Prof. Emeritus Terry Hargrave (Interview 2009)


I’m sure you’ve seen many changes (both curricular and with the students) at Cal Poly during your tenure here. Tell us something about those changes.

The students are never the same. Each is as individual as they always have been. Their values shift in general patterns as revealed by societal issues. We are more diverse now. Some should be cloned, never stoned. Not all are spatially gifted but nearly all are still very bright.

When I came here in 1978 I was struck by the overall high level of students, like those at MIT excepting life experiences. A few the Poly faculty were also comparable, most weren’t. I arrived here straight from MIT where I had gone for grad work after 12 years of practice and two of teaching. I was interviewed by phone and had no idea what Poly was about, but was excited to be going to California.

Poly seemed to enjoy robust support from the architectural community, as it provided a well-skilled future workforce. The curriculum was structured accordingly. But there ere many rumblings too.

The year I arrived, 1978, the faculty teaching architecture were entering a new era empowered by their newly gained right to departmental self governance. That meant they were responsible for creating their own curriculum and the means for organizing how best to deliver it. But there were deep political divisions seemingly symptomatic of the larger architectural culture... those clinging to the traditional culture of as-practiced architecture vs. those seeking to incorporate the emerging disciplines of psychology, environmental studies, urban design, semiotics, history/theory and so on.

Those differences played out in our curricular development. Studio projects and approaches were individual-teacher generated without a year level czar. It fostered a climate of experimentation and competition, but it left a few gaps in the curriculum.

But the biggest shifts are very recent. Changing the studio to three days per week, seating 20 rather than 16, and using computer desks rather than drawing and model types will shift the pedagogy far more than anything else has in the past 28 years. These revisions reflect departmental budgets and shifts in representation aims to align with the profession. Even Poly Canyon is hostage to institutional inertia... environmental impact reports, etc must preceed any class work. For a while, even the gallery was mostly off limits for studio reviews.

]Yes, curricula look pretty much the same on paper, but pedagogies are certainly in flux. The great group of newer faculty will make it work.

As a MIT graduate how did your research unfold in your teaching at Cal Poly (since Cal Poly is primarily a teaching institution)?

MIT is a powerful teaching institution. Research is integrated into the process of education rather than seen as a separate activity. I find that model better aligned with the practice of architecture than the ‘received wisdom’ mixed with magazine-copying ‘case studies’ approach.

Research methods were taught at MIT as part of any critical inquiry process... we do very little of this. My research at MIT was akin to search and synthesis in a very personal but rigorous way. They honored my desire to make sense of all the new insights that were unfolding from my own experience as well from my design/research projects.

They [Kevin Lynch and Larry Anderson] encouraged me to do my thesis as a collage of openings [the first in the department] rather than the traditional conclusion/defense. Even my thesis title reveals my impulse for the assemblage: ‘User Mediated Formal Content: A basis for the genesis of Design’.

Remember, this was the era that space seen as essentially concrete [material formed] was challenged with emerging spatial concepts that were abstract [psychology, existentialism, political, cultural, meaning driven]. On arriving at Cal Poly, I found many faculty and students shared these interests, and were voicing design concerns beyond those of square feet and rendering techniques.

Don Koberg was instrumental in focusing on the individual’s journey in design; Bilgi Denel was obsessing about space and light as part of a personal journey into the unknown only to become known; Wes Ward was transporting the minds to distant magical places to inspire and invest; Jake Feldman was teaching structures as an abstract spatial construct without engineering calculations, Gary Dwyer was an artist in drag, John Lange was looking at design as a succession of spatial actions that built upon previous ones without attempting to pre-synthesize [this was an interesting parallel to MIT’s built-form school].

The precedents were here, all I had to do was to create my own path. All of these great teachers as well as others were practicing the integration of research and teaching.

Many have argued that when our students are learning by doing and making they are learning from research. This is can be so if there is a critical discourse in their process... and this is where I think I’ve contributed in my own small way. This approach asks students to be responsible citizens to both society and nature, and to suggest ways in which architecture can make being less oppressive to both humans and nature. This means sustained research and personal journeys or there is little basis for asserting its level of criticality. To these ends we look at culturally compromised landscapes, those at which we can spend a good deal of time.

MIT had a great beginning drawing-theory course that set the stage for design as a research/generative process... drawing was always in-situ and demanded taking positions on what is observed. Poly has a complex history of packaging drawing, history, design, structures and theory courses as discrete skills/knowledge items, hence the students have a hard time integrating them. This becomes problematic to a research/design approach wherein the students have to use any or all of architecture’s many dimensions to create a critical move or shift. How is this different from any aesthetic experience?

When I [Henri] arrived in 2006, I perceived in your teaching a strong sense of integration of art as a cultural discourse for architecture. Is that a fair assessment? How do students respond to this?

I have never seen our studio as particularly obsessed with art as it is with design. I think students assume it is because of the personal freedom valued as part of the themes to minimize architecture’s oppression in all of our lives and on nature. I was deeply vested in the 60’s counter-culture and have great difficulty separating art from daily life, or for tolerating intolerance at any level.

Our building offers up a rich pallet for creating [expanses of white walls, rooftop terraces outside our rear doors, but is thwarted by institutional demands against all uses except pinups. When the roofs are used or walls marked on, it makes life difficult for administrators who are answerable to other admins who have no experience with non-permitted uses except in a criminal sense. This struggle is about space and its private vs public belonging and about absolute space [our building] vs abstract space [politics].

Space is architecture’s medium. The students must engage its fullest dialog. if art is seen as a critical inquiry intended to organize the self relative to culture and the environment, then we are seriously vested in art as another entry into cultural discourse about architecture. If art is seen as easel painting or making a pretty chair, then its value is minimal to us. Poly has little art tradition, as did MIT, but MIT unlike Poly embraces the power of artists as is evidenced in their buildings and public art as well as the poets and actors they hire to work with their architecture students.

My close collaboration with Christina McPhee, a world renowned artist, has invigorated my/our students. She does bring the world view of an artist as a critical intellectual into the studio, and has little patience for the superficiality of the intellectually disengaged. Students still show up and they still seem confused especially after we have spent hours with Kim at Morphosis, Karolin at Himmelblau, or Dolan at Moss’s along with a visit to CLUI and Jurassic Tech, then off to a Kippenberger installation... I would have been at their age too. But those are much less confusing than being asked to design an architectural spatial work to mitigate the Ballona wetlands issues, or a critical spatial wall traversing the Salton Sea, or even a safe house for the trafficked on Carrizo Plain. And still, they keep showing up. And they are highly self motivated.

Tunney Lee at MIT claimed that students will always be self motivated if there is a social or cultural challenge contained within the architectural problem. And, he is right. Cultural discourse challenges in architecture lead us to a critical spatial practice desire by demanding that space takes on added obligations... to alleviate human and environmental oppression. Mia Linn understood this. Mockbee too. Many artists do as well as doctors, lawyers, engineers, janitors, etc.

Talk about your personal research – always explorative and pushing boundaries.

This is a generous question. I don’t acknowledge as many boundaries to push anymore, maybe that is the privilege of growing older. But I did wake up a couple of months ago and decided to build a building in my side yard. It is done and wow, what a journey. It was another adventure not unlike teaching.

In teaching over 100 studios, I never repeated the final project assignments. If I did repeat my depth of accrued knowledge on the program topic might be enhanced. The building I built, like the studios I taught, embodied the collective experience of those previous, but the questor in me insisted on rewriting those histories as something as fresh as I could. But I do repeat themes and issues and these are the entries into design in my studio, rather than through conventional programs.

You have a unique voice in the department (not conforming to traditional architectural teaching) how did you develop this critical agenda?

I never see my voice as very unique other than as a memory mechanism reflecting the battles for academic freedom within a framework of standards, and the real probabilities that forces are always trying to impose standardizations. Bilgi used to tell me that I was paranoid, and that is true.

When I was up for tenure seventeen senior faculty signed a petition to get rid of me. Luckily we had a very courageous Department Head, Ray Yeh.

Poly’s strength has always been in its rich variations of approaches. The marginalization of anyone is a real sore point with me, having grown up in the 60’s. Without full participation, students, young faculty, or anyone else is learning negative architectural lessons, ie: Its okay to disregard users if they are not high on the pecking order. Extending this to our larger cultural and natural context is only inevitable given an ethical debate.

Many of your students have continued their academic career and attended prestigious graduate schools – what are you most proud of with your former students?

I am lucky, I have worked with many of our most gifted students. In that sense they taught me a great deal. I value my interactions with them, my memories of their sincere life struggles, and their challenges to me to get better at what I do. Perhaps they helped future students through me.

I never feel like I have ‘my’ former students, only students who took my studios. Ryan Sherman was in seven of my classes, and I feel sorriest for him. Big John Reed was in my studio for over to years, living on the floor of the old Powerhouse... he taught the students far more than I could about the discipline of architectural culture. I will be on his floor in Chicago next week.

Bruce Tomb was one of those extras that was willing to work on the floor since there was no ‘extra’ desk... I now am willing to work on his floor. I have met up with him and his sculpture classes at Carrizo Plain for the past couple of years, to cast stories of design legacies. Another extra, Dolon Dagget, had his dad build an elevated desk so that he could add the class by sitting above another’s desk... he now heads Moss’s design team; I conducted the wedding ceremony for Alex and Jill; and on and on.

This is like deciding which of your own children are your favorites. I would say that I am proud of every one of them that have never given in to the easy path of apathy, and perhaps even helped others create their own meaningful world. I am pleased that so many have found their own path in life as practitioners, academics, builders, artists, bar tenders, you name it.

Raylene recently designed and opened a piano/karaoke bar in NYC; another started a workshop in LA for homeless to make and sell wooden toys; another wrote the authoritative book on cohousing; another ran Starbucks design department; others were designers on several National AIA Honor award projects; another heads the architectural department at another university; another whose dresses were featured in Vogue, and of course those who choose to teach at Poly.

This year is the 45th anniversary of the department. What would you hope is remembered from these years?

I still have a lot of contact with alums and most of them are loaded with fond if not idiosyncratic memories. I hope they remember the day they repainted the front of engineering west, as it engendered the biggest angst imaginable for the bureaucrats; I hope they remember the wonderful streaming light through the deep spaces of the old powerhouse and the buckets on every desk that wee needed just to remain in a beautiful space that no one but designers could truly appreciate; I hope they remember the magic of misty mornings in poly canyon; I hope they can forget the torture we inflicted on them through brutal crits and mindless encounters; I hope they can remember the joy of finding their own voice in design.

Related Content