Prof. Emeritus Jim Bagnall (Inteview 2010)


What brought you to Cal Poly after graduating from U.C. Berkeley? I must say that coming to Cal Poly was not one of those things one plans. I don’t think it could happen again.

Things have changed dramatically since I first heard about a job in San Luis Obispo in 1969. Those were strange times. California was flush. The State Colleges were expanding and hireling eagerly. I left U.C. Berkeley in my fourth year as an Architecture student to work full time in graphic design for print, exhibition design and filmmaking. I was also working on the permanent exhibition for the new Oakland Museum as a consultant. I was considering the offer of a permanent position at the Museum when I received a call from Don Koberg, my very first design instructor at U.C. Berkeley.

I had kept in touch with him after his move to Cal Poly. The School of Architecture was attempting to hire 22 faculties and would I consider a move to Cal Poly for a one-year lectureship? Now, Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo were far away and mysterious places for a young Bay area man and his wife and two boys. I remember asking Sandra if she knew what the weather was like in San Luis Obispo. It wasn’t an easy decision for us but we decided to try it out. After all how bad could a year be? We grew to love San Luis Obispo and teaching. The one year lecture position turned into a forty year challenging, remarkably rewarding, and, enjoyable career.

You were the founder and Academic Director of the Summer Career Workshop for high school students for 18 years. What were the premises of this vision?

The workshop was a joint creation by Art Chapman and me. A perfect partnership. Art was great with organization and I had become a pretty good basic design instructor. The concept was to show high school juniors, who were considering Architecture as a college major what a career in Architecture involves. Most of them had no idea that involved anything beyond drafting. Many of the rest just had no idea, but their parents liked the idea of getting them out of the house for a month. Art and I designed an original and challenging curriculum. Many of the elements of our first efforts remain in place today. The workshop proved to be exhausting, stressful, and rewarding in many ways. Many of our students decided not to pursue the architecture major. We counted those among our successes, as well as those who became completely enchanted by the idea of learning about Architecture.

You co-authored with Don Koberg a best seller titled The Universal Traveler. Can you explain the success of this book that has been edited seven times since 1972?

Of course, at the base of the Universal Traveler’s success is the fact that it is a creative, unique, approachable book on creativity and the design process. Even today it is among the very few which address the subject at the entry level. The content is mostly the result of Don Koberg’s thorough research and brilliant way with words. My experience as a graphic designer contributed to the look and feel of the book. I should also give credit to a group of Cal Poly 5th year students enrolled in a design section called Z-Lab. They proved to be a great sounding board and target audience for testing the writing and graphic style of the book. The success, in terms of copies in print, (more than 500,000) falls to a very creative publisher. He gave away hundreds of copies, not only to design teachers but to teachers in many areas which need to be creative. I’m not sure why it is still in print. People keep discovering it. I think it is because we were able to deal with a very complex subject at an entry level without talking-down to the readers.

Your ability to describe, sketch, and draw superbly are synonymous with your teaching abilities. How did you develop those “architectural” skills and impart them to your students?

A few good teachers didn’t hurt. Connie Perkins at Occidental College gave me my first introduction to drawing and composition. Donlyn Lyndon taught my first drawing class in the Architecture at Department Berkeley. Leaving the firsts class with homework assigned, I told him I had never drawn seriously. He said, “Just don’t do it seriously.” Today I see that in his drawings, which I love, and in mine. I think I really didn’t develop my drawing skills until I arrived at Cal Poly. I learned the best way to master something is to try to teach it to someone else. Once again Don Koberg is there for a turning point in my life. For some reason we were talking about teaching and I said I couldn’t draw. He replied, “It’s not that you can’t draw it’s that you won’t draw.” From that point, mostly out of spite, I changed my story from “I can’t draw”, to “I can draw anything” and never looked back. As to how I developed my skills and how I try to teach others, I subscribe to two universal thoughts: drawing is a matter of seeing, and, three words apply to getting better at drawing: Practice Patience and Persistence, are essential qualities needed to improve ones drawing ability. (Another great teacher, Neil Watson introduced me to the last idea.)

Your life is synonymous with teaching architecture. Who were the mentors that inspired and nurtured this gift within you?

That is a good question, an easy, if emotional, one to answer. I’ve thought about it often and feel fortunate that the names come so easily. We all have hundreds of “teachers” shaping our lives, for me the list of teachers who could be counted as mentors is short. They are responsible for a huge part of who I am and what I know. Most readers won’t recognize the names, except here comes Don Koberg again. I wish you could have known them all. Jim Robertson, Teacher, Typographer, Graphic Designer, Book Designer, Small Press Publisher, and Friend Jim taught me the value of craft, precision, attention to minute detail and humor in all life’s efforts. Don Koberg, Teacher, Designer, Writer, Architect and Friend Don taught me to question and to seek the essence of all answers. Jack Augsburger, Teacher, Designer, Sculpture, Tinkerer Friend. Jack taught me the value of self-reliance, the importance of creative detail, and that fun is a critical element of life. They all had in common the ability to inspire one to “reach beyond your grasp”

You have weathered many architectural movements during your career as an educator. Was one movement more important than another, and why?

An easy question for me. I am passionate about Basic Design and finding the most fundamental “models” of design. At that level design styles and movements are of little use. I’m interested in commonalities and base roots of all movements

You retired “officially” from Cal Poly Fall 2006, but you have remained deeply committed and involved with the Department of Architecture. What message do you wish to share to the students about learning architecture?

I’m afraid the answer for why I stay deeply committed and involved in the Architecture Department won’t be what one would expect to hear. Basically it comes down to selfishness. I just love to spend time with our students. Other than the fact that they can wear one out, I can see no reason leaving them. Selfishly, I have spent all forty years of my career in an effort to grow constantly in my ability as a teacher and can’t deal with the idea of letting go of any of that. I tried getting out once for a year but when the opportunity was fortunately offered, I jumped right back in the pool. I continue my involvement because it seems to be productive, appreciated, and welcome The message I would give to students is, there is no better place to receive a “big E” Education than an Architecture Department. The horizons are huge and the limitations are few.

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