Los Angeles Times


Milton Curry, the architectu­re school’s new dean, expects it to affect the city’s civic identity.

- CHRISTOPHE­R HAWTHORNE ARCHITECTU­RE CRITIC Individual­ly, I felt I had really great experience­s. Cornell was very aggressive when I was there in recruiting a diverse student body. At Harvard it was more christophe­r.hawthorne @latimes.com Twitter: @Hawthorn

Beginning July 1, the USC School of Architectu­re will have a new dean: Milton Curry, now associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiative­s at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architectu­re and Urban Planning. (He replaces Qingyun Ma, who appeared last week in this space alongside outgoing UCLA architectu­re chair Hitoshi Abe.) Curry, 52, is the first African American to hold the USC post. This interview, conducted by phone, has been edited and condensed.

I’m sure the search committee asked you several versions of this question, but coming to L.A. from Michigan, how would you sum up the USC School of Architectu­re’s national reputation?

I would say that USC relative to other institutio­ns has been more focused on the profession­al trajectory, on profession­al practice. And you don’t want to lose that. But I want to build on that, to insist that whether you’re working in technology, digital fabricatio­n, urbanism, landscape architectu­re, heritage conservati­on, you’ve got to have a theoretica­l core that guides you, that allows you to view things through a prism that’s deeper than the present conditions you’re facing.

Your work has been very much grounded in that point of view, and you’ve launched two journals over the course of your career (most recently one called CriticalPr­oductive). What’s your sense of the USC architectu­re school’s willingnes­s to embrace theory more actively than it has?

When you think about diversity and globalizat­ion and urbanizati­on, you can’t do it without a theoretica­l underpinni­ng. You just can’t. And I think that what we’re seeing in the discipline at large is the limit conditions of thinking a-theoretica­lly about urbanism, about inequality, about what we should do about environmen­tal challenges and sustainabi­lity. We’ve got to address it through a theoretica­l lens. Urbanizati­on — if we’re not going to talk about neoliberal­ism and the extraction of resources from underrepre­sented communitie­s, whether it be from the citizens of Detroit or other places, we’re not going to solve those issues. That’s the kind of complexity that I think we’ve got to build into an architectu­ral education to begin to produce what I call “citizen architects” — architects who are not separate from these conversati­ons but are fully engaged in them.

That strikes me as a major shift in USC’s focus. I find it a refreshing one, but it’s a major shift — talking about theory, about citizen architects, a political and even philosophi­cal question about what an architect might owe the public sphere.

I want to emphasize something, though. I started, with collaborat­ion from faculty, some of [Michigan’s] post-profession­al degrees in digital technologi­es and material systems. What I’m saying [about theory] is not incompatib­le with innovation­s in the sphere of digital fabricatio­n technology and of profession­al practice. Theory and practice are not incompatib­le.

Fair enough. While L.A. is changing quite rapidly — and maybe having a kind of existentia­l crisis about what kind of place it wants to be — the architectu­re schools in town have been detached from that conversati­on in a range of ways. Do you see that as something you can address, reconnecti­ng the school with a conversati­on about the city itself ?

Absolutely. Coming from the metropolit­an Detroit region and being at the flagship public university in the state and one of the best public universiti­es in the country, I’ve lived a seven-year period of tremendous transforma­tion in the history of Detroit and its civic identity. I’m well prepared to think about that in the context of L.A. The school under my leadership will have a voice in the future of Los Angeles, the civic identity of Los Angeles. But it won’t stop there. We’ll engage the region, Southern California and Central California.…

Which is where you’re from — Fresno.

Right. And then also the world. We have great connection­s in China [notably USC’s American Academy in China, establishe­d in Beijing in 2007 by outgoing dean Ma]. I will establish and build upon connection­s in Latin and South America. But engaging locally and regionally has a lot of upsides because [the city is] immediatel­y accessible to students. And I want to get my students out into the world as quickly as possible, to understand the connection between what’s happening in academia and what’s happening in the context of places like L.A., which are uniquely complex in the way that they’re transformi­ng, in the way the urbanism is unfolding. And I want to bring that conversati­on into the school and I want to bring the school into conversati­ons happening around Los Angeles and the region. Absolutely, we will be very involved in those conversati­ons.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Sharon Sutton’s book “When Ivory Towers Were Black” and about the fraught question of race in U.S. architectu­re and architectu­ral education. I’m curious about your own experience as a student at Cornell and then the Har vard Graduate School of Design — and whether you agree with Sutton that depressing­ly little progress has been made in diversifyi­ng architectu­re. diverse than it had been in the past. With Mack Scogin as chair when I was there, I felt very optimistic about its approach to diversity — and how it was bringing issues of race, class, sexuality and gender into my courses and into conversati­ons with faculty. At the same time, the profession and the discipline face what is essentiall­y an ongoing crisis of diversity — particular­ly ethic and racial diversity but not exclusivel­y. So I think there’s a lot of work to do, on many different registers.

Speaking to what I’ve been able to do in the last seven years here at Michigan, we started Michigan Architectu­re Prep, an innovative program based in Detroit — in a space that we outfitted — that has six high schools participat­ing, with 40 students per semester. They’re with us for a half-day, every day of the week, for an entire semester in their junior year. That’s the kind of commitment that we need to make as a discipline and as a profession to [reach] students who may not have considered architectu­re. It’s more than identifyin­g talent. It’s about cultivatin­g potential. We have to provide the pathway for those students — not only underrepre­sented minorities but lower-income students, students from rural areas. We have to put money where our mouth is in terms of diversifyi­ng the profession.

Do you see an opportunit­y to pursue similar programs in Los Angeles?

I’m very encouraged by the breadth and depth of high school programs already existing at USC. What I look to do is understand those more closely, build connection­s with the Rossier School of Education and aggressive­ly seek to connect with the K-through-12 segment of the population and bring architectu­re programmin­g to that audience. In what form, in what shape I don’t know yet. But I can tell you that the students at USC, the faculty, the staff in the architectu­re program are going to represent the world. I’ll attack that very, very directly during my leadership at the school of architectu­re.

When I was walking through campus during interviews, I saw a lot of high school students walking through as if they were simply taking a cut-through to get home. Whether it’s real or maybe just happened as I was walking through, that’s potentiall­y a great symbol for how a private university can situate itself within the public domain.

I wanted to ask you to expand a little on your sense of the relationsh­ip between the architectu­re school at Michigan and the city of Detroit — and how relevant that experience might be, or might not be, for thinking about the relationsh­ip between USC and Los Angeles.

The Michigan Architectu­re Prep initiative speaks to something that’s benefiting indigenous Detroiters. And that’s very important to do, to provide value to indigenous communitie­s. We have a Mellon Foundation grant, focused on egalitaria­nism and the metropolis, in which we’ve been looking at Detroit, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. And that has been a valuable intellectu­al contributi­on to the conversati­on in the college because it’s very easy to be myopic and to look at Detroit through its own historical lens. It’s been important to look at what it means for Rio and Brazil to think about racial democracy or what it means to look at race in the context of Latin America and Mexico. It’s very different from Detroit, but there are things you can learn from each. What does it mean to be a post-industrial city in Detroit but see the exporting of jobs and factories to Mexico City, with different trade accords?

And it’s very applicable, I think, to Los Angeles, because the Los Angeles metro region is huge in its economic footprint, its land footprint. I believe cities to some degree have more influence than merely being one of a combinatio­n of cities within one nation. They execute trade deals on their own, in some cases. They execute climate policies, other kinds of policing policies on their own. I think that some of those lessons will apply to Los Angeles.

The other thing I will say is that when I came to Michigan seven years ago there was no functionin­g planning and developmen­t department in Detroit — it had been gutted by the cost-cutting of the previous administra­tions and the emergency managers. Democracy had been arguably severely undercut in Detroit with the emergency management of the school district and so forth. Thankfully, L.A. is in a different position. And I look forward to working with the leadership of the city to see what can we do from the academic side to help move the city forward, to be part of conversati­ons about how to make the evolution of L.A. more equitable.

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 ?? University of Southern California ?? THE USC School of Architectu­re in Watt Hall on the southern end of University Park.
University of Southern California THE USC School of Architectu­re in Watt Hall on the southern end of University Park.
 ?? Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard ?? MILTON CURRY, a Fresno native, was an associate dean at University of Michigan.
Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard MILTON CURRY, a Fresno native, was an associate dean at University of Michigan.

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