As Elizabeth Danze steps into her role as dean, ad interim, of the School of Architecture, we sat down with her to learn more about her interests and her thoughts on the future of architecture.
Whose work influenced you as a student and whose influences you now?
I look for and am inspired by many things – especially when searching for the extraordinary in everyday life. Traveling has been important to me. Seeing great architecture and significant cities has certainly informed my work and thinking, and so has experiencing vernacular and ordinary buildings in their original context. While I was an architectural intern, I worked for the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It was a life-changing experience; I left Africa with a deeper understanding of culture and place, not only of west Africa, but perhaps more importantly and especially, the places I was returning to in the U.S.
As a young architect I was fortunate to work for Cesar Pelli Architects, now Pelli Clarke Pelli, in New Haven, when Cesar had just been dean of the school of architecture at Yale. In addition to leading a successful practice, Cesar is an educator at heart. I believe this came as a natural result of his having worked in Eero Saarinen’s office, where he had been a young designer. Cesar and Fred Clarke mentored and supported young designers in their office, and I benefitted greatly from that work experience.
At what point did you decide you wanted to be an educator, in addition to an architect, and why?
Throughout my education, I studied with talented educators who themselves were successful and accomplished practitioners. As a post-professional graduate student at Yale I was a teaching assistant for architect and professor Alan Plattus, who taught a history/theory course, while I taught a companion design studio to undergraduates majoring in architecture. This was my first direct experience in a teaching role and was a turning point in my career aspirations. Alan was an exemplary model of how to combine genuine enthusiasm with intellectual rigor and I wanted to create that kind of educational experience with my own students.
What is your teaching philosophy?
The foundation of my teaching is the understanding that architecture is never singular. Rather, it is a web of potential and possibilities. I call on students to solve problems that combine the theoretical and conceptual with the world of reality and production. Both enterprises engage and stimulate creativity and require self-reflection, continual refinement, and the nurturing of a passion. As students’ progress through the curriculum, I encourage them to balance their subconscious with conscious problem-solving. They often come to understand that good design requires the merging of intuitive and rational responses.
What has been your favorite architectural project to work on?
I have grown as an architect from the challenges that come from each project I have the opportunity to work on, but the project that I have the most long-lasting relationship with is my own house. I designed and built it with my partner and husband, architect John Blood, in 2001. As one might expect, having the opportunity to live in a project once it has been completed, has come with enormous personal insight and value. I find myself continuing to learn from this project by living in it every day. Another personal favorite is the Peter and Paul chapel that I designed with John Blood in 2013. It stands out for me because, it too, was an intensely personal project where I was working alongside my father to develop a project that was influenced by the more purely intangible and conceptual. This project, unlike my own home, has not been built and therefore exists as a hypothetical place. I value the everyday, often mundane, but tangible aspects of my own house, that allow me to better understand myself as an architect, while the unbuilt project of the Peter Paul Chapel contains so much possibility and creative prospect.
What do you think lies ahead for architecture as a profession and how should architecture schools address these future needs?
Our task is to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, one that we can imagine, but not predict. Although we do not know precisely what coming decades will bring, we know that fast-changing innovations and the ability to address difficult issues will continue to command our attention. We also know that in an increasingly complex society and environment, we cannot rely on any single approach to problem-solving.
Our wide range of programs celebrates the vitality of a multi-disciplinary and interdependent practice of architecture – one that encompasses everything from new technologies to humanitarian concerns. We must always weigh the artistic with the practical, and good design is at the core of this. Harmonizing these challenges is a skill, which must be honed with a multi-pronged education that prepares students to manage the inherent challenges and opportunities that our disciplines face.
Besides a degree, what do you hope students of UTSOA will leave with at the completion of their studies?
My hope is that they develop an insatiable desire for, and appreciation of, learning about all aspects of the world in which we live – from the environment to the people around us and the way we interact with and affect them through what we say, what we do, and what we make. I hope we capture the energy, joy and desire students have to express themselves through design when they enter architecture school. Simultaneously, I consider it our responsibility to help each student develop the ability to work both independently and in collaboration with others with sustained interest. When they do these together while finding pleasure in the work, I feel we have been successful in laying the groundwork for the many professional projects they have ahead of them. I want our students to desire to devote their lives to making the world a better place through their efforts – and to see their time at the School of Architecture as the beginning of a life-long journey of discovery.
What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?
I read psychological thrillers and mysteries to relax. I’m currently reading the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear. The heroine is a psychologist, artist, and private investigator- she would make a great architect.