Legacy Interview: Ralph Knowles

School News

Legacy Interview: Ralph Knowles

April 02, 2014

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.


Ralph Knowles

Professor Emeritus

Dean 1973-1975


Having taught at the School of Architecture for over 40 years, Ralph Knowles has witnessed the School’s evolution firsthand. He was dean from 1973-1975, following Sam Hurst. Through his teaching and leadership he has played an instrumental role in reasserting the importance of research and developing new knowledge in architecture. Guy Horton spoke with him about the importance of generating new knowledge in the field, the rewards of teaching, and the challenges that lie ahead.


Guy Horton: What was it like being dean during the period you held the position? What were the major issues, objectives, challenges?

Ralph Knowles: Sam Hurst (Dean, 1961-1971) brought the influence of the Bauhaus. At that time it was fine arts and architecture. That’s the school I inherited. Watt Hall was just completed and we had to figure out how to make everything work spatially with the two programs. It was our first semester in the new building. The question of where architecture as a profession and as an academic discipline was going was also very acute at that time. We were looking at alternative models for schools. My emphasis was on research as a way for the school to generate new knowledge and enrich the profession. This wasn’t happening much at that time. This eventually lead to establishing Building Science as a degree program. So there was a shift in the value of research at the school. Generating knowledge became important. The landscape architecture program in some ways came out of this, too. There is always this conflict between the designer as form-giver and the designer as a creator of new knowledge. The question is, what informs design intuition? I think research is the key to this. The school has to accept the responsibility of doing research that furthers the profession.


It was also a period of great strife in the country. There had been race riots in the city and the trustees thought of moving the campus west, leaving that part of the city behind. I had done research on how street patterns predict development so I presented this to the trustees and showed them how downtown and the surrounding areas had the most pressure to grow. I could be wrong about this but I think this is what convinced them to keep USC where it is. This set a lot of things in motion for the future.


GH: How would you describe your leadership style as dean?

RK: Sam had hired a whole bunch of great new faculty so my goal was to let them do their thing. The dean is powerless in an academic sense and this is how it should be I think. The faculty set and implement the curriculum. I worked on larger issues and spent a lot of time on university committees. I was on 8-10 different committees and was able to do things outside the school at the university level.


GH: How did you become dean?

RK: I was very happily working on a book over summer recess in Aspen, Colorado for MIT Press. I got a call. Sam is leaving, would I like to take over as dean? I had been director of the design program so I had some experience in administration. My interests were in teaching and research. Being a dean needs a whole different set of skills.


GH: What do you perceive to be the current challenges facing the acting dean and the School?

RK: Research has to be the basis for informing design intuition. We have environmental challenges, housing, dealing with drought, all issues require cooperation between research and design. Housing is a big one. How does an architect respond to that? How does the architect remain relevant? We often conceive of the profession as being about design, but that’s not what is pressing on us right now. Energy problems, too. Here we’ve built a balance between design, research, landscape and building science, a balance of different programs. But how do these programs interact and feed off of each other. The next great challenge is becoming a better school by integrating these different programs.


GH: You started teaching at Auburn right after completing your M.Arch at MIT. Did you always know you wanted teach and what drew you to Auburn?

RK: I did graduate work at MIT. Sam brought me from MIT. He was very persuasive and ultimately allowed freedom. I started my solar research at Auburn.


GH: How did you make the journey from Auburn to USC? Sam Hurst mentioned that he wanted to bring you to USC after he had become dean. Why did he want you at USC?

RK: My mentor at MIT was Eduardo Catalano. When Sam asked me to come to USC after he had made the move from Auburn I asked him what he thought and he said, “Go west, young man. There’s more freedom.” And he was right. There was. Sam brought a social sense to the School and this was an influence on me. He put me in charge of the design program. He gave me the freedom to explore. I converted a studio into a research lab for studying the impact of nature on buildings. We generated a lot of knowledge on the impact of sun, wind, and water on building form. Tom Mayne was one of the students who experienced this.


GH: What do you value most about teaching?

RK: Learning. Absolutely. I once joked that you don’t teach what you know, you teach what you don’t know. You pose problems in studio that have social and environmental dimensions. Knowledge accumulates over the years and designs get better and better. It’s an exciting and productive way to teach. It’s a great way to live a life.


GH: How did you get interested in the sun, solar access, and the solar envelope?

RK: At Auburn I was interested in how sunlight was controlled in buildings. That led to the issue of solar access, how to use the sun. The oil embargo and energy crisis in the early eighties opened up this field of research. Unfortunately as the energy crisis eased under Reagan the funding dried up. The two major issues I was interested in were converting sunlight via photovoltaics and daylighting. One example is a solar access study for development along Wilshire. I studied the impact of proposed high-rises along one stretch where there was an existing residential neighborhood. I was able to show how a low-rise alternative would preserve sunlight for this residential area to the north. At that time there was an interest in applying this model to the whole city but it was never applied universally. These things are tough. That’s why they are issues. But we have to confront these issues and make them part of the problem solving in our studios.


GH: What did you take away from the Legacy lecture?

RK: It was a great time. I saw it as honoring Sam. Sam set the tone. I liked hearing from the others. It was interesting to hear Bob Harris talk about education. It was a nice thing to do and it was interesting for the faculty to hear. I gives people a chance to answer relevant questions. There’s been a lot of good things to come out of the  school. I’m very grateful to the School. It continues to be an important progression of learning and development for me.


GH: What are you working on currently? Is there another book in the works?

RK: I doubt there is another book. But I do chapters in other people’s books. Writing a book is incredibly hard. I’ve gotten what I’ve wanted to say said. I travel. I communicate with past students. I do a little gardening, writing, cooking. I’ve always been interested in cooking and now I have the time to do it. We’ve lived in the same house in Silver Lake for 50 years. Across from the lake. We moved in in 1964. I didn’t design the house, but we’ve re-done it four or five times—double glazing, solar on roof, re-doing the front, there is always something to do!