Marquise Stillwell
Episode 5: Dean Milton S.F. Curry on Empathetic Architecture and Civic Duty  00:0028:53

In this episode, I speak with Dean Milton S.F. Curry about his life’s work and the importance – and civic duty – of architecture and design on giving shape and energy to cultural and community engagement. Curry, who is currently the Dean (and Professor) at the University of Southern California's School of Architecture has lived a life dedicated to architecture and design, but with a focus on its connection to empathy and social responsibility.

Marquise: So welcome to The Sweet Flypaper, my name is Marquise Stillwell.

Neil: And I am Neil Ramsay.

Marquise: Dean Milton Curry. Professor at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, had a great conversation with them. You know, one of the big pieces that stuck out for me and I'd love to kind of talk a little bit about is this idea of social practice.

Neil: Sure.

Marquise: How do you hear that? I mean, what does that mean to you? And let's unpack that a little bit.

Neil: Yeah, well, social practice. One, I mean, it's a term, I think in the arts and design, we hear a lot. I do often have to check myself and to remember the general circles that you and I move in and not always believe that these terms are generally known. But even within here, I mean, we look at Claire Bishop, who was a critic and writer, mentioned you know, she has several issues with social practice.

But for me, I'm a bit of a synthesizer, so I skim things, really to the basics, and social practice to me is really a focus on people. But when I say people, it's how people can help people, and not necessarily look for institutions to defer this to. So social practice to me, even though it might be coming up as a relatively new term, or modern, let's say. Not new, but modern. I think social practice is really a return to how communities used to function before we created institutions to relieve people from caring for other people.

Marquise: What excites me is just speaking to someone that's coming out of academia that doesn't always necessarily get to practice it day to day the way that you and I are practicing it. And it's interesting to start to hear how it's shaped in how he's expanding and synthesizing on this idea of social practice within the work and within the canon of education.

Neil: Absolutely. And I think Dean Curry really looks at it as a tool. In bringing this tool and being in academia, I mean, you've got to refer these back to theoretical and also practical applications.

Marquise: Do you touch some of these ideas? I mean, I know you're at university as well. Do you touch some of this?

Neil: Yeah, I touch it directly in the Ratcliffe Art and Design Incubator, where I'm a mentor in residence and co-designer, and how I touch it is we are really making the walls of academia permeable and touching the external. It's a hyperlocal situation, but really touching the citizens outside of the university walls and making it permeable so that we can really mix and begin to listen.

Marquise: Like a living lab, like living it.

Neil: Yes.

Marquise: That's great. And without further ado, here is my interview with Dean Curry.

Dean Curry: Sure. Well, thanks for inviting me. It's great to be on your podcast and to be in conversation with you and to hear about all the great work that you're doing in the design area. So it's always great to be in conversation, with very creative people.

So I grew up in central California in Fresno, middle of The Central Valley, and I went to school during the desegregation period. My parents moved to California from the South via Denver, and my mom was a stay at home mom and then became a community activist and then eventually elected to a school board of Fresno. And my father was a physician, family practice, very active in the community, both the youngest of the five, and I decided early on through exposure to art and architecture that I wanted to be an architect.

I got into Cornell, went to Cornell university and got my bachelor of architecture in the early ‘80s, and then worked in New York for Conan Pederson Fox architects, a large firm in New York City for about two and a half years, and then went to Harvard Graduate School of Design, where I got a Master's in Architecture with the focus on architectural theory and cultural theory.

It was really during that period at Harvard, where a close friend of mine was walking through the hallways, trying to find, I think, a fax machine or Xerox machine. And I said, what are you up to? And he said, I'm applying to teach. And I said, oh that's interesting. I hadn't thought about that. And, eventually got myself together to apply to some teaching positions and wound up leaving Harvard and going directly to Arizona State University and taught there for three years, and then back to Cornell where I was initially a visiting faculty member and eventually tenure track, and then tenure recording, where I taught for 16 years. During six years of those 16 years, I was director of something called the Cornell and council for the arts, which was kind of a group of all the academic arts departments plus a Cornell concert series, uh, Johnson museum of art.

And we tried to advocate for the arts. It was a provost appointed position and had a lot of fun and did a lot of great things there, in terms of bringing diversity to the lecture series and funding little interesting projects and artists installations on campus. And then in 2010, I received a call from Monica Ponce de Leon who was Dean at Michigan, had been Dean at Michigan for about two years and was interested in me becoming an Associate Dean, kind of the number two. And I went to Michigan, never thought I'd be in a colder place than upstate New York, but I was, yeah. And then went to work at University of Michigan, alongside Monica for six years. And then she left and went to Princeton and I continued there for about another year and a half, and then became Dean here through a process, a series of interviews and conversations with the provost and President of USC.

I became Dean in 2017, so I've been doing that for three years. It's been a really interesting pathway. I think, you know, the preparation is really being committed to having impact and diversifying our field intellectually as well as through people. You know, being involved in creative aspects of how the design build industry touches the arts and communities and social and cultural issues. So that's really where I came from and where I'm kind of at today.

Marquise: Through that process, I know that you've authored and started a couple of different journals yourself and this idea of voice and just reading about you and listening to you... words matter. And I can see where you really look at the way that we express ourselves. Give a sense of how you pushed and leverage the journals and what you've written as a way to express your work.

Dean Curry: Well, it's a great question. I appreciate it. I think when I was at Cornell and Harvard, I had a very deep interest in architectural theory and also political philosophy and cultural theory. And those kind of all three is kind of pinball around work that I did as a student, just writing essays for courses. And then eventually at Harvard, taking more directive courses in those areas in African American literature, in deconstruction to deconstructionist literature, a lot of literary theory, because I wasn't getting what I needed from architectural theory in terms of how culture specifically, race and Blackness, impacted the design aesthetic. So I delved a lot into literary theory and I think that with the journals and the writing allowed is for, for me to kind of try to develop an intellectual community where there wasn't one initially, and then to lift up voices, to amplify work that was being done or was emerging in areas that really weren't there at the time.

So thinking about cultural theory and issues of urbanism and race, uh, these sound like issues that are now on the front burner, but. And the 1980s and ‘90’s, the architectural field, wasn't really addressing these in the way that we see them on the forefront today.

So the journals, Appendix Journal, and then Critical Productive after that. allowed for amplification of voices and really bringing more of a theoretical voice to issues of class, race, ethnicity, diversity, and identity, which included and includes sexual orientation, gender diversity, and so forth.

Marquise: Yeah. One thing that I know in regards to the balance of being who we are in design is we talk about culture and yes, culture is something that's in the forefront of people's minds and when they see a person of color, typically a Black person, and thinking about our contribution to culture, there's always this even balanced between what it means to have culture and was it made to be a part of the civic discourse and what it means in a neighborhood—name any neighborhood, and we'll come in and they say, well, this neighborhood doesn't have culture because it has certain negative aspects to it. And these individuals are not, you know, exhibit. Mean what it means to be a citizen. How do you speak to this balance of what culture means without it becoming some other caricature of itself?

Dean Curry: Well, that’s a very interesting question, I think there's a lot that comes into play here in answering or great discourse around that question. So gentrification, racial and other class segregation that's happened, is happening, continues to happen within cities and the devaluation of Black bodies, the devaluation of some aspects of Black culture, and then the kind of high evaluation of other aspects of Black culture, where it's become, you know, profitable to the mainstream in a way.

So there's this paradoxical situation where, you know, Blacks are seen as stereotypes and negatively, and then there's other aspects where they're doing cultural work for profit and that’s widely accepted. So, I think that that paradox is always there. And I think that, with respect to culture, whose culture, how's it defined, what's the hierarchy of how we think about culture used to be the culture was the hierarchs, museum, opera, right?

Culture now includes sports. It includes gaming. It includes all kinds of, you know, skateboarding and subcultures, the graffiti artists and so forth. So I think that that term has itself been democratized, which is a good thing. And the democratization, you also may have some watering down. But I think what percolates up out of that is the notion that ultimately culture is something that is constructed, it's not something that comes down on High. It's something that ultimately is constructed by the veins in conversation with one another, producing and being creative within a certain context, whether it's geographic with the cultural subgroup, et cetera, et cetera. Right.

So I think that's liberating to know that that is something that you can produce and architecture certainly as a part of cultural production.

Marquise: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that the responsibility, which is something that I do want to speak to is, you know, I've had the pleasure of. Being friends with Dave Adjaye, I was part of MCA Denver a while back and able to witness the building of that space and then Walter Hood as well as been a mentor, and the way that they approach their work through this lens of storytelling and how the expression…

What is the responsibility of architects and how do you go from the journal, the work that you've done on paper, into the practice, and how do you teach your students how to move from that intellectual side for the practice and maintain the authenticity of it. That's not easy.

Dean Curry: The persons that you mentioned, David Adjaye and Walter Hood are exceptional sophisticated professionals who, they've really done an amazing job of bringing their own identities, but also identity as slots, intellect into the work in very creative ways. And they adjust it really depending on the communities and the clients that they interact with, but I think they're fantastic. I think there's also artists, and some of whom trained as architects, such as Lauren Halsey and Amanda Williams.

Marquise: Yes.

Dean Curry: You know, there's a feminist perspective there that's being brought into play which is just fascinating to see as well. So I think there's a lot of really great people working in our field.I think that the thing that's been critical for me because I, for better or for worse, I don't have a PhD and so I don't have a kind of single ideological lens from which I look at things. So that's not to suggest that everybody with the PhD does have that, but I think that you typically have a starting point or baseline established, and then you kind of move from there.

For me, it's been very dynamic intellectually. I can see relationships between architecture and a lot of things. And I've written about some of those, the architecture of political philosophy, architecture and egalitarianism, the relationships between modern—modernity, architectural modernism and issues of freedom that you read about and learn about in whether it be Hegel or John Rawls talking about egalitarianism or, you know, who's able to achieve social freedom, and Hannah Arendt and others.

So, I think it's been very instructive to me to be able to try to work the angle of theory and critical reading into the teaching and the dynamics of, kind of, academic leadership within architecture. So here at USC, for example, I brought the idea of Citizen Architect. People say, what is that? Not a term I invented, people have used that term before, but what I meant for it to open up here is two things.

One is a conversation about the way in which we seem to, in the history of architecture schools, want to have students inculcated or assimilated into a certain point of view of where architecture is. And then on top of that, after they've learned the basics, then they get to insert their identity into that.

And I wanted to really open that up and say, uh, similar to when you go on a flight is we may do once again, at some point, check your bags, you get on your flight, and then you go to the baggage. When we pick up your bags. What I tell our students is. We want you to carry your bag with you for five years, three years, however long you're here at the school. We want you to bring all your identity with you. Don't leave it at the door. We're not trying to assimilate you into some thought experiment, and then you pick up what you do, your thesis, you pick up your identity and you try to do a thesis that brings it all together.

That's just not the way an architecture school should work, and so what I really wanted to bring forth with that comment is. Architects never stopped being citizens. They never stopped being part of the citizenry, even when they have a professional identity that is allowing them, and in some cases constricting them—to serve a single person or a single entity, i.e. the client.

And so, you know, many architects do pro-bono work, many architects sit on a lot of boards, urban planning boards. They sit with community people, some of it for no pay. Not everybody does that, but that's part of the role of being a citizen. You can go to school board meetings, and I wanted to really push the fact that architects shouldn't continue to reify themselves and separate themselves from common society into this kind of strata of elite professionals. But in fact, we're a part of the citizenry. And I think when you start to think that way, I think it ends up shaping the way that you discuss your work and the way you see your work in very different ways.

Marquise: Yeah. I would say that that's something also very powerful with the work and things I've read that you've written, and you've done an amazing job of not assimilating, but continuously adapting and evolving, which I think has been a challenge.

Particularly if a certain age of individuals, people of color, particularly Black sort of grown up where in some ways we've been asked to assimilate, to try our best to accommodate. And there's a generation of young Black people who are saying, “no more. I want to be myself.” And so I love this idea of continuing to adapt and continue to understand the dynamics of who you are.

How do you explain that? Responsibility and accountability. How are you holding yourself accountable and how do you teach students and designers? How to continue to hold themselves accountable for that?

Dean Curry: Why have you set high standards and you try to live those standards. So I think, um...

Marquise: How did you do that? You could have been forced in so many ways because you're in academia to assimilate, to take on what it means to be a part of academia, especially at the schools that you've gone through. How have you remade yourself?

Dean Curry: I think partially through the interaction with students, I think teaching helped me a great deal to learn more about myself and my own intellectual interests and curiosities, and to kind of play those out in the classroom. I've had an amazing career with some amazing students who are now out there doing architecture, design, graphic design, and some of the conversations that came out of those courses, whether it be on a boutique hotels or Latin American urbanism, you know, let my interests kind of infect the...I had the capacity and the luxury of teaching in places with great students and teaching courses where I'm able to move to where my passions and interests took me. So that's an element. I think the difficulty today is that on the one hand we have more voices and I think that's great. We have a constellation of voices within the purview of just Black architects and Black people thinking about architecture and Latinx people thinking about architecture and other identities that are feeling included, and inclusive to the conversation about what architecture is where it can go, etc.

I think the challenge with the impatience that you mentioned with the current generation is, certainly we have to increase diversity, but we also have to increase, to turn up the volume on the theoretical coefficient that allows us to make substantive interventions in our discipline and the ideologists can't do that without a deep education in architecture, which is the centrality of my field knowledge domain, but also other things that branch out from that. It could be different for different people, but I continue to push the role of theory. I think history will not, will not do at all. Theory, broadly speaking, allows you the freedom to kind of innovate, and experiment. And I think that it's not just about representation, it's about intellectual interventions.

Marquise: Well, that's what I was going to say about representation because this idea of citizen architect also just brings up a lot of conversations in regards to the theory of who has always been allowed to be a citizen. Right?

Dean Curry: Exactly.

Marquise: And even with the work I was mentioning before, I said we did the Bauhaus film, and I had to spend a lot of time in Weimar, in Berlin. And of course, I didn't see my face. I wasn't, you know, I didn't, I didn't...see any theories of who I was, but I did understand that, they traveled... and a lot of like, Walter Gropius was someone who would have been the Anthony Bourdain of design, where you traveled the world. They did go to Africa, they did go to these places. The challenge is that it didn't build in the theory of it, the place, and recognize those people where they have borrowed from. And I guess my question is, when you talk about theory, how do you direct them in understanding what theory is and what are the gaps in those theories that don't recognize the person or the citizen...that is my face?

Dean Curry: Well, I think you've put your finger on it. I mean, I think that's European Modernism is what I was educated in at Cornell and Harvard, very much so. And you know, I hear the calls for interventions in our ideologies and architecture, for sure.

But here's the deal: if you look at Latin America, you have people, architects, working in genres that began with, that start with the paradoxes of working in a colonial setting, built by colonizers, not indigenous people, silencing absenting out their aesthetic or their histories. And at the same time you have this new thing called International style or European Modernism, with these ideas, then have some seduction around, being more inclusive, being you know, culturally adaptable and so forth.

And so with that as a kind of paradox, we start to see indigenous architects using both of those levers to then push in their own direction. Now, if you simply say that you can't use anything of the colonizer you're short changing yourself from saying, wait a minute, I want to look at modernism in a very critical way. I also want to look at the colonial city in a very critical way. And then I want to work with my own voice in my own way.

And so I think you have to develop a consciousness. This is what I think theory has been great at, at least for me, is to develop a consciousness to look critically at those things that you're going to have to use in your toolkit, but you don't have to use all of it. You don't have to use it in the same way.

So am I going to say I've never going to do a curtain wall because that's coming from colonial European modernism? Well, you could say that now, but you could also say we're going to use the technology to do something quite different.

Marquise: Yeah. And there is an opportunity. I was able to spend time in South Africa as well, and we talked a lot with my time being there, about this idea of undesigning. Do you believe that there is some theory based on what it means to un-design and where do you go from there? Because of course you can say, yeah, we need to undesign this, but you still have to design something. [Laughter]

What does it mean, right? You just can't just blow up a building, and go around blowing up buildings... and I mean, I know we're tearing down statues, which is a great way of undesigning... but how do we move forward with cities like Detroit or Chicago or places...and, you know, South Africa is a really good example...How do you think about that and how do you think about “un-designing” within the theory?

Dean Curry: I don't use that term. I'll tell you why. [Marquise: Okay.]

I think it sounds to me like another tabula rasa type of situation, which we critique the modernists—of European modernists—for bringing that into places like Brazil and Brazil, yet, for example, yes.

And kind of rewriting history by wiping the slate clean, literally wiping landscape clean, and then designing kind of on top of that with something that's heavily imported. So I think we're having a very productive conversation about racism and anti-racism. If you can design a city or state or a country with racist emphases, you can design an anti racist country, or state with an anti-racist emphasis.

Marquise: Yeah, because you have to be anti-racist! You can't just be pro-Black. You have to be anti-racist, which is how I kind of get “un-design,” but I'm here. You keep going.

Dean Curry: Right. So I guess just to take Detroit. To take this question to some place like Detroit and say, okay, is it the actual design of the city that makes Detroit so unequal? Is where the residents are living? Is it the financial structure of how the city is run? I think that, you know, un-designing...think a better term would be transformation and re-organizing. So for example, Detroit, the idea was to declare the city bankrupt, which was fraudulent from all criteria that I've seen, research that I've seen, but given the bankruptcy, then the idea was to talk about the comeback of Detroit.

What would this look like? And very much the discourse was around the able to essentially have the center of the city where the most value is, and to basically kind of have the run of the city. And then the neighborhoods, which are very shared across, you know, 138 square miles would be for the residents, so to speak.

And I think this set up kind of an untenable dichotomy, that's not perfectly symmetrical as I mentioned it, but it does a strange dichotomy of kind of this almost urban tourism in the core, and then it kind of indigenous DIY urbanism, lightly supported by the city, the municipality...and when I say lightly, I mean, very little building, a lot of discussion of landscape and so forth.

And seeing that play out, I don't think it was a very satisfying condition, but I think you could probably play it or narrate it as—or somebody could—as, we un-designed, or we reformatted Detroit after the bankruptcy. It's simply not true, people just as poor, poor. Yeah, they're just strung out over 130 square miles.

They were before the bankruptcy. And I don't see a tremendous amount of economic development going in the hands of Black people during this period. So, I don't know if that answers, but I think the idea of...

Marquise: No, no, this is very helpful. I definitely agree with the way that you've expressed that out, and I really appreciate your time. And this has been amazing personally.

Dean Curry: This has been fun. Yeah,

Marquise: I have just one more question. So off of what you just said, the question is. As soon as fill in the blank, a good city is one that...blank. A good city is one that is... blank. What makes a good city?

Dean Curry: One that equivalently values all of its citizens and residents on an equivalent basis.

Marquise: Thank you so much, Dean Curry, for your time.

Dean Curry: Thank you.

Marquise: This has been a fun conversation.

Dean Curry: Yeah, I appreciate it.

Marquise: And I really appreciate the work you're doing and thank you for continuing to push it forward.

Dean Curry: Thank you. Thank you for reaching out. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to being in touch and seeing the great work that you're doing, and continue to.

Marquise: Thank you. Thank you. All the best. Take care now.

Dean Curry: You too.