Column: Milton Curry, USC’s new architecture dean, on educating the ‘citizen architect’

Architecture Critic

Beginning July 1, the USC School of Architecture will have a new dean: Milton Curry, now associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. (He replaces Qingyun Ma, who appeared last week in this space alongside outgoing UCLA architecture chair Hitoshi Abe.) Curry, 52, is the first African American to hold the USC post. This interview, conducted by phone, has been edited and condensed.

I’m sure the search committee asked you several versions of this question, but coming to L.A. from Michigan, how would you sum up the USC School of Architecture’s national reputation?

I would say that USC relative to other institutions has been more focused on the professional trajectory, on professional practice. And you don’t want to lose that. But I want to build on that, to insist that whether you’re working in technology, digital fabrication, urbanism, landscape architecture, heritage conservation, you’ve got to have a theoretical core that guides you, that allows you to view things through a prism that’s deeper than the present conditions you’re facing.

Your work has been very much grounded in that point of view, and you’ve launched two journals over the course of your career (most recently one called CriticalProductive). What’s your sense of the USC architecture school’s willingness to embrace theory more actively than it has?

When you think about diversity and globalization and urbanization, you can’t do it without a theoretical underpinning. You just can’t. And I think that what we’re seeing in the discipline at large is the limit conditions of thinking a-theoretically about urbanism, about inequality, about what we should do about environmental challenges and sustainability. We’ve got to address it through a theoretical lens. Urbanization — if we’re not going to talk about neoliberalism and the extraction of resources from underrepresented communities, whether it be from the citizens of Detroit or other places, we’re not going to solve those issues. That’s the kind of complexity that I think we’ve got to build into an architectural education to begin to produce what I callcitizen architects” — architects who are not separate from these conversations but are fully engaged in them.

That strikes me as a major shift in USC’s focus. I find it a refreshing one, but it’s a major shift — talking about theory, about citizen architects, a political and even philosophical question about what an architect might owe the public sphere.

I want to emphasize something, though. I started, with collaboration from faculty, some of [Michigan’s] post-professional degrees in digital technologies and material systems. What I’m saying [about theory] is not incompatible with innovations in the sphere of digital fabrication technology and of professional practice. Theory and practice are not incompatible.

Fair enough. While L.A. is changing quite rapidly — and maybe having a kind of existential crisis about what kind of place it wants to be — the architecture schools in town have been detached from that conversation in a range of ways. Do you see that as something you can address, reconnecting the school with a conversation about the city itself?

Absolutely. Coming from the metropolitan Detroit region and being at the flagship public university in the state and one of the best public universities in the country, I’ve lived a seven-year period of tremendous transformation in the history of Detroit and its civic identity. I’m well prepared to think about that in the context of L.A. The school under my leadership will have a voice in the future of Los Angeles, the civic identity of Los Angeles. But it won’t stop there. We’ll engage the region, Southern California and Central California.…

Which is where you’re from — Fresno.

Right. And then also the world. We have great connections in China [notably USC’s American Academy in China, established in Beijing in 2007 by outgoing dean Ma]. I will establish and build upon connections in Latin and South America. But engaging locally and regionally has a lot of upsides because [the city is] immediately accessible to students. And I want to get my students out into the world as quickly as possible, to understand the connection between what’s happening in academia and what’s happening in the context of places like L.A., which are uniquely complex in the way that they’re transforming, in the way the urbanism is unfolding. And I want to bring that conversation into the school and I want to bring the school into conversations happening around Los Angeles and the region. Absolutely, we will be very involved in those conversations.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Sharon Sutton’s book “When Ivory Towers Were Black” and about the fraught question of race in U.S. architecture and architectural education. I’m curious about your own experience as a student at Cornell and then the Harvard Graduate School of Design — and whether you agree with Sutton that depressingly little progress has been made in diversifying architecture.

Individually, I felt I had really great experiences. Cornell was very aggressive when I was there in recruiting a diverse student body. At Harvard it was more diverse than it had been in the past. With Mack Scogin as chair when I was there, I felt very optimistic about its approach to diversity — and how it was bringing issues of race, class, sexuality and gender into my courses and into conversations with faculty. At the same time, the profession and the discipline face what is essentially an ongoing crisis of diversity — particularly ethnic and racial diversity but not exclusively. So I think there’s a lot of work to do, on many different registers.

Speaking to what I’ve been able to do in the last seven years here at Michigan, we started Michigan Architecture Prep, an innovative program based in Detroit — in a space that we outfitted — that has six high schools participating, with 40 students per semester. They’re with us for a half-day, every day of the week, for an entire semester in their junior year. That’s the kind of commitment that we need to make as a discipline and as a profession to [reach] students who may not have considered architecture. It’s more than identifying talent. It’s about cultivating potential. We have to provide the pathway for those students — not only underrepresented minorities but lower-income students, students from rural areas. We have to put money where our mouth is in terms of diversifying the profession.

Do you see an opportunity to pursue similar programs in Los Angeles?

I’m very encouraged by the breadth and depth of high school programs already existing at USC. What I look to do is understand those more closely, build connections with the Rossier School of Education and aggressively seek to connect with the K-through-12 segment of the population and bring architecture programming to that audience. In what form, in what shape I don’t know yet. But I can tell you that the students at USC, the faculty, the staff in the architecture program are going to represent the world. I’ll attack that very, very directly during my leadership at the school of architecture.

When I was walking through campus during interviews, I saw a lot of high school students from the neighborhood. And I know that the university has a lot of gates, but I saw a lot of high school students walking through as if they were simply taking a cut-through to get home. Whether it’s real or maybe just happened as I was walking through, that’s potentially a great symbol for how a private university can situate itself within the public domain. And that’s where I will try to position the school of architecture.

I wanted to ask you to expand a little on your sense of the relationship between the architecture school at Michigan and the city of Detroit — and how relevant that experience might be, or might not be, for thinking about the relationship between USC and Los Angeles.

The Michigan Architecture Prep initiative speaks to something that’s benefiting indigenous Detroiters. And that’s very important to do, to provide value to indigenous communities. We have a Mellon Foundation grant, focused on egalitarianism and the metropolis, in which we’ve been looking at Detroit, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. And that has been a valuable intellectual contribution to the conversation in the college because it’s very easy to be myopic and to look at Detroit through its own historical lens. It’s been important to look at what it means for Rio and Brazil to think about racial democracy, or what it means to look at race in the context of Latin America and Mexico. It’s very different from Detroit, but there are things you can learn from each. What does it mean to be a post-industrial city in Detroit but see the exporting of jobs and factories to Mexico City, with different trade accords? There are different outcomes and pluses and minuses that each city has experienced that are in certain ways transnational. In other words, the city transcends the nation-state.

And it’s very applicable, I think, to Los Angeles, because the Los Angeles metro region is huge in its economic footprint, its land footprint. I believe cities to some degree have more influence than merely being one of a combination of cities within one nation. They execute trade deals on their own, in some cases. They execute climate policies, other kinds of policing policies on their own. I think that some of those lessons will apply to Los Angeles.

The other thing I will say is that when I came to Michigan seven years ago there was no functioning planning and development department in Detroit — it had been gutted by the cost-cutting of the previous administrations and the emergency managers. Democracy had been arguably severely undercut in Detroit with the emergency management of the school district and so forth. Thankfully, L.A. is in a different position. And I look forward to working with the leadership of the city to see what can we do from the academic side to help move the city forward, to be part of conversations about how to make the evolution of L.A. more equitable.

Building Type is Christopher Hawthorne’s weekly column on architecture and cities. Look for future installments every Thursday at

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Twitter: @HawthorneLAT


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