The Value of Architecture

Bruce Lindsey brings the lessons of the Rural Studio to metropolitan St. Louis.

Bruce Lindsey aims to transform architectural education in the United States, starting in St. Louis, Missouri. From his experience with the Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama, he has seen first­hand that architects can improve communities through collaborative design, enlisting citizens as partners in the process of creation. Now Lindsey is tackling the urban condition—the focus of most academic attention—by bringing these lessons to his new position as dean of the architecture school at Washington University.

After studying art at the University of Utah and earning his MFA in architecture at Yale University, Lindsey served on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon from 1987 to 2001 before decamping for Auburn University, where he headed the school of architecture and co­-directed the Rural Studio after Samuel Mockbee’s death. He now has the chance to apply his ideas at one of the nation’s top schools for the discipline. Joseph Heathcott, an architectural and urban historian at St. Louis University, sat down with Lindsey to discuss his hopes for the future of design education.


Let’s start with the Rural Studio. How has it influenced your work?
It was life-changing for me, as it is for many of the students in the program. Before I first visited the school, I knew a little about the Rural Studio, but when I got there I saw how revolutionary it was in terms of ­architectural education. It was not just about the technical or aesthetic aspects of building or the experience of knowing how to frame a wall, even though these things are important. The Rural Studio emphasized the fact that when you advocate for something outside your discipline—like people and communities—it opens up the possibilities of your own discipline. In other words, when you advocate beyond narrow technical, aesthetic, or professional interests, the opportunities for every aspect of what you do open up. The innovative, expressive, and spiritual aspects of architecture are no longer confined.

While you were at Auburn, you also worked on a project called the Urban Studio, in Birmingham. Tell me more about that.
Just like the Rural Studio, students can go to the Urban Studio for their entire fifth year, during which time they work with faculty on small-town community development and economic planning. They develop asset-based planning strategies working with residents, report back to the community during the semester, and then make a final presentation, which results in a publication that every member of the community receives. The program has reached more than 400,000 citizens of Alabama in some way or another, and the students have worked with more than twenty communities in the last five years.

How did your time in Auburn—which you said was life-changing—shape your views on architectural education?
It really showed me that you don’t have to suspend the expressive and innovative aspects of architectural design to work in the community. A natural question everybody asks is, Given the community, how were you able to do such strikingly modern architecture? The answer is that the clients trusted the students for a couple reasons—because they wear their hearts on their sleeves and because the program had been there and made a commitment to the community that residents knew was real.

Given those experiences, it must have been a difficult decision to move to Washington University. What tipped the balance?
It was the new Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. It tapped into my past experience as an artist on some level, as well as my curiosity about a program that has developed a new structure for education. Most architecture programs are leaning toward becoming freestanding schools. It really intrigued me to see an institution going in the opposite direction, especially one combining art and architecture.

What do you think can be gained by integrating art and architecture in one college?
Artists view the world in a different way. Traditionally, the architect leads architectural teams, orchestrating the work of landscape architects, engineers, and consultants. Only when that work is done do they bring in the artist to respond with an installation. Now it’s becoming more commonplace that the architect, engineers, and landscape architect all start at the beginning of a project, which makes so much sense. But why not invite the artist to the same table to bring his or her sensibility to the earliest formations of the project? When you have art and architecture in the same college, you can build these collaborations into design education from the very beginning.

As you know, most older cities such as St. Louis have experienced substantial decline in the last fifty years. More recently there have been efforts to rethink post­industrial cities. What do you see as the most promising trends in urban revitalization today?
I read something interesting [about Youngstown, Ohio]—that they came to the realization that they weren’t going to grow any more. (See “The Incredible Shrinking City,” May 2006.) They needed to come to terms with the fact that they had lots of empty land and had to decide what they were going to do with it. It recalls something I have argued before: that as the suburbs become deforested, we need to reforest cities. When Paul Rosenblatt and I were part of an exhibition presenting strategies for the riverfront in Pittsburgh, we talked about the need for “minor surgery” as opposed to the “grand plan” approach, which often causes as many problems as it solves. I think we need to do things that somehow make any difference at all as a place to start. And the Rural Studio has shown that possibility.

What role would you like to see the Washington University School of Architecture play in those efforts?
I can give you an example: When I first got here the AIA came to me and said, “We have a new idea. We want to build on a charrette that was held in the Ville [an African-American neighborhood in north St. Louis] last spring and couple that with the AIA’s Initiative on America,” which is the celebration of their 125th anniversary. So we have a group of ten to twelve students who are working with residents on something they want—like a greengrocer, grocery store, or farmer’s market. The students are making a schematic design that will then be taken through design development by a local architectural firm. They will work on the project as interns during the summer with funding from the AIA, allowing the project to be built in the fall. Down the road I see something—I wouldn’t call it the Rural Studio—that includes artists and architects working in teams with communities.

Is part of the mission to spread design literacy into the broader community?
I wouldn’t use the words design literacy, but at the Rural Studio something that came up all the time was that people see the places they live as unique. For instance, Lucy, the owner of the Carpet House—a radical building by any measure—loved it. The reason she gave was that nobody else had one like it. I think our society has gotten away from thinking architecture matters. By nature it’s in the background. Its capacity to connect to the public has been overwhelmed by not only the professional insularity of architects but a mediocrity in architecture that is all too common. We’ve forgotten that architecture can inspire us and help us know where we are. And most important, we’ve forgotten that our built environment can enable us—that people have a basic human right to environments that enhance life.

How do you go about getting the community of St. Louis to see the value of architecture?
You build something that they have a chance to be a part of. If they are part of the process of building it, the odds increase that it will be something they will find value in. And if you are unrelenting in striving for quality and excellence from the students, it will be a great contribution to the community.

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