Prof. Emeritus William Benedict (Interview 2010)
When and how did you come to Cal Poly, and what attracted you to this place after Texas?
The first twenty years of my professional life were spent in Knoxville Tennessee and included six years as a faculty member in the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Tennessee sandwiched between two seven year periods as an architectural, graphic and product designer. At the end of this period I wanted to return to teaching so I entered the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Texas to study with Charles Moore. After graduation I found a one year lectureship at Texas A&M and continued applying for beginning design positions. In the spring of 1990 I received a phone call from Mike Martin, the head of the Architecture Department at Cal Poly at the time, saying that the search I had applied for had been canceled but he could offer me a one-year lectureship. Janis and I took a walk around the block and not knowing anything about Cal Poly and little about California we decided to see it as an adventure. I called Mike and accepted his offer to begin fall quarter 1990.
You were involved in two important curricular contributions. The first was about 1st year; describe your passion in teaching the fundamentals to freshmen students.
At the University of Tennessee I was part of a faculty team charged with completely recreating the two-year beginning design program. It was during this time I discovered my love for teaching fundamental design concepts and visual communication. I also learned that integrating the teaching of communication skills and design concepts produced a powerful and effective learning environment.
The first two years at Cal Poly I taught both first year drawing and second year design. The second year had just been changed to 5 unit design studios and it was an exciting time as a group of us worked together under the leadership of Jim Bagnall to develop a new beginning design program. Teaching in both first and second year made it clear to me that our program was wasting a year teaching only drawing and computer skills in isolation from their application. If the goal was to have a third year curriculum in which environmental control systems, practice and design were integrated then design fundamentals must be addressed in first year and second year must develop to be a transition between the two. My career at Cal Poly has largely been an effort to achieve this goal.
In the fall of 1993 with faculty support I began the Inclusive Beginnings Program experiment. The idea was to recruit incoming students who would agreed to purchase a computer and software along with traditional tools as part of joining a program that would integrate the teaching of digital and analog visual communications skills and beginning design concepts. Over the next six years I had the privilege of working with highly motivated and creative students that responded to my educational challenges in ways that always exceeded my expectations and pushed me to constantly improve my teaching. There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to have students perceive value in what they are learning and respond in ways that inspire you to improve the effectiveness of your teaching. The culmination of this effort was the incorporation of the Inclusive Beginnings Program into the curriculum in 1999 as ARCH 131/2/3 Design & Visual Communications.
My teaching grows from my professional experience as an architectural, product, graphic and interior designer and a belief that there are fundamental design principles that underlay all design disciplines. My teaching at The University of Tennessee and subsequent masters thesis at The University of Texas was focused on identifying a set of fundamental design principles. My goal was to develop a hierarchical organization of the design principles supported by a vocabulary that would be a bridge between the understanding the student’s arrived with and the professional world of design. My teaching focused on developing in my students an understanding of this language and an ability to use the principles to evaluate and develop their design ideas.
The second important curricular contribution is related to the innovative Professional Studios. Tell us about the underlying ideas in developing this program.
The concept for the Professional Studios took form after a conversation with KTGY principles Jim Thomas and Frank Yonemori and Craig Chinn, a Cal Poly graduate, concerning how they could support the Architecture program. One of the ideas discussed was teaching a studio at KTGY. As I developed the proposal it became clear that a studio/co-op taught at an architectural firm could provide our fourth year students a unique design experience, a valuable professional work experience, an off-campus program accessible to more of our students and a reduction in on-campus staffing and space needs.
Key Program Principles/Qualities • The design studio is taught by firm members that are mentored by a Cal Poly Faculty member • The studio project is based on a building type specialized in by the firm • The design process and presentation methods reflect those of the firm • Design solutions must be comprehensive in their scope • Design is undertaken as a team project • Students are paid during the co-op to defray the cost of participating in the program • The co-op provides students as comprehensive and diverse a set of professional experiences as possible • The co-op assignments make connections/parallels to the studio project as possible
The program has been successful for both the students and the firms. Students consistently feel more confident of their commitment to architecture and their ability to succeed in the profession. Firms are delighted with the student’s contributions during the co-op and are energized by their interaction with the students during the design studio. Teaching the design studio has become a sought after assignment within the firms.
You have been associated most of your life within an academic environment. Over the decades, do you perceive fundamental changes and what are they?
The most fundamental changes have come through computers and the battle over their presence in and impact on the curriculum—a battle that I found myself immersed in throughout my time at Cal Poly. Computers affect what and how we teach, the designs students produce and how students communicate their designs. Take the fundamental issue of showing what it is like to experience a design—the eye-level view. We have moved from teaching the generation of perspectives from plans and elevations through direct perspective construction to 3D modeling software. The result is multiple views and walkthroughs versus one or two hand rendered perspectives. It also resulted in faculty being faced with learning and teaching new skill sets that continue to change with new versions and pieces of software.
In both the case of drawing perspectives and building architectural models, the introduction of the computer forced us to ask important educational questions concerning the nature of drawing and modeling in the context of digital tools. The key is to understand what each tool can contribute and not become enamored with any one so that your love the hammer makes everything look like a nail.
Because computers entered architecture through practice they and their software came heavily weighted toward traditional architectural drawing. Both architectural education and practice sought software that supported the design process. This produced a division between design and production typically represented by Autocad versus 3D modeling programs. Current software is moving toward supporting a continuous flow from design through production and has the potential to integrate the full range of architectural design and construction issues. How this will affect the curriculum is a question that is yet to be fully explored or understood by most faculty much less implemented.
You are an avid reader. How does this activity inform your passion for architectural education and design issues in general?
The reading I have done over the years has addressed either what I teach or how I teach. What I teach includes books on design theory and principles, drawing and computers. How I teach includes books on cognition, learning and teaching theory and practice. All have been important to my growth as a teacher, the development of my teaching materials and my scholarship.
You continue to stay in touch with many of your students. What makes you most proud of them?
The Professional Studio Program has been a real joy because it has allowed me through firm visits to see some of my students in their professional lives. I am proud to see them as competent and skilled professionals that are appreciated by their firms and most of all I am proud to see them enjoying their lives.
You are leaving the Department to enjoy the beginning of a well-deserved retirement. What are your immediate projects?
The first thing is learning what it means to be without the deadlines and responsibilities associated with work that I have loved. It is a mental adjustment that I am just beginning to appreciate and see where it leads. Given the unfolding of this process, I am seeing three things becoming part of my retired life. I want to travel, involve myself in design related volunteer work and perhaps rewrite some of the texts that I developed while teaching.