Brett Steele, director of the Architectural Assn. School of Architecture in London since 2005, has been named dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh announced the appointment, effective August 2017, on Wednesday morning.
As dean, Steele will take on a wide-ranging portfolio, overseeing UCLA’s programs in art, architecture, design and dance as well as the university’s two museums, the Fowler and the Hammer, and its Center for the Art of Performance.
He succeeds David Roussève, interim dean since July 2015. Roussève followed Christopher Waterman, who served as dean for 12 years.
Steele, 58, is an American-born, naturalized British citizen who grew up in Oregon and Idaho. He received his diploma in architecture from the AA and also studied at the University of Oregon and the San Francisco Art Institute.
“What got my attention and interested me is the nature of the role at UCLA and the composition of the school,” Steele said in a phone interview from London. “I think we live in a time when the ability to assemble and invent audiences is as crucial to schools as all of the attention that most of them give to individual artists and performers and architects and designers. It’s in my view two sides of the same coin. There are a few very special places in the world where that’s built into the DNA and UCLA is simply one of those places.”
That is true, he added, “in the sense of not just the faculties themselves, which at UCLA are very much oriented toward engagement with the world in different forms, but in the public venues themselves, the Hammer and the Fowler and the Center for the Art of Performance. That’s a really rare quality to find in a school and certainly what attracted my attention -- the ability for the school to leverage that, to become not just a gateway across the university but indeed connecting the university to a larger community in Los Angeles.”
Steele joins a school that is taking on some ambitious new projects even as it has been reconstituting itself. Earlier this year UCLA established the Herb Alpert School of Music as an institution separate from the School of the Arts and Architecture, where it had been based since 2007. Under the direction of Ann Philbin, meanwhile, the Hammer is pursuing an expansion and redesign with the L.A. firm Michael Maltzan Architecture. UCLA is working to build graduate art studios in a new Culver City facility designed by architecture firm Johnston Marklee.
Steele also takes over a department of architecture and urban design that is without a permanent chair. Architect Neil Denari, former director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, is leading the department on an interim basis, following a nine-year stint as chair by Hitoshi Abe.
Steele said there was no rush to name a permanent replacement.
“From what’s been emphasized to me, yes, the dean is going to have an opportunity to look in broad ways across the whole school, but my first work is going to be getting to know the school well,” he said. “One doesn’t want to parachute in with ideas and plans until one really gets to know all of the talent and ideas and agendas that are driving the place.”
Early in Steele’s tenure the AA had a reputation as a center for computer-driven parametric design, which is to say a reputation for being interested in form-making and at least to a degree detached from debates about public policy, urban design and social equity. The school offered a prominent platform to Patrik Schumacher, longtime design partner to the late Zaha Hadid, in whose office Steele once worked. Steele and Schumacher together founded the AA’s Design Research Laboratory.
Schumacher has not only been a controversial figure in the field, making recent statements about the folly of building public housing that were incendiary enough to draw a repudiation from his own colleagues at Zaha Hadid Architects, but also has defended a form-driven, insular approach to architectural practice that is at odds with the sort of public engagement Steele said Wednesday he wants to emphasize at UCLA.
In recent years the AA has far been less tied to any particular point of view, parametric or otherwise.
Schumacher, Steele said, “is one of something like 250 members of our academic staff here, all of whom approach questions of engagement, contemporary politics and the politics of the city in unique ways. Patrik’s views are Patrik’s views.”
He added, “We happen to live in a time when I don’t think schools — and I believe this very deeply — can pursue monolithic institutional views about what might be right or wrong in the world today.”
Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA and a member of the 14-member search committee for new dean, was enthusiastic about the choice, calling Steele “the best dean of architecture over the last 10 years in the English-speaking world.”
She said that under Steele the AA had examined a range of ways in which technology was transforming architectural practice, “and not just in the parametric sense.”
Adam Nathaniel Furman, a 2008 graduate of the AA who has taught at the school and now runs a research group there, echoed that view. “Brett was 100% a neutral figure fostering debate,” he recalled. “He gave a platform to a huge diversity of people…. I’m damn annoyed to lose him to you guys.”
Chaired by Patricia A. Turner, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education at UCLA, the search committee also included Catherine Opie, Center for the Art of Performance head Kristy Edmunds and Chon A. Noriega, professor in the university’s department of film, television and digital media.
“Los Angeles is undergoing a spectacular moment in the wild ride that is the history of that city,” Steele said. “There’s the transformation at the street level of increased development costs and the political complications of rapid change, which is part of the larger meta-narrative of most cities today.”
At the same time, he said, “to sit back and look at Los Angeles specifically, one of its most striking features is the way it sits between two very different kinds of east coasts. It’s no longer a discussion between the east coast of America and a counterculture, freewheeling west coast, which is frankly where I come from. Los Angeles is now a mediating point between that east coast that we know and what’s emerging on the east coast of Asia.”
10:49 a.m.: This article was updated to include additional quotes from Brett Steele and Dana Cuff.
2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Adam Nathaniel Furman.
This article was originally published at 9:45 a.m.