Late last year, one of the largest travel fellowships for architecture students in the U.S. was announced with nary a blip in the local press, design blogs, or Twitterverse, but rather in a simple email to students at four Southeastern schools: the University of Arkansas, Auburn University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Tennessee.
The intent of the Aydelott Travel Award is pragmatic, open-ended: to encourage the development of research and analytical skills. But the amount of its annual distribution is striking—$100,000 to be divided among four students—and its $2.4 million endowment is among the largest educational gifts by the estate of an architect once hailed as the father of Modern architecture in Memphis, Tenn.—the same architect who left both the profession and the city in his prime.
A Multifaceted Man
Establishing the travel fellowship was among the last acts of Alfred Lewis Aydelott (1916–2008) and his wife, Hope Galloway Aydelott (1920–2010). Named a Fellow to the AIA in 1964, Aydelott was a man of great intellect and endless curiosity, but he also had an unparalleled capacity to hold a grudge, say those who knew him.
Among his resentments was his belief that design in the South never got its due. Aydelott felt the region “was ignored by East and West coast architects who thought that the South was a backwater,” says Reb Haizlip, AIA, founding principal at Memphis-based Haizlip Studio, who had befriended Aydelott late in life and helped set up the fellowship. Consequently, Aydelott limited his award’s eligibility to students at the four southeastern schools.
Despite a portfolio that includes the American embassy in Manila, the Philippines, and the highly regarded Pet Milk Building in St. Louis, Aydelott himself remains little known today, even in the South. Born on a plantation in Arkansas in 1916, Aydelott studied architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and became a partner at Memphis firm Dent and Aydelott in 1939 before setting up his own practice, A.L. Aydelott & Associates, in 1946.
A zealous modernist and devotee of Le Corbusier, Aydelott infused Memphis with a new architectural vocabulary, designing Memphis City Hall and the adjacent Clifford Davis Federal Building, as well as a collection of modern houses in the area.
And yet his greater contribution to the cityscape may be the design talent he attracted to Memphis. Francis Mah, responsible for the iconic First Tennessee Bank building, got his start in Aydelott’s office, as did architects Francis Gassner and Marty Gorman, AIA Emeritus, both of whom went on to shape the city. (Each year, AIA Memphis gives out the Francis Gassner Award for “outstanding contributions to the quality of the built environment.”)
Gorman worked for Aydelott from 1965 to 1969 before following Mah to the Office of Walk C. Jones (today a part of Brg3s). He remembers Aydelott as a kind but flawed character, a gregarious Southern gentleman who not infrequently would return to the office from lunch “staggering drunk.”
“Aydelott would come roaring down the hall,” says Gorman, who along with the other seven to eight designers at Aydelott & Associates learned to fear the sound of their boss’s shoes on the office’s travertine floors. “You’d hear that clopping and say, ‘Oh my god, who’s he going after?' "
Aydelott could be so imperious and the firm’s atmosphere so stressful that he often had to implore employees not to quit, Gorman says. On the other hand, if Aydelott discovered that an employee was accepting independent work, they would be fired on the spot. This was the fate that met Gassner and several others.
Everything changed in 1973. Aydelott, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 57 and given a prognosis of only a few months. He immediately shuttered his practice and left Memphis with his wife Hope, relocated to Orcas Island, Wash., and took up painting. It took a decade before he ventured to consider that he had had outrun his diagnosis. “He said, ‘Every year, I’d wake up and I was still alive,’ ” Haizlip recalls.
Aydelott would live another 25 years, during which time he and Hope would relocate again, this time to Carmel, Calif. But never again did he practice architecture.
In 2000, Haizlip, then the president of AIA Memphis, called to say he wanted to nominate Aydelott for the Francis Gassner Award. Aydelott’s response to him: “I wouldn’t accept an award with that son-of-a-bitch’s name on it for all the accolades in the world.”
Changing tactics, Haizlip nominated Aydelott for an AIA Memphis Certificate of Honor, and in 2003, after three decades away, Aydelott returned to Memphis. Perhaps it was the nostalgia of reuniting with the city and the South, or perhaps it was the imminence of his death—he was now in mid-80s—but it was shortly after this trip that Aydelott began ruminating on the idea of establishing a travel fellowship.
The Aydelotts had loved to travel. “[Al] and his wife would spend six months traveling across Europe, just eating and drinking and having a great time,” Haizlip says. “In fact, Al told me that Ed Durell Stone crashed their honeymoon. When [he and Hope] got married [in 1952], Stone went to Europe with them and wouldn’t leave.”
Gorman has another theory on what prompted Aydelotts' gift. The fellowship may have been a last resort for Aydelott and Hope, who had a sizable estate—she came from a prominent Memphis family of newspaper publishers—and no family to bequeath it to. Aydelott was estranged from his two sons, Alfred III and Martin (both from his first marriage), for the latter half of his life. (The family did not respond to requests for comment.)
But if Aydelott’s shortcomings were apparent to his associates, so were his charms. “He had a statesman-like quality,” Haizlip says. Though he could seem larger than life, Aydelott was also a consummate designer. “He was a student and an innovator of architecture,” Haizlip says. “He personified the pursuit of excellence, and it was an unrelenting pursuit of excellence.”
The itineraries of the Aydelott fellowship’s inaugural recipients reflect not only an enthusiasm for travel but also a quest for an expanded worldview. Auburn University’s Josiah Brown is conducting a survey of affordable housing in Japan, Chile, and the island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain. Lara Lynn Waddell, from Mississippi State, is studying innovative uses of brick in Cuba, Italy, Uruguay, and Finland. And the University of Tennessee’s Catherine Dozier is traveling to China, Japan, Finland, and Brazil to study the relationships between a city’s cultural context and its public architecture. (The University of Arkansas will choose its first fellow in 2017.)
The far-flung destinations may stem in part from Aydelott’s insistence that buildings the students proposed to study not be duplicated by applicants in subsequent years and preferably be designed by living architects. Even so, Aydelott may never have imagined the destinations possible for his scholars due to the geopolitical shifts that have taken place since his years on the move, and the many ways in which the world has contracted.
“It’s only been in the last decade that architecture students in North America were conscious of what was happening in places like Sri Lanka and Chile,” says David Hinson, FAIA, head of Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. “I hope that the Aydelott [Travel Award] will embolden our students to look beyond the traditional Western canon of great works and visit parts of the world where the typical architectural tourist is not going.”
What is less clear is whether the fellowship will create more opportunity and visibility for a region that Aydelott felt was—and some will say still is—roundly ignored by the design community. Dan Wheeler, FAIA, founding principal at Wheeler Kearns Architects, in Chicago, has been a consulting architect and educator at Auburn University’s Rural Studio since 2002 and sat on a jury for the AIA Memphis Design Awards in 2009. He believes that architecture in the South, as well as in other so-called “flyover states” like Oklahoma and Nebraska, has been overlooked. “There’s obviously magic being made in these areas,” he says. “It’s just that the wheels of publication are missing them.”
Jason Young, director of the University of Tennessee’s School of Architecture, agrees. He says that the architectural community can be “dismissive towards the level of intellectual activity in the South,” describing an “East Coast–centric, almost pseudo-compassion for the lesser-thans.”
On the other hand, designers and the design press may simply prefer what they know best, which lends them to grade Southern architecture on a rubric designed with the East- or West-Coast context in mind. “I feel like there’s a Southern sensibility, a kind of making-do quality,” Young says, that is driven by what can be relatively modest budgets. “Mack [Scogin, FAIA] and Merrill [Elam, FAIA] come to mind as a firm that exemplifies that kind of quirky, idiosyncratic, Southland quality.”
While it’s hard to prove geographic bias, a glance at the firms honored as the AIA’s Firm of the Year since 1964 reveals that only two—Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (2002) and Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (2014)—have been based in the South (four, if you include Texas). In other words, just 7 percent of the past winners hail from the South, while 53 percent come from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, 23 percent from the West Coast, and 17 percent from the Midwest. It's important to note, however, that the distribution of these numbers depends on many factors, including the geographic density of design firms in the country.
Regardless, many designers agree that any historical bias within the design profession and press has waned over the past two decades. To a large degree, Hinson says, technology has leveled the playing field. He cites Marlon Blackwell, FAIA—an Auburn alum, he adds proudly—as a prime example: “He exemplifies an architect who’s living and working outside New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and earning amazing recognition for his work.”
Aydelott’s gift is about more than changing attitudes, says Peter MacKeith, Assoc. AIA, dean and professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. Like the other three schools, his institution is a land-grant university with a relatively young architecture program. (The Fay Jones School was established in 1946.) Opportunities like the travel fellowship are vital for Southern universities "that are still coming of age and still building up their endowments,” he says.
Indeed, Aydelott’s gift may raise the profile of the schools, particularly as word of the opportunity spreads. But like the benefactor himself, the influence of the travel fellowship may be hard to predict: Its gaze is noticeably outward, away from the South, and seemingly counter to Aydelott’s vision to bolster the region’s vernacular architecture. Furthermore, as Wheeler points out, while the Aydelott fellows may have chosen to enroll at Southern architecture programs, there is no guarantee they will remain there.
“That’s part of the curious nature of this gift,” says the University of Tennessee’s Jason Young. “Maybe [Aydelott] was saying that if you give people in the Southland an opportunity like this, they’ll surprise you with what they look at, and with what they say about what they see.”
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to correct the year Alfred Aydelott received the AIA Memphis award.