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Architecture for ‘basic human decency’

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Larry Wayne Richards came in like a tornado when he reappeared at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design as dean in 1997. He blew away traditions in both the curriculum and the school itself.

“I decided that the academic programs should be totally transformed and moved to the graduate level,” said Richards. “As well, I thought one should practise what you preach—that our nearly 100-year-old building needed to be overhauled, transformed and renovated, demonstrating good design.”

While not everyone may approve of the upheavals, Dean Richards’s winds of change have clearly whipped up excitement at the College Street school.

Previously a prof at the school for two years during the 1980s, Richards was driven out by bitter pedagogical battles that raged between modernist and postmodernist architectural factions at the time. He returned a decade later to revive the school, which had been threatened with closure by the university’s top planners, who frowned upon the divisive political upheaval within the faculty.

He has reshaped the academic programs into three separate graduate-level professional degrees that include the Master of Architecture, Master of Urban Design and Master of Landscape Architecture. By the time Richards retires in 2003, the school will also offer a PhD program.

Richards also has overseen the transformation of the building into a series of seductively inviting spaces largely designed by John Shnier, a partner in Kohn Shnier Architects of Toronto and a part-time prof at the school. Highlights include the Shore + Moffat Library, the new Eric Arthur Gallery and a smart new suite of administrative offices. Richards also hired Toronto’s trendy design flavour-of-the-month, Bruce Mau, to create an eye-catching brochure and a series of quirky fliers to generate a more public profile.

In order to make the turnaround at the school financially feasible, Richards hired Kentucky-born Maude McCarty, who is well-versed in arts publicity following a stint at the Canadian Opera Company, to oversee a newly established development office. Her fundraising efforts have rewarded the school with commitments for $2.7 million—enough money to complete the initial renovations—and plans are afoot to raise another $8 million to add a fifth-floor penthouse teaching and research facility to the building next year.

How does Richards re-emerge in such form after retreating in disgust from the political turmoil created by the conflicts between rabid modernists and radical postmodernists in the Faculty of Architecture a mere decade ago?

For one thing, he developed tenacity and determination at an early age in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. He was influenced by a spunky, forward-looking grandmother he describes as “a cutting-edge modernist fascinated by technological innovation.” She was employed as a switchboard operator and had the temerity to own her own car in a rural town in the 1920s. She even had a glass-enclosed carport built to protect it.

Richards’s architectural sensibilities reflect the controversial modernist impulse his grandmother inspired in him with her originality and flair. Those principles are guided by what he considers a postmodern mind that dictates modernist design principles. Since the 1980s, he’s reconciled his views on the modern vs. postmodern controversy into a humanistic vision that he says extends to educating students and the public in making great architecture.

“The postmodern world that I inhabit is super-saturated with colliding ideologies, cultures and images. For me there is no longer any singular, simple ‘truth,'” he says. “But I do not allow this global whirlwind to erode my fundamentally modernist and deep commitment to a progressive social agenda—to the dream of equality and basic human decency.”

A main area of interest is in studying the effects of speed on city spaces that are seemingly reduced in size as a result of digitalization and globalization.

“I am fascinated by huge cities like Sao Paolo and Mexico City. These cities, as a phenomenon of the late 20th century, are like great massive organisms or megastructures. I am interested in how these cities function and thrive as machines.”

Such interests took root in his youth. Long before heading off to study architecture at Miami University in Ohio and then at Yale University, Richards learned to read architectural plans. He developed the ability during weekend trips to architectural firms with his father, who represented the local Indiana school board in negotiations with local architectural firms. He knew by the time he was 14 that he would become an architect.

After earning his first professional degree in architecture in Ohio, Richards worked in Boston for five years with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, a renowned leader of the functional design movement.

“Gropius was an anti-elite and interested in connecting with everyday life,” he says. “He was very modest, although he was extremely well-known.”

After practising in Massachusetts, Richards moved in 1982 to teach at the University of Waterloo architecture school, where he ultimately served as director for six years.

At U of T, he teaches the introductory-level architecture course, which has an enrolment of almost 300 students a year.

He is also involved in a range of projects. “I do consulting for individuals, institutions, and corporations who are wanting to hire an architect,” said Richards. “I also write architectural criticism on contemporary buildings, and I am a board member of the Ontario Heritage Foundation.”

Richards has been to China three times since 1977. On his most recent trip, in December, he lectured at eight schools of architecture in China and Taiwan. He also attended U of T’s Hong Kong Convocation.

While Richards has focussed on forward-looking change, he has also established a permanent tribute to a brilliant predecessor, the late Eric Arthur (1898-1982), a leading professor in the faculty from 1923 to 1966, in the school’s new Eric Arthur Gallery. The inaugural exhibition there featured examples of Arthur’s “Practical Visions.”

The curator of that exhibit, Michelangelo Sabatino, a third-year Ph.D student in the Department of Fine Art, believes the school’s future is in good hands with Richards in charge. “He has contributed to making the school of architecture a dynamic and diverse place,” he said.