Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Larry Speck, FAIA, Awarded the 2011 Topaz Medallion
By Zach Mortice
Larry Speck, FAIA, the University of Texas-Austin architecture professor and former dean renowned for combining teaching and practice in ways that make architecture accessible and vital to a wide community of students, is the 2011 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education recipient. The Topaz Medallion honors an individual who has been intensely involved in architecture education for a decade or more. Speck will be awarded the medallion at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual meeting in March in Montreal. The AIA will also recognize Speck at the 2011 National Convention in New Orleans in May.
Speck’s tenure at UT Austin has launched plenty of renowned practitioners and teachers on their way to important careers in architecture, but his open and pluralistic approach to teaching has expanded his influence beyond just the academic architecture community. He’s arguably the most influential teacher on his campus, as his classes attract more students (architecture majors and non-majors) than any other single professor. Speck has developed this role not out of professional vanity, but because such opportunities are academia’s best chance to teach a new generation of architecture clients and users why architecture and design matter. In his career, quite uniquely, Speck has chosen to leave a legacy of enlightened practitioners and patrons.
A teacher for all
Lawrence W. Speck grew up in the small Texas town of Friendswood, just outside of Houston, and decided as an adolescent, mostly sight unseen, that he would go to MIT and study to become an architect. In a span of just five years at MIT he earned two degrees in architecture and design and a degree in management. The university quickly hired him as an adjunct professor, but he returned to his native Texas after several years to teach at UT Austin in 1975.
Austin became an ideal place for Speck’s private design practice to flourish and leave a lasting mark on the city’s urban fabric. It also became the place where he would begin sinking deep academic roots. Speck has been praised for his talents as a rigorous studio instructor, an engaging seminar professor, and riveting lecturer. He became the UT Austin School of Architecture’s associate dean in 1990, and its dean in 1992, a post he held till 2001. During his tenure as dean, US News and World Report consistently ranked his school as a top 10 program. He brought distinguished architects like AIA Gold Medalist Glenn Murcutt, Hon. FAIA, Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, to Austin to lecture and teach. He also founded the Center for American Architecture and Design, an architecture think tank affiliated with UT Austin’s architecture school.
In private practice, Speck began by designing private houses, but by the 1990s he was working on large public buildings, like additions to Austin’s convention center and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In 1999, he merged his firm (Lawrence W. Speck Associates) with PageSoutherlandPage, which won the Texas Society of Architects’ 2009 Firm of the Year award.
Over Speck’s long academic career, many contemporary luminaries of today’s design landscape have passed through his classes. (A few examples: Reed Kroloff, Assoc. AIA, of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Craig Dykers, AIA, of Snohetta, Mehrdad Yazdani, Assoc. AIA, of Yazdani Studio of Cannon Design, and David Lake, FAIA, and Ted Flato, FAIA, of Lake Flato.)
“Larry has been a model to so many like me of how to achieve greatness with grace and how to accomplish personal success while promoting others to do the same,” wrote former student Richard Archer, FAIA, of Overland Partners Architects.
But Speck’s teachings aren’t just meant for an elite cadre of designers. Incredibly, his classes are so popular that almost 10 percent of UT Austin’s 35,000 undergraduate students take at least one—more than any other single professor on campus. He uses this opportunity reach out to emerging generations of architecture clients and investors and tear away the veil of confusion that obscures mainstream culture’s view of what it is that architects actually do—teaching them what architecture is, where it comes from, and most importantly, how it affects everyone’s life. Clearly, Speck understands that improving the quality of architecture starts with improving the quality of its clients, and that begins with raising the level of public understanding of the profession.
Moral resolve and mentorship
Speck has continually advocated for an architecture education that is flexible, pluralistic, and non-dogmatic. The ideal curriculum, for him, is one that is beholden to no particular set of styles or forms, and can exist beyond seasonal changes in design fashion. “Focusing students too tightly on a narrow set of issues or indoctrinating them in a very specific architectural language seems wrong-headed and irresponsible,” he wrote in an article in ARCHITECT Magazine. “There seems to be a constantly increasing number of schools that view architecture as an inherently complex, multifaceted field, and believe architectural education should reflect just that.”
“Breadth was and remains Larry’s watchword: a view of architecture that is idealistic and practical at once, inclusive and focused, historical and future-oriented,” wrote Michael Benedikt, current director of the Center for American Architecture and Design, in a letter or recommendation.
But Speck’s theoretical and ideological flexibility doesn’t mean that he won’t stand up for quality design. While working with Pritzker Prize-winning firm Herzog and de Meuron on the design for the university’s Blanton Museum, Speck resigned as dean of the School of Architecture after a university regent, uncomfortable with the very contemporary proposed design, hired new architects behind the Swiss duo’s backs. “[Architecture] is a powerful vehicle by which an enlightened institution can accomplish its mission and support its goals,” Speck later wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Because it is such an overt and visible expression of a university, architecture can brand an institution as bold and progressive, or as timid and backward. If a university seeks to portray itself as nurturing discovery and creativity, it is foolish to create a physical environment that breaks no new ground and takes no risks.” Numerous colleagues have praised Speck’s moral resolve to give up the job he’d always wanted in protest of the marginalization of design.
Reed Kroloff is one such colleague. In his recommendation letter, he told of how Speck managed to stop a frustrated and struggling student—himself--from quitting architecture altogether. After two semesters of battling with the most basic building blocks of architectural practice and design, Kroloff came to Speck’s office ready to concede defeat. He wanted to be an architect, but he didn’t think he could do it. “I went to Larry because he was young and smart and sympathetic,” Kroloff wrote in his recommendation letter. “In his office, I was on the edge of tears. Larry listened, paused, and said, ‘Reed, I don’t think you’re wrong for architecture. I think we just haven’t found the right role for you yet.’
“That way of looking at the world—don’t make the person fit the mold, make a mold to fit the person—is exactly what makes Larry Speck such a remarkable educator,” wrote Kroloff. “He innately recognizes a person’s potential and tries to unlock it. He is, in short, an optimist, and there just aren’t enough of those.”
Visit the AIA’s Honors and Awards Web site.
Visit ACSA’s Awards Web site.
Visit the Committee on Architecture for Education Knowledge Community Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.