Jim Williamson has had a busy semester. As new dean of the Texas Tech University College of Architecture, he returns to his alma mater after a remarkable career spent working, writing, and teaching at numerous prestigious institutions around the world. He was most recently at Cornell University, where he taught and served as director of the undergraduate architecture program, which has been ranked number one nationally by Design Intelligence, and also director of the graduate program, which is now ranked number two. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, articulate, and can tell a good story. Craig Kinney, AIA, was lucky enough to catch him at TxA’s 77th Annual Conference and Design Expo in San Antonio to ask a few questions.
Craig Kinney: What are you looking forward to as dean of Tech?
Jim Williamson: Texas Tech is an institution that I’m, in some ways, very familiar with, and so it’s extraordinarily exciting to be at the helm. We’re at a point where we will have the opportunity to hire many new faculty, which I think will produce some very good changes. I hope to position the school into a premier design school, producing graduates that can not only find their way into regional and national offices to practice if they choose to practice, but who will also have the ability to and critical skills to teach if they want to teach, or go into other related disciplines. More than anything, we want to produce graduates that are not only designers, but thought leaders.
What makes the Texas Tech College of Architecture unique? Is it the landscape?
I’m not certain, but it’s possible the landscape does produce a unique culture. I think the landscape has given rise to some very fine and interesting musicians such as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and others. But perhaps Terry Allen is a more appropriate person to talk about — whose ability to engage the Latino landscape, the Caucasian landscape, the West, and Cowboy Culture — and then make great contemporary art out of it all — is something to look toward. We have a very diverse student population, with about 40 percent of the students being of Hispanic origin. It allows us to create not so much a different architecture, but a different culture out of which good architecture can happen. Our proximity to Marfa is important. We have a growing El Paso program, which is connected to the Lubbock campus. We are trying to position ourselves within the region in important ways. I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to stamp our culture with a kind of nuance that is informed by these influences. We’re at a time at Tech where we have great opportunities to engage the landscape that we are in. There are incredible changes happening in the profession, and it’s exciting to try and position the school in relation to these changes. There are opportunities at Tech that are not afforded other schools. I’m looking forward to Tech evolving into an even better, stronger school than it already is.
How did Texas Tech prepare you for your career?
Tech taught me a lot about design, a lot about problem solving, and a lot about representation, but I also had the opportunity to be exposed early on to the world of theory, art, and English literature. This prepared me extraordinarily well. I was able to go into Frank Welch’s office almost seamlessly and not just deal with day-to-day design problems but, because Frank was such a great designer, we could do this beyond the terms of a standard office practice, but with a really strong design sensibility, as well. The people in the office were good designers and thinkers as well. For example, one of my office mates was Mark Wellen, and I was my close college friend Jim Rhotenberry’s replacement. My education in Lubbock gave me a rigorous training, but there was also a lot of room to explore any number of the different things I was curious about.
What particular challenges do you face?
It’s not just a College of Architecture problem; it’s a state university problem — not just in Texas, but everywhere: The enrollment numbers at many schools have taken quite a hit, though the numbers are slowly going back up. There is an impression about architecture that has developed since the 2008 downturn that is discouraging. These are misperceptions about what architects do that are concerning. That, coupled with the increasing cost of education, is a real challenge. Recruitment and retention are issues that we must address both economically and perceptually.