Prof. Emeritus Allan Cooper (Interview 2010)

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Rice and Cornell, two prestigious architectural programs, marked your architectural education. After receiving your M.Arch, you worked in Louisville, KY prior to moving to the West Coast. What motivated you with Cal Poly’s learn-by-doing philosophy?

During the second half of the 60's, the Rice architecture program was very practice-oriented with a strong emphasis on addressing social issues and client needs. This was partly the result of Bill Caudill's influence as Dean of the School of Architecture. It didn't hurt that Clovis Heimsath (a prolific and pioneering author of books addressing architectural programming) was a professor of mine. While I was there, Rice had already initiated a summer internship program which had a profound influence on me. I spent that summer living, practicing and social "networking" with Harris Armstrong, FAIA, who had reputedly introduced the International Style of architecture to St. Louis, Missouri back in the 30's and 40's.

My appreciation for my "learn-by-doing" education at Rice increased even more when I attended graduate school at Cornell where Colin Rowe was my thesis advisor and Fred Koetter was my graduate teaching assistant. Colin Rowe's emphasis on "learn-by-theorizing" was considered radical at the time. Social issues and client needs were summarily dismissed and "form-for-form's sake" became the new dictum. This was a two-year graduate program with a class of nine students. My determination to address social issues resulted in my having to take another year to complete my thesis. I later found out that I was only one of three students in my class to actually graduate (Fred Koetter, who later went on to become Dean at Yale, completed his thesis long after me!).

Your tenure at the Department gives you the privilege of having experienced almost four decades of changes that affected the education of an architect. What are some of the highlights that you believe were key in building the national reputation of this program?

Over the past 35 years, Cal Poly has consistently attracted motivated architecture students. Many of these students came from modest economic circumstances where they were often the first in their family to attend college. This instilled in them a higher purpose for attending college. Also, these students had an ingrained work ethic which they needed to survive 5-6 years of grueling coursework (compounded by the fact that they once needed to complete 248 units to meet their graduation requirements) while holding down part-time jobs to pay their way through college.

Dean George Hasslein deserves some credit for hiring full and part-time faculty who came from diverse backgrounds…faculty from overseas, faculty with multiple degrees, urban designers, graphic artists, practitioners and scholars. Needless to say, this mix of faculty led to many contentious curriculum meetings where consensus only came slowly and painfully! Nevertheless, the curriculum that ultimately emerged reflected the diversity and depth that truly exists within the profession.

You designed your own house in Port Townsend, WA. Guests rave about the sense of intimacy, craftsmanship and overall detailing that you were able to create in this project. How did you achieve this spatial quality?

My Port Townsend house was built on a lot that should have been declared permanent open space! My friend, Ellen Notermann, when she first saw the property declared that no one should "own it". It is a half-acre of century-old cedar and fir trees perched 240 feet above the Pacific Ocean with commanding views of Vancouver Island (on a clear day), Miller Peninsula and Protection Island.

I hired a very talented former Cal Poly student Rick Erickson to assist me on this project. Rick was a designer-builder living in Port Townsend who had assembled a team of very talented master builders (several of whom were boat builders as well). His crew consecrated the site before construction as they felt that it was a sacred piece of property and the house came to be known as the "shrine house".

I have always been a fan of everything Japanese and I conceived the house as a piece of Japanese folk architecture. What I didn't realize until later in the design process was that I would be confined to a building envelope no wider than 14 feet, no longer than 50 feet and no higher than 35 feet. The previous owner's plans had inaccurately located the existing percolation field 20 feet further from the proposed building footprint. Then we were confronted with increased setbacks from top of bluff as per direction from the Coastal Commission. Of course we couldn't touch any existing trees. So whether I wanted it or not, my house became very tall, very narrow and very long. This worked to my advantage as I wanted to flood the house with natural light and most certainly wanted to celebrate the magnificent views.

You were awarded in 2007 the Octavius Morgan Distinguished Service Award from the California Architecture Board. Describe your role and aspirations while serving on this board.

My service to the Architecture Board began more than 25 years ago when George Hasslein invited me to help develop a new architecture licensing exam for the State of California. This was when California had "seceded" from NCARB because of irreconcilable disagreements over the national exam. At that time, the California Board recognized that their licensees needed a more rigorous understanding of structure, HVAC and life safety issues and NCARB was not prepared to sufficiently address these concerns. It was, for me, a seminal experience as I was working alongside leading practitioners debating how to address the most critical issues facing architects practicing at that time in the State of California. This experience ultimately led to the development and administration of the California Supplementary Exam.

I have been participating on the CAB Professional Qualifications Committee for a number of years where we discuss issues bearing on licensed and unlicensed practice, school accreditation, reciprocity, internship and supplementary certifications. My continued involvement in the licensure process has helped me to maintain my currency as both an educator, administrator and practitioner. I especially enjoy my contacts within the Board as many of them are often former students and Cal Poly alumni!

The recent design studio programs that you proposed to your students take place within a strong urban environment. How do you want context to affect the students’ understanding of the place of architecture within the scale of the city?

I always had an interest in "urban design". The "one-off building" (of course depending on it's scale) seemed to me very limited in terms of addressing serious social issues. Part of my reason for attending Cornell's graduate program was that it offered me the opportunity to take a number of City and Regional Planning courses (I nearly took enough courses to qualify me for a dual Masters in ARCH/CRP). Early on in my teaching career I established close links with the communities of Pismo Beach and later San Luis Obispo through my many years (16 years) as an architectural review and planning commissioner.

So this led me to build a relationship between my students and local planners, developers, builders, architects and end-users. This mix of stake holders required that my students address a more challenging "dialectic" by reconciling their often conflicting needs. Conflict resolution in the context of community design became a major theme in my studio. I firmly believe that true creativity emerges only when the designer successfully addresses the needs of all of these users.

Your community activism and advocacy for the city of San Luis Obispo is marked by your leadership role on numerous committees. How does one advocate for a better city when many citizens have not experienced the breath of knowledge and experience that you bring to the debate?

A: My commitment to community activism is the result of having had the privilege to engage the public (in this case, San Luis Obispo) in shaping their physical and social environment. Much can be learned from the so-called "uneducated layman". I have learned this from years of exposure to public testimony, much of it tedious and long but always rewarding. Needless to say, I have learned volumes from my fellow public servants as well. San Luis Obispo, like many small communities, succeeds in community outreach.

I continue to wear my "educator hat" when I participate in this "outreach" and feel that the so-called "arcane art" of architecture and urban design should be made more accessible to the public. The public are slowly becoming more educated about the so-called "entitlement process" where discretionary give and take between the developer and the public occurs. My concerns reflect the public's concerns in addressing preservation of the natural and built environment while allowing incremental growth within the community.

You retired from Cal Poly Fall 2009. What projects are you currently working on?

Even though, in my retirement, I spend 3-6 months of the year in Port Townsend and overseas, I still maintain some San Luis Obispo community and club involvement as chair of three groups, the Obispo Beautiful Association, Save Our Downtown and SLO Traders. I have retired from the Board of the local AIA Chapter, the Arts Obispo Board and no longer serve on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee.

I still serve as Master Commissioner of the CAB Supplementary Exam, as a member of the CAB Professional Qualifications Committee and am serving as a sponsor for an AIA Fellowship application. I have designed and built a carport (comprised of two torii gates) and several garden features for my house in Port Townsend. I continue to host friends, colleagues and former students who come my way into the "north country" and look forward to hearing from you all!

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