is not so centered on the building object, we are going to find and recognize a lot more parity from a gender standpoint. There might be some pendulum swinging for a while because we have big problems to deal with in this world.
All I can wait for is the day when it doesn’t even occur to someone to say ‘woman architect’ but simply ‘architect.’ I want that term to disappear from our [discourse].
As a public institution, UT Austin operates quite differently than a private school like Yale, where you currently teach. Recently, we have seen several controversial policies emerge in Texas such as Senate Bill 6 (the so-called “bathroom bill”) and the open carry law which went into effect last summer. With these in mind, how do you see architecture schools engaging with similar issues of public space and more broadly how does this translate into practice?
I can’t say yet how it translates into practice. But what I can say is these issues are another reason why I want to be at [UTSoA]. I want to come precisely because these debates are on the table. It is very easy to be critical of how others are thinking about particular situations, but part of understanding and embracing the ‘other’ is that you have to fully embrace it. You have to engage yourself in that discourse no matter what you believe for yourself. We are in a really messy world. We are not going to be able to come up with solutions by bracketing ourselves and narrowing our domains or territories so that we are only surrounded with like-minded individuals.
I am most interested in figuring out how we negotiate these radically different voices. How we map progress that accepts these differences yet at the same time protects the most vulnerable. In design disciplines, we have an enormous responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of society at large which means we have to tackle these issues head on. What we really need to do is figure out how to engage.
On a lighter note, you will begin your post on July 1st of this year; and, as you well-know having attended Tulane, the south has an unforgiving summer heat. Weather aside, though, what are you looking forward to most about relocating to Austin?
Well, my grandparents lived outside of Dallas and I used to spend my summers at their unairconditioned ranch. I’ve never forgotten that.
Number one, though, is BBQ. No matter what you try in the north nobody can make decent BBQ and I’m tired of my friends from New England constantly dragging me to places where they claim that it’s the best BBQ—no. And driving, I shouldn’t say this because I’m a sustainability person, but I miss a good road trip. I’ve never been to Marfa, that’s so high on my list.