Legacy Interview: Sam T. Hurst, FAIA
Legacy Interview: Sam T. Hurst, FAIA
Coinciding with the celebration of 100 Years of Architecture at USC, and the related panel discussion, Legacy of Leadership: The Deans of the USC School of Architecture held on April 2, 2014, architectural writer Guy Horton has been interviewing the deans who took part on the panel. Five deans were asked a series of questions to get their perspectives on what it means to be dean at the School, how they approached the role, and what its greatest challenges are.
Sam T. Hurst, FAIA
As one of the longest-serving deans (1961-1971), Sam T Hurst has had a significant and lasting impact on the School, including designing the School’s home, Watt Hall, and getting it built. He also helped bring the Gamble House to USC. Guy Horton met with Hurst at his home in Santa Barbara. The house, designed by USC alumnus, Thornton Ladd (1924-2010), defined by its glass walls and shoji screens, was the perfect setting for their conversation on the essence of architecture, capitalism…and poetry.
Guy Horton: How would you describe your leadership style as a dean?
Sam Hurst: I was hands on. I wasn’t practicing at the time so I could devote myself full time to the role. It was Walter Gropius who influenced me most when it came to teaching. He considered it a high calling.
GH: What was it like being dean during the period you held the position? What were the major issues, objectives, challenges?
SH: The school was mostly relying on part-time faculty so it was important to build a full-time faculty as the core. I brought Harlold Hauf from Rensselaer, Dimetry Vergun, educated at MIT and then practicing, and Crombie Taylor who had been the director of the Institute of Design in Chicago. It was Taylor who had introduced me to European modernism when I was at Georgia Tech. I also brought in Ralph Knowles, trained at MIT, who would later become dean at USC.
GH: How did you become dean?
SH: After one year at Harvard with Gropius, I taught at Tulane. I was interested in regionalism and had done some consulting in Los Angeles. I went back to Georgia to practice in a large firm but was later invited by Auburn University to chair their School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. I told them I didn’t’ think I could work well with the current dean so I turned them down. The next day I got another call and was invited to be the dean. This was the beginning. Then I got a call from the USC president, Norman Topping. I was asked to help rebuild the program. I left Auburn, where I had just built a new home near a stream, for the opportunity to move to a larger realm of influence. The deal was that if I came I would re-unite fine arts and architecture and be able to consult on campus architecture. Most US schools were deep in classicism and beaux arts tradition. My mandate was also to reform the curriculum and bring in more modernist influences with people like Taylor.
GH: You worked for Walter Gropius from 1948-49. At the Legacy Lecture you said it changed your life. How?
SH: I got a job at TAC, The Architects’ Collaborative, Gropius’ firm, along with I.M. Pei. I would be with Gropius in his office in the a.m. and in studio at the GSD in the afternoon. The important contribution he made to me was a method of approaching things. He always asked why, why make something. He would make you justify what you did. He opened my mind and encouraged me to stay in education. In later years, when I was teaching at Georgia Tech, I invited him for a Bauhaus exhibition.
GH: You said architecture has lost its moorings and needs to return to the meaning of life and social improvement. Could you explain this a little more? What needs to change in architectural education to promote this?
SH: In simple terms, architecture has sold out to highest bidder. Its lost its soul to capitalism and is designed to appeal to advertising and financial interests. We need to return to the ground of its meaning, the social dimensions of architecture. Architecture needs to return to its social, humanist roots.
GH: How did you come to design Watt Hall and what was your role? What were you trying to achieve and do you think it succeeded?
SH: The president of USC at the time wanted me to be the design architect and lead the effort for a new building. The federal government was making grants to universities so I wrote a proposal and it was accepted. The building is called Watt Hall because one of the trustees, Ray Watt, matched the federal grant with a generous donation. Killingsworth, Brady & Associates did the final drawings. I rented an office off-campus to work on the design. We ran a fifth-year studio to study of the program.
GH: So what’s that cantilever at the second floor all about?
SH: It was originally conceived as a two-story building but structurally designed to take a third floor. It started with Fischer Gallery next door. The new had to connect with the old so the initial concept created a relationship with two bridges. I wanted a building you could see in and out of, see through in parts, so we used concrete columns with glass in-fill, translucent and transparent. Trying to move away from red brick on campus, we used bush hammer concrete—the finish is like stone. There was already a precedent for concrete with the graduate school of business and the law school, both done by I.M. Pei. Watt Hall was one of three or four buildings being built for noteworthy architecture schools, including the GSD. I’m proud that it was the only one that didn’t need repairs.
GH: How did you get the Gamble House?
SH: Randall Makinson was on the faculty as an instructor, he was a friend of Jim Gamble so this is why it was offered to USC. At that time, the trustees turned it down. They didn’t want the responsibility. Makinson and I proposed a joint title with city of Pasadena where the city would take care of the grounds and USC the house. When it was being threatened by a condo development I testified to save it. Makinson was the first curator. We got the house in 1966.
GH: Do you think the challenges of being a dean today are different from when you held the position?
SH: Not so different. The test is still about development.
GH: You read a poem at the Legacy Lecture. Why is that poem meaningful to you and when did you discover it?
SH: To me it expresses the essence of architecture: how to deal with light. Tom Adams, the poet, was his neighbor.
Sketch for a House
By Tom Adams
Build me a house of changing light
That shall reflect the moving year
And not forget the robin’s sound in spring
Nor yet deny the frightened leaf
Chased by winter wind.
Build me a house of strong forgetfulness
Of world’s small wrong and thrice forgotten right
Where toil and pain and weariness
Evaporate in harmony of space.
Wherein remembrance catches time
And holds it on a thrush’s note
Or swift thought fixing on a falling star
Awakes to do bold things,
Unheard of things, at once so brave, so new
That all of time caught here
Beneath these windows on the world
Is one, and the ages that shall be,
Though savage yet and dark of hope
Shall feel this light
And still with winter breaking into spring
Unfold their hands and with new open eyes
GH: You’re quite the eloquent speaker. Where does that come from?
SH: I had to develop that more and more because I was asked to speak so much. As one of the nation’s youngest deans, I was invited all over the country. I was 37 when I became dean at Auburn. The AIA also appointed me to committees on housing and the future of profession so I had lots of chances to speak. But where it really comes from, I think, is from being raised in the rural south and being part of the Baptist Church. I was brought up reciting passages from the Bible and speaking in front of people.
GH: What three words best describe you as an architect?
SH: Humanist. Consistent. Open. I’ve been open to change, able to respond, take advantage of opportunities, speak to problems of urbanism, and what the AIA could do to encourage city planning. I also brought planning, architecture, and landscape architecture together.
GH: What three words best describe you as dean?
SH: I don’t think I can do that. It doesn’t dignify the position.