Legacy Interview: Robert Harris, FAIA

School News

Legacy Interview: Robert Harris, FAIA

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.


Robert Harris, FAIA, Hon. ASLA

Director, Discipline of Landscape Architecture

Dean 1981-1992


He recently talked to Robert Harris, dean from 1981-1992, about his experiences and what he sees as the challenges for the School moving forward. He was director of Graduate Programs in Architecture from 1993-2004 and since 2007 has been director of the Master of Landscape Architecture program.


Guy Horton: How would you define the role of dean at the USC School of Architecture? And is there anything distinct about the role compared to other architecture schools?

Robert Harris: I always thought the role of dean was to help as many people as possible. It’s  important to participate in what’s worth doing. What’s different? In LA you are in the center of a complex region defined by different relationships. The mountains, the sea, cultural diversity, environmental issues, water resources. All require the attention of all disciplines at the School. LA is like a creative lab that attracts people to do remarkable work in places that desperately need help. It’s urgent. So being at USC is different in this way.


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

RH: In studios we go desk to desk, not waiting, not passive, we need to bring something. We need to figure out ‘Where the hell am I?’ At the beginning of a project I like to figure out what’s going on, then I look to how can I help. When I came to a meeting I used to bring something. It was a way to focus our attention and attend to something urgent or critical.


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

RH: It was a tumultuous time, following a period of three interim deans. By the time I came along there was a bit of messiness. Secondly, I was 46 years old and the core faculty were older so there was some awkwardness because of that. Thirdly, during the interim dean period there was a need to hire new faculty. We had to figure out what positions were needed. It was important to figure out how to make a difference. The program needed reconstituting but I also had to attend to the advanced studios of the School. We were also in a recession and there was a new USC president. Add to this the problem of white flight from the city center. So there was the plight of the city going on just outside the campus. And there we were. It was distracting from research and teaching. All the complexity and uncertainty. I had to figure out what was real in the world and get used to it.


GH: How did you become dean?

RH: I was dean at the University of Oregon (School of Architecture and Allied Arts) for ten years (1971-1981) and it was there that I began to think more about how cities grow and how to manage the environment. USC was a good setting to think about things like this. What really worked was to focus on city centers.


GH: You were very involved with the city. Do you see this as part of the role of the architect, ideally?

RH: A city evolves project by project. Whether it’s a big freeway, or an addition to a home, it’s all remodeling the city. You have to take care to enhance the space around a project. It’s iterative. Thousands of projects can make the city better…or worse depending on what they are. The façade of a building is the inside face of the street, this is the ‘street room’. The School needs to teach this.


GH: You co-chaired the Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Committee and were instrumental in establishing the city’s first Design Advisory Panel in the late 1980s. How did that come about?

RH: As dean at USC, I worked with then dean of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, Richard Weinstein, and Merry Norris, who was Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission, to improve professional advice to both the Cultural Affairs Commission and to the Mayor’s office. A meeting with Mayor Tom Bradley (Mayor of Los Angeles, 1973-1993) was arranged and the Design Advisory Panel was established. I served because it was an important responsibility and because each project posed complex architecture and urban design issues. Each public project is an opportunity to study more deeply what matters to you and to the city.


GH: Did you continue to practice while dean? Teach?

RH: My research was civic work. I taught studios and helped develop four theory courses required for students in the Mater of Architecture program and the Master of Landscape Architecture program. Over the years I have taught two of them: ARCH 561, Architecture in the Urban Landscape: Projects and Places; ARCH 563, Architecture in the Urban Landscape: Comparative Theories. All four courses continue to be taught with revisions over time. In fall 2013 I taught ARCH 544, Urban Landscape: Process and Place.


GH: How did you make the journey from architecture to landscape architecture and why was this important to you?

RH: That long story began in graduate school where architecture was understood as part of its place and surroundings. An important journal was “Landscape”, which I read cover to cover each month. My subsequent teaching and practice was “urban” architecture, always connected to places and districts. I proposed the initiation of a landscape architecture program at the University of Texas during the third year of my first teaching appointment. When I moved to the University of Oregon I especially respected and learned much from its strong degree programs in landscape architecture. My professional practice increasingly included more urban design then architecture commissions.  At USC it seemed natural to co-found its first degree program in landscape architecture and to continue urban design teaching, practice, research and civic engagement. I believe that if I had known about landscape architecture when I was young that I may very well have followed that path.


GH: You were instrumental in setting up the landscape architecture program. How did that come about?

RH: Emmet Wemple had been teaching landscape architecture courses within the Bachelor of Architecture program for many years prior to my arrival at USC in 1981. Together we founded the first Master of Landscape Architecture degree around 1985, and Emmet was the first Director of the program.


GH: What is the role of preservation in architecture and architectural education?

RH: The basic truth is that every project is remodeling. There’s already something there, cultural signs. You can’t see what is real to people, memories, meaning. You have to figure out what you are about to mess up and be very careful in the beginning. Where am I? It’s all one thing. Not two separate thing  At the University of Oregon I established the first heritage conservation program west of the Mississippi.


GH: Did serving as dean change you or your perspective, the way you practice or view the profession?

RH: I became more aware of attending to the wholeness of things. From first becoming dean, I was aware that any part relates to the whole, a room is part of a cluster of rooms.


GH: Do you think the challenges of being dean today are different from when you held the position?

RH: For one thing there is more happening at the speed of light. Global connections, being bombarded by emails. Enhanced complexity does not make it easier. When I was dean I lived through a period of radical social change and this had its own challenges.


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

RH: The increased complexity of social and cultural realms is staggering. There are opportunities to be had from diversity, but a dean from anywhere has cultural mountain to climb. What is  critical now is to understand where are we as a school and who are we now.


GH: What are you looking forward to at the Legacy lecture? And where do you hope the discussion will go?

RH: It could be that it will instill interest in what I said before: who we are now and where we are going. The School is much bigger now so its hard to get a community to come together.


GH: Here is something I’m asking everyone even though it sounds ridiculous. What three words best describe you as an architect?

RH: Attentive, responsive, inventive.


GH: That was fast. OK. What three words best describe you as dean?

RH: Persistent…I always find a way.


GH: That’s only one word.

RH: I know, but it’s a good one.