David Leatherbarrow, professor and former chairman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and a prolific author, has been honored for his 40 years of teaching and scholarship with the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. Here he responds to our architect’s version of the Proust questionnaire.
What is your greatest achievement?
Having demonstrated to students at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate) the interdependence of theory and practice, partly by explanation and partly by demonstration (40 years of teaching both studio and lecture courses).
What is the most memorable moment of your teaching career?
The graduation of a Ph.D. student who had years earlier told me tearfully that the course of study was far too difficult for her to ever complete the dissertation. Shortly after graduation her dissertation was published as a book that later won prizes.
What was the most rewarding moment?
Attending a conference organized by former students who had themselves become professors and decided it was time to tell their former professor, me, how their scholarship had developed since graduation.
What is your teaching style?
It is a combination of demonstration and dialogue: showing how themes can be pursued creatively and asking questions that give rise to the student’s thought and passions—teaching by example and by regularly revisiting basic premises.
What, if anything, has changed about your style over the years?
I’ve come to realize the importance of “teaching moments,” that alertness to a student’s readiness and capacity to learn these topics at this moment. Early on, I felt that preparation was key. Now I see that discerning what and when a student can “catch” an idea or example is no less important than one’s own preparation.
What role does your research and scholarship play in your teaching?
Framing the question in reverse makes it easier to answer: My scholarship in theory and history has always sought to address topics that have arisen in studio discussions, as they move from topics specific to the discipline to experiences of contemporary life. Writings brings these topics and insights to readers beyond the immediate teaching environment.
What is the most unfortunate reality about architectural education today?
The cost of higher education is its most debilitating condition. Students struggle to meet expenses throughout their course of study and then struggle even more to repay loans and debts after graduation.
What is the most promising aspect?
The wide self-awareness of the students: knowing that they have a role to play in today’s society, that they are being trained to act creatively and decisively in response to pressing issues in cities, environments, and cultures.
What is the greatest ambition you have yet to achieve?
To have readers not only in but outside architecture and related fields—readers of literature, history, philosophy, general interest, and so on.
What is your greatest regret?
Spending so much time in teaching and scholarship has left little time for professional practice.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
The pace of design and construction: too little time for careful, creative, and self-correcting thought; which is to say, too much emphasis on rapidly produced, risk-free solutions.
When did you first know you wanted to teach architecture?
The possibility of teaching first occurred to me in the early days of my Ph.D. studies (in England) when I had successfully conducted a research seminar.
What jobs did your parents have?
My father was in business, my mother a homemaker.
What would you have been if not an architecture professor?
A full-time architect, and if not that a carpenter.
What keeps you up at night?
Not much; sometimes traffic. My worry—broadly speaking—is the failure of leadership at all levels of modern society.
What is your favorite building?
My favorite cities are Philadelphia, London, Copenhagen, and Rio di Janeiro. I have favorite buildings throughout the world: in Vienna, Paris, and Rome especially. Perhaps the building I’ve thought about most over the years is the PSFS building in Philadelphia.
What is your most treasured possession?
A Mont Blanc pen my wife gave me when I finished my Ph.D.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
A group of graduates who act as reflective leaven to the profession, and a body of writing that shows current and future readers how the stories of our lives are recorded in the spaces of our lives.
What does winning the Topaz Medallion mean to you?
I’ve read some of the autobiographical comments of previous winners and am happy to see that I stand among others who have similar desires, aspirations, self-doubts, and deep commitment to architecture.