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UT School of Architecture Dean Michelle Addington Discusses the Social Responsibility of Design

The Dean of The University of Texas School of Architecture is ever curious to learn from the bright students who fill her school's halls

UT School of Architecture Dean Michelle Addington

Building Blocks

To read Michelle Addington’s biography is to be inspired. The 65-year-old dean, who has both a master’s and a doctorate of design studies from Harvard and came to UT by way of Yale, specifically as a chair of sustainable architectural design and a professor of forestry and environmental studies, also happens to be the first-ever female leader of the 109-year-old school. There is also an honorary M.A. from Yale on her résumé and many accolades from her field. And did we mention that before any of this architecture business got started, she was a mechanical/nuclear engineer at both NASA and DuPont? It’s almost enough to make one feel intimidated.

But Addington, like so many of the most successful and intelligent people, wears her experience and confidence easily. We happen to be meeting her in August during the first week of classes. Apologies ensue about the inconvenient timing, but she shrugs it off, open with our staff, photographer, the students she is on hand to talk with, really everyone. Her warmth unconnected to any type of perceived hierarchy, she is mostly excited to be spending the morning talking with two students from the architecture program: fourth-year master’s student Robbie Anderson and Hailey Algoe, a third-year student who is working toward her bachelor’s. Addington quickly makes connections with both — music with Anderson and art history with Algoe —and the three are off, with Addington prodding them to discuss the meat of what it means to be an architect and their profession as it relates to social issues like gentrification.

Addington in front of the school’s ONDA Wall.

Michelle Addington: I grew up in an arts family, so it’s very odd that I became a nuclear mechanical engineer. But I’d always had this secret desire to study architecture. There was an explosion at the plant that I was working at. I had to lay off two-thirds of the workforce. I thought it was a good time to also lay myself off. And I started architecture school six weeks later. It’s going to be very different for the two of you, but what made you want to be an architect?

Hailey Algoe: Growing up, my family moved around a lot. The closest thing I ever had to a childhood home was a house that my dad designed and built. We ended up having to move, but I think seeing how that house was designed specifically with our family in mind really left a lasting impression on me. And, of course, I didn’t really make this connection when I was writing my entrance essay . In the end, deciding to select architecture felt more in the moment. I was very artistic, but also — it’s the old cliché — I’m good at art and math.

MA: Robbie, tell me, what about you?

Robbie Anderson: I was always in music growing up, and that was part of my fabric.

MA: I had a music scholarship.

RA: Oh, I did too.

MA: Oh my gosh, it’s my twin!

RA: I just decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be in a practice room the rest of my life. So then I landed on engineering in undergrad, but I was missing that creative aspect from music. So I did an intro-to-architecture summer program at the University of Illinois in Chicago and just fell in love. I moved to Nashville and worked as an engineer for a year. Seeing both of those cities growing so rapidly and not really having a voice solidified that I wanted to pursue architecture.

Anderson, Addington and Algoe in the School of Architecture’s Mebane Gallery.

MA: I’ve taught two of those summer programs. And like you , they were for people that were thinking they might want to study architecture. And without exception, every single person had the wrong idea about what architecture was like. We had many people who were thinking about making a sculpture that happened to be a building. Even for me, I had a very different idea about what an architect did. I knew Frank Lloyd Wright, but other than that, I didn’t really know. I have first-year students come up to me like, “We haven’t started studying architecture yet?”

HA: I think a lot about architecture in the context of social issues. I can talk about it forever. But I was really, really happy to find out yesterday at our studio lottery that the studio I’m in this semester is going to be focused on creating a hypothetical UN climate change institute.

MA: Yay. Who’s doing that?

HA: It’s the group with Judith Birdsong, Mari Michael Glassell, Martin Haettasch, Michael McCall and Juan Jofre.

RA: I was in the U.S. Embassy in Cuba studio last fall with Juan . That was a hyperpolitical building that has so many implications on the Cuban citizens. So I think it’s great that we’re dealing with such large issues.

MA: I think this is one of the things that has been a sea change in our field. The advent of modernism a hundred years ago was really about democratizing architecture. Some of the democratization is what led to a lot of the high-rise public housing. That was actually thought of, originally, as making a utopian city for everyone. It became the opposite. Or the Brutalist structures that were really meant to be a challenge to money and the patrons of architecture. So we have a really complicated history of architecture — understanding its role in the public domain.

And I think what’s exciting now is that we have a generation of students who aren’t trying to have an overarching single idea about what architecture should be. They’re thinking of the experience of each person.

I think what’s exciting now is that we have a generation of students who aren’t trying to have an overarching single idea about what architecture should be.”

HA: Something I’ve now really started to think about is the racialized past of city planning in America. I think that it’s important for people my age to be consciously thinking about. And you see that a lot here in Austin with gentrification happening. As architects, I think it’s tempting to just be like, “OK, I’m going to design some multiuse apartment complex and it pays the bills, so I’m not going to worry too much about if it’s gentrifying this neighborhood.”

MA: And I would be a little more generous. I’d also say there’s larger structures in place that encourage that. So, for example, less than 9% of buildings done in this country involve an architect. They’re really not involved in what we consider to be day-to-day building. They’re involved in every museum, they’re involved in every signature building, every high-end home, but not quotidian architecture. I don’t know if, for me, it was leaving New England to begin to realize how little we were engaging as a profession with the rapid urbanization happening around us. Do you think Austin is a place that showcases a lot of the issues in architecture as well as a lot of the possibilities?

RA: Definitely. Especially on the East Side. It has such an important racial past, both in the urban planning, where they moved a large group of people across the other side of I-35, but also how it’s changing so quickly now. Sarah Lopez is teaching a class analyzing what, I guess, some scholars call ordinary architecture. Spaces bringing importance to the everyday, spaces that maybe aren’t known for their design but serve the public.

HA: Yeah, I definitely appreciate that a lot of our projects are based in Austin. I think it is because we have such a unique urban landscape here right now. I feel like maybe the best way to go about it is to make sure that here, at the education level, we are empowering each and every student that leaves this school with a full awareness of these social issues. It’s really hard to go to people who have worked for decades to make a successful firm and are doing things one way and have a bunch of salaries to pay. I think it’s hard to just change that. But something has to change.

MA: What about actually dealing with the university at large, where a lot of that expertise is housed? The opportunity to work with a leading scholar on climate change. Opening ourselves up to this other kind of information or discourse that’s happening across the university.

RA: CRP is really on the forefront of addressing the more societal, racial issues. And I think if there’s a way that we can be integrated together or working together …

MA: What’s very interesting is that those students often say they came to an architecture school because they wanted to understand more about how the built environment was created. So they would welcome more ways to connect.