Michael Woo is the dean of California Polytechnic University, Pomona the College of Environmental Design which contains departments of Architecture, Art, Landscape Architecture, Urban and Regional Planning, and the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. He is a familiar name in Southern California. Mr. Woo has served in Los Angeles City Council and ran for the mayor's office in 1993 as the Democratic candidate, losing by a small margin to Republican candidate and businessman Richard Riordan. A planner by education, Mr. Woo is a unique dean for a design school with the background of an established politician and, to a degree, an environmental activist. I sat down with him last December in his office and had this conversation.
Orhan Ayyüce- Let's talk about built environment related issues; we have cities, open spaces, livability, affordability, social justice, healthcare.., these are very architectural, urban design related definitions and they are intertwined with politics. What do you think politics of architecture is about?
Michael Woo- I think many times architects like to say there is no politics of architecture. That architecture is either an art form trying to be pure or architecture exists in a vacuum separate from politics. As someone who is not an architect but an urban planner who sometimes deals with broader community context in which architecture takes place, I guess I frequently go into politics of architecture, meaning politics of community reaction, the politics of developers' role, the power relationships involved with financing, or even the politics of neighborhood in terms of interaction between a proposed structure and the adjacent and surrounding structures, there is politics of that. So as a former politician I guess I frequently tend to see the politics of the situation an architect otherwise might not see. So I think politics are deep part of architecture to the extend that politics is real or has some kind of relationship to the real world.
OA- So, then, our everyday life is engulfed in politics. How do you think the architects should deal with it? How do you think architects should include these components, the political thinking into their work?
MW- Seems to me that main part of problem with the politics of architecture that it involves compromise. It may involve the compromise the vision of the architect. This compromise begins with the interaction between the architect and the client and other possible compromise develops as other parties beyond the client are considered. But I don't think the process is inherently any different. It's a matter of somehow adapting the architect's vision someone other than the architect. But that is also inherently different between architecture and the other art forms. The process of making architecture in reality requires interacting with others beginning with the client but I am not saying ending with the client in terms of how real architecture fits in with the real world.
OA- OK. Now I have you, an ex politician here and you are the dean of an architecture school, how about politics of teaching architecture?
MW- I think you should note in your text that I am laughing...
I think a university is also inherently political. In the context of teaching involves interaction between many different individuals. And I learned over the year and a half that I have this job and there are a lot of politics in a university which has an architecture department. I am not surprised by this but managing the relationships between the faculty is big part of what I do as the dean of the College of Environmental Design. Someone asked Woodrow Wilson why he's chosen to leave his job as the president of Princeton and decide to be the Governor of New Jersey, and he answered, “it was time to get out of politics.” In school the main thing is to do the right thing.
OA- What is the right thing then? Now you have four departments you are directing, what would be that direction? You often talk about interdisciplinary work, which a lot of people talks about these days in architecture schools and practice. What is your take on that? I thought being a non architect and planner politician, you might be an interesting person to ask this question.
MW- Well it was the promise of interdisciplinary work that drew me into this work in the first place. In fact this is a college of environmental design, in fact it includes architecture, landscape architecture, urban and regional planning and with Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, it creates tremendous potential that sets Cal Poly, Pomona apart than many other universities where they have architecture program but not other studies under one roof. That is the part of the appeal to me. This also relates me back to my own studies in UC Berkeley where there is also a College of Environmental Design. It is also interesting to me to observe over the last twenty years the trend has been for the design disciplines to get a divorce from each other!
When I applied for the job of the dean, I was frequently asked by the various faculty if I was going to support interdisciplinary work, then it surprised me when I got here, actually there isn't that much interdisciplinary work here. In other words, the departments are the part of the same bureaucracy being part of the college, there was as much interaction between the different departments. There has been some collaborations between architecture and landscape architecture departments and there is an early interdisciplinary classes but there isn't really any interdisciplinary graduation projects which has been suggested to me. Now the new direction could incorporate it like this. There was a good meeting here among the faculty from all the departments on collaborating in a multi disciplinary urban design program which I am very interested in starting. I noticed that each department has their own urban design offerings but it is not interdisciplinary. But there is a definite momentum developing towards a multi departmental master of urban design degree. We are aiming to hire some people for urban design department.
OA- Let's move out of the school in terms of interdisciplinary work. In real life, what would be the effects of this so called interdisciplinary work?
MW- After talking to individuals who are in design field, I also found out there is a lot of interest creating teams of people from different disciplines to work together. Then I found out, in reality not as much of interdisciplinary work is happening as I expected. I don't know if this is the reflection of the downturn in the economy and tighter budgets to pay for this work or very strong internalized boundaries which tend to discourage co-operation in interdisciplinary lines. As in acedemia, this is also not very encouraged in real world.
OA- I was more meaning interdisciplinary work not necessarily between design professions but more like how to get larger amount of people 'want' similar ends. That is really how the politics come in as well.
MW- I am glad you are bringing up the question that maybe it is better to start interdisciplinary work not from the professions but from the public. Professions have tendency to be narrowly defined. It is the public which would lead to more promising start, since the public are not brought up with the limited boundaries of the professions.
OA- This brings me to a something really missing in Southern California is outreaching to the public. It seems to me like an architecture program should not only train young architects but it should also train future clients, I think it is the world view of the client which will have an impact in terms of what architect will design. By not educating the client we are missing something. By not educating the voters we are missing something what planners can do.
MW- Architecture in itself, is a very elitist profession. What I like about state universities is the cost of education for the public. It is very affordable. Unlike private institutions, a student in state university system can graduate with zero debt versus six figures debt in private schools. So, the state schools can incubate the public connection. The most students come from areas where the service of architects, planners, urban designers are most needed. The problem is that we still have 19th century model of teaching architecture. We are fast surpassing that. Modernism still lingers. The existing currency is not enough to deal with series of new issues in architecture realm. It is not Roarks designing the world from higher places.
OA- USC has a very built in way of connecting to the corporate world with investments in China and in other countries. I recently attended to their year end reviews in a downtown corporate office tower. What I observed was fascinating to me in that students were made aware that they can relate to the corporate world and perhaps understand how to incorporate their know how from the early on to practice, perhaps different than what corporate world means to architecture. As if now they can design the zero carbon footprint city and ask their corporate business counterparts to find and invent ways to make it happen financially. This is USC with its international student body. Now, in Cal Poly, the local student body can go to local communities and say, “hey people, we are architects, planners and we are from your community, we came from here, and let's develop these ideas together.
What do you say about these scenarios I just set up?
MW- We are actually doing that. I'll give you an example; Next week we are hosting a conference called “Greener Valleys: The Future of Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods in the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley” in other words taking advantage of our location in the center of Southern California. We are going to convene local mayors and council members, business people, developers, scholars, community leaders, environmentalist, students and others. We are going to look in and around these areas where the main body of our students come from and talk about how the environment is going to change in next twenty years and beyond. And how does these hanges relate to environmental and sustainable design, climate change and the need for the economic recovery from the current situation. We plan to involve the faculty and the students in how the land use patterns, how the housing, how do transportation choices change and adopt to where the things are going. I wouldn't rule out reaching to corporate world as you have mentioned, and having similar outreach to downtown Los Angeles but since most of our students coming from east of there, we would use this as our laboratory.
OA- I think it is very important for local schools to get involved in real issues, local problems like these. It reminds me a conversation I had with Mike Davis when I asked him “you taught urban design, what did you teach?” His approach was (roughly) taking the students to a small neighborhood west of downtown and in his terminology “they took the community apart to its atoms” and than they put it back together from bottom up. I get the feeling of you have similar approaches to urban design and planning.If you go to public, one finds out the interdisciplinary work already exists in that platform. (??)
MW- Correct. Another example involves architects. One of the major developers here, the developer of Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, have been talking to us about horizontal mixed use without utilizing San Francisco or Manhattan style vertical density but the opportunity for the people to walk to the market, or ride a bycle without having to drive a car to achieve their daily needs. So we are going to ask students and faculty to work on these challenges without compromising the urban life style and be also compatible with the surrounding areas. Another example of this in Riverside where the municipalities are talking about mass transit ready communities. Some places in Riverside County may not get the proposed regional transportation now but how should those communities be planned for the future in that “transit ready” envelope. We are hoping to involve students and the faculty in addressing some of the skepticism which I think has prevented San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire embracing the innovative approaches in the past.
OA- I did a competition project with two other architects in late 90's involving Central Valley of California where a double headed snake exists in terms of people developing sprawl housing for the farm workers while depleting the farmland. This is the area supplies 10% of the US produce and this is the area where hi speed rail is proposed connecting many cities with 100,000 population and less. It was a really interesting study where we introduced a ring around Selma, our little case study town, and somewhat tried to regulate the further growth outward saving the farmland for farming. This was a projective competition dealing with California in the year 2040 with population of over 50 million people, while connecting all the towns from Los Angeles to Sacramento and still utilizing the fertile valley preserving its ecology and resources like water.
MW- I heard about some of these visioning approaches for the Central Valley and I've met somebody who was the head of some group there sponsoring these efforts. I just read an article yesterday about Fresno criticizing the city council for adopting some plan for undermining the efforts trying to create sense of urbanism you are talking about.
OA- I was reading an interview somebody did with you on the Senate Bill 375 and smart growth which you are one of the authors and the advocates. This makes you a pivotal figure when it comes to making connection between the built environment, future, education of architects, planners and more to legistlations that would facilitate these changes. Without this connection in today's world architects are reduced to technocrats sitting in front of their screens in the office and resolving construction details and not being effectively involved in the future of our communities. Architects don't know this connection that well, but you do. You understand what is in the big picture and know the ways to get it.
With that, I am going to ask you something I always wondered.
You lost an election to become the mayor of Los Angeles to developers' friend Richard Riordan even though I voted for you (laughing.) Let's say, you won the election and became the mayor, would the city be different now?
MW- (laughs) I would hope so... I just realized that I didn't hold a public office since 1993. That's 17-18 years.. I realized my own views have changed somewhat. For example in early 90's when I was a city council member and we were involved in Hollywood redevelopment. I remember my staff and I supported this idea called 'super streets' converting Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards into super streets with east-west one way streets essentially turning them into freeways. At that time I was willing to support that. It didn't go anywhere obviously. Today, I would never support anything like that since I have a clearer idea of the relationship between automobile use and quality of urban neighborhoods. Specially after seeing positive impact of metro rail system , I would not support what I was supporting 18 years ago. Yes the city would be different because my own thinking is changed and evolved. Maybe it was fortunate I wasn't the mayor in early 90's because my ideas are more mature now. I think there are many lessons for Los Angeles to learn from other cities which are willing to experiment with temporary changes relating to urban environments. One of them is closing some streets for bicycles, things like parking day when people occupy parking spots and turn them into symbolic if not actual street scapes and another thing I am involved is Hollywood farmers' market.. All utilizing temporary uses for existing streets. There are many other and even more successful examples of this in other parts of the world. These temporary changes are great experiments because when they fail you move on but when they are successful, they become basis for more permanent changes. Like in Manhattan they created new public spaces around Times Sq. and around Flatiron Building. These are done because there is willingness to try temporary solutions. Here in L.a. You don't see that very much.
OA- What is our big issues right now in Los Angeles? For me the income distribution is a huge problem.
MW- Well it is a huge national problem. The gap between haves and have nots is very intense in Los Angeles.
OA- How the architects and planners can address that?
MW- I think we have to take it piece by piece. The available types of jobs is one thing, housing is another, open space, transportation and amount of money people spend to get around is a big issue. Healthcare is a giant issue. I just finished serving on the board of a hospital in Los Angeles and I learned about how the health care system doesn't work. If we can address the amount of the income people spend unnecessarily on the healthcare and transportation and housing. The economic priorities of our society is all messed up. These are really big problems. As architects and planners we can deal with the part of it. If you are an architect and if your client is the hospital, you can't do anything about the cost of the pharmaceuticals but you can design the hospital in a cost effective and more useful way that helps the situation. And the public space or the lack of it..
OA- I think in Los Angeles, there is not very established tradition of using public spaces. We are a backyard city... But it is changing as the city is densifying fast.. One time I was in a conversation with Lauren Bon with whom you have collaborated on the Cornfield Park, she said, “the new public space will be very different than what we have now.” I agree with her. I am fascinated by the younger generation's ability to create instant public spaces. Flash mob idea is fascinating to me, because it can also activate all kinds of things from political protests to actual entertainment and mass sport activities. Imagine gathering 5,000 people in an instant to protest a new city council move or tuition hike in a public school, or... Anything can happen anywhere with faster and greater public participation.
MW- Technology allows us to do that which the planning process has not caught up with that speed.
OA- I was teaching a class on urban space to first year students and they were very bored about the old curriculum asking them to go to Old Town Pasadena or other malls and study people sitting in the sidewalk cafe's and consuming all the time in highly controlled environments. I mentioned them to go and study instant public spaces, flush mobs, impromptu music concerts on the streets and rooftops, political protest patterns in the city, they all got very excited. This is what they really relate to. Sure, go ahead and look into developers' urban transformations but real future of public space will be different than that. At least that is where I would like to direct their attention.
MW- It is interesting you mention this because the other day we were meeting with Disney Imagineering people who are supporting one of our design studios suggested we use the media in making people connect and using technology to make that happen. You were also mentioning the role of ad hoc connections which made me think when I was a planning student, I took planning course from Allan Jacobs, the author of The Great Streets, he sent all the students to different parts of San Francisco to look at the city, basically to learn how to look. My assignment was to go to northern waterfront where were the rotting and aging warehouses were located, filled with old newspapers to be send to China. But when I looked closely, I start to notice the cracks in the cement where these architecture and advertisement offices taking advantage of low rents and there were artists living in them. For me it was interesting to note that people were using spaces in ways that were not planned by anybody. By then these had nothing to do with any prior planning of the city or any developer's scheme. Years later when I was in the city council, I noticed how it was easy in New York for street vendors to sell goods and food on the streets, whereas in Los Angeles , our laws make it very difficult for such an activity even though our weather is ideal for such an activity. Again the recent activity on the use of food trucks... There is this very primitive capitalist activity by the people who might later become restaurant owners.. Then I start to study the relationship between the individual merchants and why it might be helpful to have similar stores or stands next to each other instead of separating them. In other words, what is it that creates a sense of urban critical mass? In many cases architecture and urban planning students hardly study this kind of things. Even in small towns often we have no sense of community here. Challenge for designers is how to encourage things to create this critical mass. How do we enable the communities to flourish with that critical mass in place so we have a bakery, butcher, farmers' market a bookstore in town. Even the college is an example of the cement environment with cracks to be filled in. with small scale commerce and services. We need to train architects and planners who are able to create these cracks on the cement...
OA- Talking to you is like talking to a design oriented planning person rather than a school administrator... I know in your position as the dean of the environmental design school is a great place to do that. Just looking around your messy office tells me you are a creative person with a lot going on. Some of your talk is exactly what is going to benefit the public in coming years when there is a greater need for architects and planners who are grounded. Of course we need people to design iconic buildings and all but real change is about to happen when designers are going to response to the real needs of the public.. I am not saying this to be against to form and beautiful buildings. I like them just as much as anybody else, but we have as architects and designers long been concentrating on just that and moved away from society as our clients. But to me, no beauty is real if there is no social justice and reasonably fair distribution of wealth to all. I don't really care if the Disney opera house is so beautiful when a block later people are sleeping under the bridge or dying without medical care. I am not so desensitized to isolate these things. So that is why I am interested in talking to you. You come from planning and politics and not so much blinded by formal design side of things like most architecture school deans are. In architecture schools, designer types are dime a dozen, but often students graduate to become the part of this army of space producers. The production of space regardless of what is going on with the world is the tipping point of crisis in architecture right now.
MW- Well the challenge is though, there are some nuts and bolts things I have to do with this job. But I am really in a good place to be surrounded by creative people both faculty and students, and part of my job is to help them to be creative and fully explore the ramifications of what they are dreaming about in their minds. I notice many students are very nervous about how they are going to make a living after they graduate in the face of job market's current conditions. They are nervous about how the real world is going to accept them.
OA- What I tell students is to continue with their projects after school, instead of being discouraged about depressing job market. I suggest them go to their communities and start advocating what they know and learned in school. This is something they can do while waiting for the job interviews. When I tell them this they get excited. We have the means to do that right now. We can mass communicate and start things from the bottom. Maybe for the first time, architecture have public as a client instead of leaders of the industry patron model..
Thank you very much for your time and explaining your interests in the built environment and the politics of it. I really enjoyed this.
MW- Thank you. I enjoyed it likewise. It was a good reminder of why I took this job.