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Book chronicles history of architecture education at KU

Wed, 02/15/2012

Stephen Grabow


LAWRENCE – Here’s a fun fact for those who enjoy the Kevin Bacon Game: You can get from the University of Kansas architecture department to Kevin Bacon in two moves. (More on that in a moment.)

Another fun fact: You can get from the KU architecture department to some of the world’s most influential architects and architectural trends in one move.

“Many people don’t realize how closely the architecture department at KU is tied to some of the great designers, designs and intellectual concepts of our time,” said Stephen Grabow, KU professor of architecture. “But architectural education at KU has an incredible history, and we’ve been very tightly connected to some of architecture’s most influential people and schools of thought.”

These connections are now documented in the new book “Vitruvius on the Plains.” Edited by Grabow, “Vitruvius on the Plains” includes a brief history of the KU School of Architecture – which this year celebrates its 100th birthday and is now the School of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning. Additionally, the book describes KU connections to architecture’s most influential movements and designers, including legends Stanford White and Frank Lloyd Wright, two of the greatest American architects in history.

Taken together, the book’s historical account and faculty writings illustrate that the School of Architecture has always had an urban, cosmopolitan and international perspective, which is surprising to many people given the school’s Midwestern location, Grabow said.

“People are often surprised to learn what an urban, global mindset and diverse faculty we’ve had, and continue to have, here at the School of Architecture,” he said. “That was the idea behind this book. Now is the time to tell this story, being that this year marks the school’s centennial.”

The book begins with an article written by the school’s first professor of architecture, Goldwin Goldsmith – a one-time apprentice to the legendary White, who is widely known for designing the second version of Madison Square Garden in New York. (As an aside, White is perhaps more widely known for having been shot dead at the Garden’s rooftop restaurant in 1906, allegedly because he seduced the murderer’s wife. The murder led to a trial that, at the time, was dubbed, “The Trial of the Century.”) As “Vitruvius on the Plains” describes, Goldsmith’s leadership as KU’s first chair of architecture was strongly influenced by his apprenticeship with White.

Then there’s KU’s link to Wright, arguably the greatest American architect of all-time. The Wright connection began with Goldsmith’s successor, Frank Kellogg, who became KU’s second chair of architecture. Kellogg is credited with moving KU away from the Beaux-Arts method of teaching design and more toward the so-called Chicago School of thought endorsed by Wright, who actually visited Lawrence in 1935 to deliver a lecture and tour the university’s drafting studio.

The Wright connection persisted at KU for more than 50 years through Curtis Besinger, a 1930s KU graduate who went on to work for Wright until the completion of the drawings for the Guggenheim Museum in 1955. Besinger then taught at KU from 1955 to 1984. His memoirs, “Working with Mr. Wright,” were published in 2000.

“The links are fascinating,” Grabow said. “In addition, there are direct connections to other great names such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn, as well as several more contemporary stars in the architectural firmament.”

As for title of the book, Grabow said he was inspired by Vitruvius, the Roman writer and architect who chronicled his accounts of life and architecture in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire during the first century.

“I thought it was a perfect analogy,” he said. “Sometimes, people think of Kansas out here on the Plains the same way people thought of the outermost regions of the Roman Empire. So I’d like to think that by chronicling the history of architectural education here in Kansas, we’re doing the same thing that Vitruvius did.”

Grabow said the book and the school’s 2012 centennial celebration provide a great forum for reflecting on the school, its tradition and its continued focus on global issues and education.

“Since Goldwin Goldsmith 100 years ago, KU architecture faculty have had living connections to the most important intellectual trends in architectural education, as well as a global, cosmopolitan perspective to education,” said Grabow, who like many of his KU architecture colleagues teaches summer courses overseas. “We’ve always had an international orientation, not just a regional one. That’s why our grads leave KU and go work in places like New York, Seattle, San Francisco and throughout the world.”

As for the architecture department’s link to Kevin Bacon: Grabow and several other KU faculty studied under Kevin’s father, Edmund Bacon, a well-known urban design professor at Pennsylvania and city planner in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

“I suppose that means I have a Bacon Number of two,” Grabow said. “It’s amazing, but it’s true.”

To order “Vitruvius on the Plains,” visit The Lowell Press and click “Architecture Centennial Publication.”



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