Prof. Emeritus Brian Kesner (Interview 2009)


Is it a fair assessment that you have avoided proposing studio projects that were fashionable for those which were more profound? What? Affordable housing’s not fashionable?

Yes, I’d like to think that I avoided the fashionable in search of problems and situations that would teach us to develop a habit of discovery toward design decisions that would make our work meaningful. Teaching 2nd year design studios my first 10 years at Cal Poly probably helped me understand that we each need to define any problem for ourselves first; then a problem becomes profound if we approach it as such. And yes, I guess I was hung up on essence and seeking conceptual insights for design.

The social and cultural aspirations of architecture seem to have marked your teaching. Is this linked intrinsically to your interest in housing? How has that unfolded during your time at Cal Poly?

Yes. The more I learned about how spaces were really about performances and how places become memorable, the more I saw this as the basic program for design. A home is a marvelous expression and a setting for living. Housing deserves much more of the same because it is also an opportunity for community. When I began the housing studio in 1990, there were already many emerging developments in California and elsewhere: in kinds of households and forms of housing beyond the traditional norms. There simply seemed to be a need for someone to focus on Housing at Cal Poly and I found many students who saw their role in architecture as to design for their community; often this meant better housing than they had experienced. The cities within SLO County were also full of opportune sites for thesis projects and the public and non-profit agencies were very receptive to having us do research and make proposals to prod their system. And of course the architecture and planning offices in cities across the state were generous in hosting our field trips and informing us about new housing projects and issues. Sustainable community design naturally evolved into the title of the studio as we also considered the social and economic issues of each housing thesis more integrally.

Issues of sustainability have always been at the forefront of your teaching. How did you incorporate those issues when most other schools were not yet thinking of them?

My own passive solar practice in Durango, Colo., gave me an appreciation for the larger environmental impact of solar thinking, and I could see how my clients’ lives and identities were changed by a more intentional living space. By the early ’90s, a good number of us felt we were not making enough of an impact on the college or the students, so Margot McDonald and Polly Cooper took the lead in re-establishing the interdisciplinary Renewable Energy Institute (originally founded by Ken Haggard), while Walt Tryon and Walt Bremer of L.Arch, Paul Wack of CRP and I initiated the two interdisciplinary courses, which became the basis of the minor in Sustainable Environments. We continued to make sustainable issues and design principles a basis of our teaching by broadening the context and definition of the project goals and by involving the community, the public agencies and professionals in the process of research and design development and critiques. The voluntary interdisciplinary collaboration has been inspirational for all of us, and the department and college have attracted another generation of very sustainably based faculty who have enhanced the program. There is still an immense opportunity for our school to lead through collaboration on and off campus.

You have been a proponent of fourth year as a moment for students to have multiple opportunities. Talk about your role in the Mexico travel program.

Off-campus programs have been a strong, distinguishing feature of our curriculum for many years now, helping students to broaden their horizons worldwide or study and apprentice in major urban offices. Since we had not had a program in Mexico, despite a large student population with cultural ties there, I thought it could be an excellent opportunity for a faculty-led urban design study/tour. The focus was twofold: to study the importance of plazas and small urban spaces in historic Mexican cities and the variety of patio/ courtyard-based building typologies for residential, commercial, mix-use and public facilities. The idea being that we could learn much about community, sustainability, urban livability, adaptability and making urban spaces for future American mixed-use development patterns and infill design. Of course, we also learned about our own culture from being in theirs and learning to appreciate it. We had wonderful success during three winter quarters, spending five weeks exploring and analyzing many cities and archeological sites from the Yucatan to Guanajuato, plus a two-week urban design charrette with students from the Facultad de Arquitectura, Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla (in Puebla, the first Spanish city, established in 1531, now population 2.5 million), and finally, a three-week architectural design project in the city of Guanajuato, a vastly different urban landscape. This and other exchange activities brought faculty and students back and forth between our schools, until my retirement. Permanent bonds were formed and the path remains wide open. It is hoped that another program can be established, ideally with an interdisciplinary focus, within the next few years.

How do you see the carbon neutral 2010 initiative being implemented at Cal Poly? Is it achievable? In what way?

Haven’t we always used deadlines to commit ourselves to something we wanted to achieve? Carbon neutral is, of course, achievable but it is a fundamental challenge to our way of life and the notions we hold of the role of architecture in it. It is not a matter of just adding new technology and recycling our current waste. We need to begin to make relatively holistic environments at every scale, as parts of the whole environment we influence. Cameo projects should not delay a commitment to our transformation to the paradigm (and imperative) of sustainability. Projects like Professor Dan Panetta’s Energy Efficient Resource Recovery Facility for Cal Poly and new projects to create interdisciplinary living-learning villages on campus could begin to transform our understanding and our values. How much we achieve ... and when ... on campus is primarily a matter of political will from the faculty to the chancellor of the CSU system. For the larger community it will be more a matter of economic and social change ... a change to think regeneratively.

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

Good problem-solving and design is not prescriptive! Real learning is diverse and collaborative.

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