Drafting a Legacy

As the new dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture, Peter MacKeith is following in the legacy of great educators that came before

PeterMacKeith_ArkLife_088TWhen house hunting in Fayetteville before starting his new job as dean of the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture, Peter MacKeith was eagerly hoping to find a place filled with space and light. After narrowing the search to three properties within walking distance of the university, he settled on a condominium overlooking the town’s charming downtown square. From that vantage, with eastern and western exposures opening onto views of Old Main, the city and the surrounding hills, one has to imagine it must have been nearly impossible for him not to feel a sense of unbridled excitement for everything to come.

In becoming the architecture school’s fourth dean since it was established in 1974, MacKeith is experiencing a similar sense of anticipation. That’s only natural, given the Fay Jones School’s reputation for turning out high-caliber architects and designers—not to mention the renown of the school’s namesake and first dean.

MacKeith comes to the University of Arkansas after 15 years with the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. His arrival coincides with the recent renovation of the Vol Walker building completed in September, where for the first time since the program’s founding, all of the school’s departments—architecture, landscape design and interior—are now located under one roof. MacKeith sees this as a synergistic opportunity for students in the three disciplines to learn collaborative skills necessary for real-life design scenarios. “For me, that was one of those magnetic attractions,” he says.

He also felt drawn to Arkansas because of his participation on the architecture school’s professional advisory board where he’s served since 2011, but perhaps even more so because of a link forged 25 years ago. Serendipitously, perhaps, MacKeith credits an Arkansan—the late U.S. Sen. William J. Fulbright—with setting him on the trajectory that allowed him to establish a name for himself in the area of modern and contemporary Finnish and Nordic architecture. In 1989, MacKeith was awarded a one-year Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Helsinki in Finland, which led to a professorship and a position as director of the Finnish school’s master of architecture-international program. “I’m a direct beneficiary of Fulbright’s vision, and for me, that experience really deepened my understanding of architecture,” MacKeith says.

MacKeith sees the possibilities for more life-altering experiences in Arkansas as he strives to build on the UA architecture program’s national reputation for excellence.

PeterMacKeith_ArkLife_095THow did the Fay Jones School of Architecture and the university first come to your attention?

I arrived in St. Louis in 1999 and was overseeing the admissions process for the [Washington University] school of architecture. We began to receive applications into our graduate program from extremely good University of Arkansas architecture students. It became clear to me that it was a great architecture program, graduating students with the talent and the ambition to move forward in our master’s program in St. Louis. I wanted to know more about the school and came to meet university faculty through that outreach. My interest deepened with each passing year.
How are you going to build on the legacy of Fay Jones?
I’m not sure anyone could equal that legacy, but I think the legacy to the school is a lineage of intense passion for architecture and intense passion for the education of the architect, a real devotion to the students while they are students and maintaining those relationships as students become alumni.

What aspects of your interest in Finnish and Nordic architecture will you bring to Fayetteville?

The design culture overall in the Finnish and Nordic countries is deeply attached to the public and social responsibility of the architect. And it’s also deeply attached to the understanding of architecture as a constructed, built and experienced way of working in the world—of architecture as an expression of the cultural values of the city or region. Those are aspects that I find sympathy with in Arkansas, but which I would also bring and work to heighten, not just in the school but across the state.

Over the weekend, I was reading a book by the founder of the school in Arkansas, John Williams. It’s a really wonderful book called The Curious and the Beautiful that’s a history of the school up until about 1984. There’s a description of the essential quality of architecture education as an “unassuming trust in unpretentious work, and honesty of purpose combined with an unfailing support for extraordinary design talent.” As I read those words, I couldn’t help but think that was almost synonymous with the qualities I saw early on in Finnish architecture.

Do you have any multidisciplinary or boundary-busting ideas that you’d like to see take hold at the university?

Students today increasingly see very few boundaries. Their worlds are very fluid, certainly more fluid than what you and I grew up with in terms of where their interests will take them and the knowledge they want to gain from each other and other disciplines. Some of the first initiatives in opening up territory are going to come through something as simple as a one- or two-day design charrette inside the school in which teams of students from the different disciplines work together to bring forward a more complete or holistic design. There’s also the possibility in more structured ways to have seminars that draw students from the different disciplines into a common purpose. It’s important [for architecture school graduates] going out into the professional world to be prepared for design discussions where you are automatically collaborating with others and are conversant with the terms of landscape architecture and interior design.

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

The work that I’ve done spans from single-family homes all the way up to a soccer stadium in association with a firm in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the University of Virginia. My design has also taken the shape of exhibition designs, especially over the last five years, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University and for the Museum of Finnish Architecture [in Helsinki]. I’ve also worked a great deal in historical and critical research of Finnish and Nordic architecture. What I’ve been emphasizing is a real attentiveness to the specifics of place and qualities of materials and techniques of construction to enhance the ultimate experience of the people who are using and living in those spaces. There’s a role for design when we think about law, when we think about business. There’s a role for design when we think about engineering and when we think about health. In my opinion, the role of design is more important than ever before today. And it’s more essential than ever that our designers be articulate advocates of the values that they bring into those types of collaborative works.

What do you do when you’re not working on or thinking about architecture?

[Laughs.] Have you asked architects this question before? There’s rarely a moment when I’m not. I spend a good deal of time thinking about architecture and education. There’s also another side of me that goes very far back. That’s playing soccer. I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old, and I played while I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. I coached as well. In some ways, being a soccer coach was the the path not taken for me in terms of professional direction.

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