'Teach them how to think'

The origin story of the School of Architecture and Planning

University at Buffalo students take over Hayes Hall in 1969 in protest of the Vietnam War. © UB Archives.

UB's School of Architecture and Environmental Design, as it was then known, was founded at a time of great crisis in the nation and world. (Pictured: UB students take over Hayes Hall in 1969 in protest of the Vietnam War. © UB Archives)

Published September 13, 2019

by Bradshaw Hovey

When John Eberhard was first in Buffalo and working to create a new architecture school at UB he met with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to explain his plans. During a question and answer period, a member named John Y. Sloan stood up and declared: “Dean Eberhard, I hope you are going to teach these people how to draw.”

John Eberhard sits at his desk, as pictured on the front of the Engineering News Record magazine in 1969.

Dean John Eberhard and his vision for UB's School of Architecture and Environmental Design were featured in the May 1969 issue of Engineering News-Record.

Without a pause, Eberhard replied, “Mr. Sloan, I am going to teach them how to think.”

According to the late Ted Lownie, who was in attendance, Eberhard then turned on his heels and left the meeting. It was a great one-liner, a dramatic exit, and true to the new Dean’s direction. But it did not do justice to the weight of intention behind the decision to create the new school and especially what kind of school it would be.

In 1962 the State University of New York absorbed the cash-strapped University of Buffalo, part of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s plan to create a system of public higher education to rival the vaunted University of California. Even before the deal was sealed, local architecture professionals were lobbying SUNY to create a new school of architecture to help staff their drawing boards. Until then, all of the architecture schools in New York State were private – Cornell, Syracuse and Columbia among them.

But the sixties were also a time of political, social, and cultural crisis in America. In the design professions there was deep concern about the quality of the built environment, architecture’s role in producing it, and by extension, how new architects were being trained. America had become ugly, the critics concluded. Architects were losing their leading role in the design of cities. And it seemed to educators that architecture students needed a much broader education if they were to master the growing complexity of their task.

Eberhard, visionary and iconoclast

Enter Martin Meyerson, urban planning guru, former Dean of Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED), and the administrative genius who quieted that famously restive campus after the Free Speech Movement of 1964. He arrived in Buffalo in 1966 with a master plan in his back pocket for a different kind of architecture school, one that would teach students to go beyond the merely aesthetic, to lead powerful interdisciplinary teams, and indeed, how to think.

“It will not be a ‘school of architecture’ in the narrow sense,” Meyerson’s academic plan said, “but will involve all that ‘environmental design’ implies.”

Meyerson was a networker and he knew everyone who was out there who might help build a new school. The names he considered were a who’s who of the design professions: Alexander, Chermayeff, Crane, Ehrenkrantz, Geddes, Moore, McHarg, and many others.

It will not be a ‘school of architecture’ in the narrow sense, but will involve all that ‘environmental design’ implies.

Martin Meyerson, UB President 1965-1969, as stated in UB's academic plan

In the end, he picked John Eberhard, a visionary and iconoclastic architect whose idiosyncratic early practice involved the production of pre-fab churches, a stint as research director at Sheraton Hotels, study at MIT, and leadership of the Institute for Applied Technology at the National Bureau of Standards.

Meyerson knew Eberhard, who had visited him in Berkeley a few years before. Eberhard looked around at CED that day and reported back to Meyerson that he hadn’t seen anything he considered particularly innovative. Meyerson remembered the cut, and a couple years later he called Eberhard back. “Alright, smart aleck,” as Eberhard recalled the conversation, “I have something for you to do.”

The students who joined the graduate program in that first year were at least as intrepid as the faculty. Most were experienced enough to know that Eberhard had something revolutionary in mind. Young and not-so-young architects and draftspeople already practicing in the area flocked to the undergraduate architecture program. Even younger students seeking a mission enrolled to study this thing called “environmental design.”

Building a school from scratch

Eberhard arrived in Buffalo in summer 1968 and started to build a school from scratch. There were no job postings. There were no search committees because there was no one to serve on one. He hired Mike Brill, a charismatic genius who had worked for him at the National Bureau of Standards. Brill knew Terry Collison, a UPenn planning grad who worked for General Electric designing new towns. Collison knew George Borowsky, a student of Paul Davidoff, progenitor of advocacy planning, and employee of Edmund Bacon in the research division at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Architect Dick Chalmers completed the founding team, and Ibrahim “Himi” Jammal, whom Borowsky and Collison both knew from Penn, joined a year later.

Eberhard had drafted a plan he grandly titled “Apprentices to Tomorrow.”  Without any dedicated space on campus, they met around the dining room table at Eberhard’s house at 30 Voorhees Avenue to flesh out what that might mean. They sketched out three programs: a Bachelor of Architecture, in which students would learn how to both draw and think, a Bachelor of Environmental Design, and a Master of Architecture in Building Systems Design, which would focus not on the design of buildings but on the process of producing the built environment.

David Stieglitz, who was one of a small cadre of adjunct faculty at the time of the founding, one that also included Beverly Foit-Albert and Charlie Green, remembers “John wasn’t interested in doing buildings. He was interested in remaking the social landscape.”

The students who joined the graduate program in that first year were at least as intrepid as the faculty. Most were experienced enough to know that Eberhard had something revolutionary in mind. Young and not-so-young architects and draftspeople already practicing in the area flocked to the undergraduate architecture program. Even younger students seeking a mission enrolled to study this thing called “environmental design.”

How does one explain such a creation? In a particular historical moment, a concatenation of speculative actions by individual agents – Rockefeller, Meyerson, Eberhard, Brill, and a host of idealistic students – and the pursuit of a set of ideas about how to create a better world. Whatever forces made the planets align in such a way, the ripple effects of those acts continue to today.