SOM Foundation Chair (2002–2005)
September 7, 2020
In 1992, Craig Hartman invited me to join the SOM Foundation awards jury. Seeing the high level of student submissions and efforts by an earnest jury committed to identifying and awarding the best candidates impressed me as something important for SOM. Later, as the chair of the Foundation from 2002–2005, I was able to experience firsthand the impact the awards have had on the academy and profession.
During that time, SOM partners questioned the finances and structure of the Foundation. This self-reflection was important as fluctuations in the financial markets, various initiative expenses, and increasing administrative costs threatened its resources. At the same time, we saw other new prizes and awards being introduced with impressive payouts.
Happily, we were able to stabilize the endowment, reduce administrative costs, diversify awards, and increase award amounts. More importantly, the Foundation was able to reach out to many architecture school deans and chairs, as well as past awardees, to survey them about their thoughts on the SOM Foundation awards. The response was overwhelmingly positive and heartening.
We increased the number and award amount of now combined awards for architecture, urban design, and interiors to complement engineering awards and reflect the interdisciplinary nature of design in our own practice. Toshiko Mori, then chair at Harvard, and other school leaders offered that the $15,000 was plenty for a student. They thought it was important to increase the number of awards to cover more schools and qualified students.
At the time, we were able to hold finalist interviews after a first round of juried portfolio reviews. While this added administrative costs to the process, we found those opportunities enlightening to see and hear the candidates personally describe their plans and goals. Many aspirations mirrored traditional “Grand Tours,” others sought to discover sometimes obscure or esoteric design gems in far off destinations, and a few brought creative and unexpected proposals—like using a RV to visit and study the design and sociology of Walmart parking lots across in US.
Perhaps most surprising was learning some students hadn’t ever been out of the country. As Liz Plater-Zyberk, then dean at the University of Miami, said, many of the middle-class constituency at her school never had the privilege of travel and needed the award to see the world. Of course, the Internet has increased access to architectural discovery, but there was universal agreement that independent travel, without any strings attached, that could benefit as many of the top students across the country as possible was very important to the schools.
This idea of the SOM Foundation Traveling Fellowship as the contemporary Prix de Rome felt limiting if it remained only a prize for Americans. In addition to the UK Award, we initiated the China Prize as a gesture to the firm’s increasing work and connections to the schools in that country. In a sense, this evolution of the Foundation’s reach is true to the mission, now global, of benefiting the design education process and future of the profession.
As chair, I strongly encouraged SOM partners to support the Foundation and awards. The impact was illustrated one day when I received a note and $10,000 check from Santiago Calatrava (1988 Fazlur Khan International Fellowship) who wanted to give back and foster the Foundation’s goals that benefited him. When asked, Marion Weiss (1982 Master of Architecture) said it was life transforming, adding, the ability to go alone was important as a way of finding yourself and essential to understanding architecture and design.