We Need Both Breadth and Depth: An Interview with Blaine Brownell

Headshot of School of Architecture Interim Head Blaine Brownell.

The start of the fall semester brings new students, new classes, and, for our School of Architecture, a new interim head of the school.

Professor Blaine Brownell (Architecture), formerly the director of graduate studies, will serve as interim head while the search for a new head moves forward. Get to know more about Brownell in the interview below:

Why did you decide to pursue a career in architecture?

I knew I wanted to be an architect from an early age. Like many of us, I spent long hours drawing and building as a child and was inherently attracted to the field.

I’m glad I chose a career in architecture for many reasons, one of which is a matter of influence. Consider that most of us spend 80 to 90 percent of our lives in buildings and that buildings represent one of humanity’s most significant physical legacies. Now add that the fact that buildings comprise nearly half of all resource use. Architecture has a fundamental social and environmental impact; thus, well-designed, ecologically responsive buildings are critical to shaping our future.

What is your research focus and what projects are you currently working on?

My primary research area is emerging materials. This topic is inherently connected to technology, design, and natural systems. I am currently working on a peer-reviewed book project entitled Examining the Environmental Impacts of Materials and Buildings, slated for publication in 2020. I am also writing two journal articles. One addresses the subject of heuristic explorations of materials and living systems in the graduate architectural studio, co-authored with former School of Architecture head Marc Swackhamer. The other proposes a framework for understanding user perceptions of material language in architecture.

What is your favorite architecture class to teach and why?

I love all of my classes, so it’s hard to choose. However, I would say that the study abroad courses I’ve led to Japan and China have been particularly fulfilling. One of my other research interests concerns contemporary design and material practices in East Asia, and these trips enable me to share this interest directly with students. Sharing images of built projects in the classroom or online is typical practice while on campus; however, it’s much more fulfilling to experience these works firsthand, an approach that results in more enduring memories.

What are you most looking forward to in this new role?

In the past, I have heard that an interim position is a thankless job. However, based on my initial experience in this role, I disagree. My outlook in terms of personal responsibility has changed in a positive way. Instead of focusing on my own interests as a junior faculty member, or on a particular group of students’ activities as director of graduate studies, I now survey the shared enterprise of the entire school community. This is a daunting yet immensely rewarding prospect.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed getting to work more closely with alumni as well as colleagues across the college and University. I also have responsibilities to them—to be a good collaborator, listener, advisor, and supporter of their endeavors. It may sound trite, but I’ve found it to be true: in a leadership role like this one, you share in others’ successes and failures, and the sphere of individual work expands to include the collective.

What advice do you have for School of Architecture students as they prepare to enter the fall semester?

Professional fields are becoming highly specialized. There is a joke in medicine about left-ear surgeons, for example, which derives its humor because it is partly believable. Architecture is not immune to this trend, and the tendency in academia is to increase the amount of disciplinary coursework for students. Although skill-building is critical, hyper-specialization can be counterproductive, leading to a limited perspective that doesn’t enable the lateral connections that generate innovative ideas. David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World corroborates this argument with an abundance of supporting evidence.

In the generalist spirit, I encourage students to try courses in new subject areas, to learn new skills, to experiment with unfamiliar media and tools, to try a different activity or exercise, and to start a dialogue with a new group of people. We need both breadth and depth. Our aim should be to broaden our intellectual range, to make critical connections that may not be obvious, and to dispel our fears of failure when operating within unfamiliar territory. Studies show that a broad, generalist education can seem slow and unfocused at first, but ensures better success in the long run.

One comment

  • Larry Seiberlich

    The comment on the need for a more comprehensive perspective is critical. Epstein’s book should be read by all. Great perspective.

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