Interview with Dr. Richard Blythe, Dean of Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Dean, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Virginia Tech
Richard Blythe is an award-winning architect and educator with over 25 years in higher education and architectural practice. He became dean of the Virginia Tech, College of Architecture and Urban Studies in October 2017. He previously served as professor and dean of RMIT University School of Architecture and Design in Melbourne, Australia, and lectured for 14 years at the University of Tasmania. He was a founding director of the architecture firm TERROIR, where he practiced for over 10 years.
Blythe holds a Ph.D. in design/practice-based research from RMIT University; a master of architecture from the University of Melbourne; and bachelor’s degrees in architecture and environment design from the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology.
Fritjof Capra, 1975
Fritjof Capra, 1982
Stephen Hawking, 1988
All three were eye opening books to me. I read them as I completed my architecture degree and they changed how I saw the world. The three books deal with the complexities, challenges and indeterminacy in knowing the world through science and it provided a great foil for the overly confident mid 20th century concepts like ‘right’ and ‘truth’ in (modernist) architecture.
I watched a video documentary on Mandelbrot’s discovery of fractal mathematics which opened my eyes to new geometric possibilities in architecture that were reinforced through my later interactions with Mark and Jane Burry, Matias del Campo and Sandra Manninger, Alisa Andrasek, Paul Minifie, Roland Snooks, Don Bates and other great colleagues at the forefront of geometric and material invention in architecture (and including my two former Terroir partners Scott Balmforth and Gerard Reinmuth).
These books set me on a parallel career-spanning course of interest in the topologies of the human condition and its intersection with the physical world which lead to brief affairs with Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I’m forever thankful to Leon van Schaik for ‘reacting’ to these particular interests and to Jeff Malpas for his deeper insights into the dynamic and indeterminate aspects of Heidegger’s notion of ‘place’ that could not be so easily codified (a great antidote to Christian Norberg-Shulz’ Genius Loci. On notions such as the ‘topology’ of the human condition, indeterminacy, inter-dependency and the key concepts of Wittgenstein I have enjoyed over a decade of conversations with Marcelo Stamm.
My mentor Leon van Schaik introduced me to Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (in exchange for which, while driving a car, I taught him to use PowerPoint) and we also shared many conversations over a decade. Leon’s wonderful books Spatial Intelligence and Practical Poetics remain important to me. Authors such as Salman Rushdi, Jeannette Winterson and Gabriel García Márquez have always inspired me. At the center of my interest in indeterminacy is the concept of the creative ‘gap’, the not quite fit, or in Slavoj Zizek’s terms the ‘looking awry’ or ‘parallax’. It seems to me that this impossible magnetic-like resistance of life toward human knowledge, preventing absolute certainties, holds open the curtain for creativity itself, for life to be a continual negotiation and discovery. I’ve enjoyed Zizek’s books and many hours of conversation with him.
Indra Kagis McEwen
These captured my sense of what matters in a city. In enjoyed being part of Peter Cody’s PhD process as he put together a wonderful thesis Practical Fiction which speaks into a similar set of ideas about values of architecture and their formative/informative properties. Over the years I have had the very great privilege of being on the inside of many PhD inquiries undertaken by creative practitioners and each and every one of them has been inspiring to me. Many of them you can find at Practice-research.com.
The influences I have described have left me with disdain for ‘single school’ or ‘no school - we coach the students’ own brilliance out of them’ approaches to architectural education. Architecture is a continually negotiated phenomenon that plays between people, texts and things in complex ways. Every architect (including those who are still students) can learn an enormous amount from others, but they will learn far more from those colleagues who have managed to search deeply into architecture either through conventional historical, social or technological means or through their practice.
There are no ‘right’ schools or approaches. We need to foster experimentation and excellence in our schools and to connect this creative ecology very much with those parts of the profession that are progressive across the breadth of the discipline. In my view, schools should be research led and primarily focussed on the kinds of discoveries that are made when architecture is bought face to face with new conditions – social, political, economic, technological. Architecture needs to understand itself in relation to the many other disciplines that come together in the making of our world. We have serious challenges to address and serious new technologies to absorb.
Virginia Tech has incredible technological capability around things like automated vehicles, power electronics, computer engineering, and biomedical research. Our Beyond Boundaries Vision, anticipates the need to bring these disciplines together with the liberal arts which we understand as a critical foundation to building the best technical capability. The Hokie community put great store in the VT Ut Prosim moto, which refers to the motivation to be of service with a transformational purpose. These are the cornerstones of the next-generation university that we are currently building to take on climate, social and economic challenges propelled by the invention and adoption of new technologies that will be instrumental in bringing about a next Industrial Age.
The College of Architecture and Urban Studies are pursuing these ends through new health design and smart construction initiatives. Through partnerships with industry VT CAUS are investing in new smart construction capability on the back of our series of world’s best solar decathlon houses (spanning several decades) and award winning design and construct pavilions and we are linking this with our expertise in policy, engineering, and community engagement to invent the future of the construction industries as architecture adopts robotic, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence capabilities.
Our students will design and build key experimental components of new buildings on our main campus as a part of this initiative. At the same time we are establishing a new Health Design Research Lab in Roanoke in partnership with the VT Carilion medical school, the Fralin Biomedical Research Facility, and the Carilion Clinic organization to design better health and health care futures. Our vision is to bring our students directly into these projects as the foundation of their learning experiences and to be led by our faculty who are actively engaged in research in these areas and partnered with industry, government and the community.
Architecture can have a great impact if: it is capable of letting go of some of its ingrained bigotries, can better understand the social/team condition of creativity and the roles that key individuals play, can work collaboratively across disciplines, can embrace new technologies, and can discover the value that others find in architecture. Architecture will never be the same again. Long live architecture.