Robert M. Beckley
Bob Beckley is Dean and Professor Emeritus of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Bob retired from teaching and academic administration in June 2002 to devote full time to consulting in architecture, urban design and planning and his own writing and photography projects.
Beckley was born in Cleveland, Ohio, December 24th 1934 and attended the University of Cincinnati and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Prior to moving to Michigan in 1987 to take the position of Dean, he taught and served as Chair and Acting Dean in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, a program he helped establish in 1969. Beckley’s prior teaching experience was at the University of Michigan where he earned tenure before moving to Wisconsin.
In 1980 he founded the firm Beckley/Myers Architects with colleague Sherrill Myers.
Under Beckley’s direction the firm completed urban design plans for the nationally recognized Milwaukee RiverWalk, the Milwaukee Theater District and the Bellevue Downtown Park in Bellevue Washington as well as numerous other commissions. Beckley left the firm in 1992 to devote more time to academic administration.
After stepping down as Dean in 1997, following ten and a half years of service, Beckley resumed teaching and his professional and research activity. Among his recent projects are collaboration on the design of Millennium Park, a downtown park in Lake Oswego, OR and the development of urban design guidelines for the State Street Redevelopment Project in Ann Arbor, MI. In 2002 he began serving as planning consultant to the Genesee County Treasurer’s Office, helping to establish the innovative Genesee County Land Bank. Later he served as Executive Vice President of the Genesee Institute created to provide planning, research and technical assistance to the Land Bank and others. In 2009 he was asked to be chair of the board of directors of the Center for Community Progress, an outgrowth of the Genesee Institute and formed by a merger with the National Vacant Property Campaign with funding from the Ford Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation and others. In 2008 Beckley was appointed the Charles Moore Visiting Professor in the Taubman College and taught an urban design studio that advanced a plan for a new town in Istanbul Turkey.
Beckley was made a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1985 and the Urban Design Institute in 1990. He was also granted a fellowship from the Graham Foundation in Chicago. He has worked on research grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Transportation (DOT). He served as Urban Research Scientist while at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee conducting projects for the Milwaukee Department of Economic Development and the Milwaukee Redevelopment Corp. He has received recognition and awards for design, research and service from the NEA, Progressive Architecture Magazine, the American Institute of Architects, the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Urban Land Institute.
Beckley has served as President and Treasurer of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and as Secretary/Treasurer of the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). He has also served as a member of the Harvard Graduate School of Design Alumni Advisory Board.
This is the story of my career in academia. Many of us who haven chosen a life in the halls of higher education have done so because of mentors. My first mentor was my father, neither an academic nor a professional himself, he did see in this son an architect because I liked to draw and was passably good at math. He and my mother sent me to the University of Cincinnati for the very purpose of becoming an architect. Neither they nor I knew that I might become an academic, but I owe their mentorship to the beginning of my professional and intellectual pursuits
Once in college three new mentors found me while I was an undergraduate. Each was a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. They had formed an architectural practice and were teaching part time. After having been my instructors, they offered me the opportunity to work for them as part of UC’s co-op program. I admired their ability to combine teaching and practice not realizing what a strong influence that would have on me. They were the ones to encourage me to go to graduate school, Harvard of course; John Garber, Richard Tweddell and Dick Wheeler, Garber Tweddell and Wheeler Architects (GTW).
I went to Harvard expecting that I would immediately enter academia upon graduation but graduate school soured me on teaching. GTW offered me a job if I would return to Cincinnati after receiving my Master of Architecture degree. I returned to Cincinnati during a recession when jobs were not plentiful in the east. The partners served as mentors once again. At the firm I had opportunities to participate in several exciting projects, a Master Plan for Downtown Cincinnati;, another Master Plan for the University of Cincinnati; designing a dormitory for UC; and the design and construction supervision of a church, all fantastic opportunities for a novice architect.
The MArch was considered the terminal degree in architecture and that degree from Harvard amounted to a diploma from a finishing school intended to prepare its alumni to enter academia as teachers or to enter professional firms at a high level. I decided the academy would have to wait. With these projects as part of my resume, I was on my way toward obtaining a postgraduate degree in “professional experience”.
Three years after I graduated from Harvard and joined GTW the firm went through a re-structuring after one of its principals decided to leave for New York to pursue another career. After some soul searching I decided it was time for me to either move to a larger firm in a big city or look for that teaching job I thought I had prepared myself for and that now looked more attractive. I interviewed for jobs with the nationally recognized firms Skidmore Owings and Merrill and Harry Weese Assoc. in Chicago, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Michigan. Michigan was particularly attractive because it was one of a handful of architectural schools with a research program. I was offered a job as Instructor, and even though it paid less than I was earning in a professional office I jumped at the chance to move my family from Cincinnati to Ann Arbor and try out the other side of learning.
Little did I know arriving in Ann Arbor in 1963 that I would be close to the center of the Cultural Revolution that would be a part of the 60s. After buying a house across the street from Angell Elementary School where my children would go to school, I was able to walk down South University to what is now Lorch Hall, past book and record stores and all kinds of distractions. Across the street from the Law School and Business School we all ate lunch at Dominick’s. I became involved in the avant-garde Once Group’s activities and the fledgling Ann Arbor Film Festival where I was a juror and previewed movies by Andy Warhol and performances by the likes of the Velvet Underground. This was a very exciting time to be at Michigan.
Next door to the The School of Architecture and Design, as it was called then, an innovative building made of Unistrut, a structural system of pre-fabricated parts, was built to house the school’s research activity. Under its canopy innovative experiments in other construction techniques, including foam plastics, became a part of the school’s very visible research program. I was given opportunities to participate in the research of the Architectural Research Laboratory and given responsibilities that stretched my capabilities. It was here at UM I learned how to teach. I was mentored by older and seasoned professors who kindly taught me what it meant to design a good program as a studio exercise, how to give a critique of student work, structure a review and design a lecture. With two other faculty colleagues a consulting firm called Planning Systems Group was formed on the strength of contracts with UM Hospital. In 1968 I was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and had the uneasy feeling I would die in Ann Arbor.
In 1969 I was offered a position as one of a handful of faculty to begin a new program in architecture at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin system with schools scattered throughout the state, had decided to give each of its doctoral institutions a unique identity. UW-Milwaukee was designated the “urban” campus. The new School of Architecture was seen as a keystone in the more focused identity given to the Milwaukee campus. I couldn’t resist being a part of this new school where we would be designing a curriculum from scratch. I was hired because of my prowess in teaching graphic design. I moved from Ann Arbor because I was interested in using a city like Milwaukee as an urban design laboratory. I learned, a lesson I would recall frequently; sometimes the right people are hired for the wrong reason. I wasn’t the only one hired for the wrong reason but I learned it is wise to hire people for what they will do not for what they have done.
The experience of beginning a new school on a tabula rasa taught me another valuable lesson. Change is inevitable and necessary in academia as in other endeavors. Six colleagues joined me with degrees in disparate areas, planning, industrial design, graphic design, history and architecture. We struggled to put together a coherent curriculum, drawing from our own experiences, national guidelines dictated by the accrediting process and wisdom from others outside our small group. We thought the first year was a success. Then in the second year we were joined by another group of six faculty and thus began a renewed and sometimes heated dialogue about the structure and content of the program. That would be repeated each of the next two years as the faculty and student body would continue to grow. The curriculum was seen as a work in progress. Everyone including the students were encouraged to look for ways to improve what we were doing. This was the 70s when schools across the world were breaking the shackles of tradition. It is easy to put a program together on paper, but the true nature of that program is in the hands of those who are learning, faculty and students alike. The faculty was instrumental in translating our pedagogical theories into classroom and studio realities creating a rich teaching milieu that went far beyond what we had imagined. I came to understand through that experience how important faculty and student engagement is for the creation of a vibrant and dynamic academic program.
I was appointed a Research Scientist, a cross-disciplinary position within the University, and was encouraged to develop ties within the city. That led to the creation of design centers in both the Black and Latino communities. I was fortunate to be given contracts with Milwaukee’s Department of Economic Development and the Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation. The City of Milwaukee did become our laboratory. The school quickly received recognition and I was elected chair of the architecture program as the school became departmentalized with the addition of a city planning program. Through my work helping to create the program in Milwaukee, I was asked to participate in accreditation reviews and was exposed to architecture programs across the country. I was later elected Treasurer of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and then its President and appointed a member of the National Architectural Accrediting Board. I was knee deep in academia. My knowledge of architectural education continued to broaden.
In 1980 a colleague and I created an architectural and planning consulting firm on the strength of a research grant we and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater received from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant was for investigating design parameters for an “ideal theater”. That research led to national awards and recognition, resulting in additional architectural contracts and the growth of our firm. I reduced my teaching by half following the lead of my Cincinnati mentors. My dream of combining teaching, practice and research was now fully realized.
It was the fall of 1986 when I received a call from Kent Hubbell Chair of the Architecture Program at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan asking me if I would interview for the job of dean of the college. I said no. He called again in the spring of 1987 and insisted that I at least come for an interview. I did but I interviewed without any grand expectations.
The interview included meetings with President Harold Shapiro and Provost James (Jim) Duderstadt. It was in these interviews that I realized the University of Michigan was a very different place from the University of Wisconsin. I had served as interim dean at Wisconsin and through my many visits to other schools I had a good sense of what it was to be a university administrator. I realized that UM was run more like a private university than a public. UM gave greater autonomy to each school and college. In contrast UW-Milwaukee and the UW system were tightly controlled from the top down. As Jim Duderstadt would say both in his role as Provost and later as President, at Michigan “here each tub is on its own bottom”. The Interim Deanship at UW-Milwaukee had made me excited about the possibilities inherent in university administration and the opportunities it provided to help advance professional education in the fields of architecture and planning. I had become interested in not just teaching but in shaping architectural and planning education. When offered the position of Dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning it took me little time to say “yes”. Vanished was my reluctance to return to a place where I had already been.
I must say the transition from Wisconsin to Michigan was not as simple as I might have thought. John D’Arms, Dean of the Rackham Graduate School, was very helpful in pointing out some of the challenges I would meet as dean and areas where he thought the college might improve, a task he explained fell to me. I had found another mentor.
On the list of things the college needed to change was to move the UTEP (Urban, Technological and Environmental Planning) doctoral degree, housed in Rackham, to the college. It was more appropriately named the Ph.D in Urban Planning. Now the planning program could offer both master’s and doctoral degrees in that field. The D.Arch degree, an anomaly, was changed to the Ph.D in Architecture to provide our students with better access to programs across the campus and award a degree that was more competitive with our peers. A professional master’s degree in architecture for students who hadn’t been undergraduate majors in architecture was created. That allowed the college to compete for students with our Ivy League peers and opened the door to women and people of color who usually chose professional degrees later in their academic careers. While the college had a history of funded research, scholarship and non-funded research were not given the attention they deserved. The appointment of an Associate Dean helped to promote the idea that all faculty were responsible for producing work that advanced their field of inquiry. The standards for promotion were strengthened and clarified. An unexpected challenge was replacing the core-ten steel cladding on the Art and Architecture Building that had literally rotted away. This expensive renovation project did give us the opportunity to introduce operable windows to the large architectural studio area that previously had no natural ventilation, just one of many embarrassing and frustrating design flaws in this building that housed the education of architects.
What is the role of a dean at the University Michigan? I asked then Provost Jim Duderstadt that question on my initial interview. His answer? A dean is the CEO of their school or college. That gives them a long leash and also a great deal of responsibility. What motivated me the most was moving the college from being a good regional school to one that could compete with national peers.
It is easy to drift away from teaching as one enters the ranks of administration. I remained dedicated to keeping my hand in teaching, when I could, and maintained my involvement in practice and research. As a dean the world opens many doors. A pleasure I could not have imagined that came with the role of dean were the many interesting people I would meet from all walks of life. Fund raising begins with friend raising and I was successful at making Al (Alfred to his east coast and international friends) Taubman a friend of the College. His generosity shined a light on the college and his naming gift of thirty million dollars to the college a few years after I stepped down as dean has been truly transformative. I had always believed that one should retire at the top of their game as difficult as that might be to determine. I enjoyed teaching, but felt I should allow younger, and in many ways more talented, faculty to take my place. I took emeritus status in 2002 at the age of 67.
Of all the changes to the college made in the last two decades the embrace of the digital revolution and globalization have perhaps been the most profound. The digital revolution has transformed the world of design just as it has academia. It was fun teaching advanced studios after I retired from administration. Those studios had a large percentage of international students, and some of those courses were like running a United Nations’ workshop. What was truly remarkable were the diverse backgrounds and skill sets each of these students brought with them to UM. The learning they imparted to each other in sharing their computing skills, to say nothing of the advanced culinary skills they shared was beyond anything a group of instructors might provide. Equally important were the international programs the College pursued that allowed students to have the broadening experience of studying abroad. That in situ exposure to other cultures expands the learning experience to 24/7. Teaching students in programs in Italy and Turkey only intensified my belief that these were valuable programs that the college needed to support if it were to be a world-class institution in our globalized world.
After my so-called retirement I was honored with an appointment as the Charles Moore Visiting Professor at the college. Charles Moore was one of our distinguished alumni, author of some of the finest buildings on the North Campus and holder of an honorary degree from the University. I felt my life in academia had come full circle with this my last academic appointment. Moore was someone whose work and teaching I had greatly admired. What an honor to have his name appear as part of my resume.
Most of the fun I have enjoyed in life has emanated from my career in education. Of course my family has been a part of that. Of my two sons, one has become an academic teaching at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. The other is an organic farmer, carpenter and community activist in Maine. Both were influenced by those early years in Ann Arbor during the cultural revolution of the 60s.
The college (named the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning following Taubman’s extraordinary gift) was kind enough to give me a gallery exhibit of my professional work as well as my photography when I formally retired. The exhibit was titled Transfiguration of the Common Place. Over a period of nearly 50 years, I have gone through my own transfiguration having been able to realize my goal of combining teaching and professional work and research with some academic administration thrown into the mix. The most rewarding part of my experience – being recognized as a mentor myself.
Dean and Professor Emeritus
A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Michigan