Writer Alyssa Morris sat down with Michelle Addington, dean of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, to discuss her transition to a broader sustainability role with the university as she steps away from her current position at the end of this year. Formerly, she served as Gerald Hines Chair in Sustainable Architectural Design at the Yale University School of Architecture and was jointly appointed as a professor at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Originally educated in mechanical/nuclear engineering, Addington worked for several years as an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and for E.I du Pont de Nemours before studying architecture. Her teaching, research, and professional work span across these disciplines with the overarching objective of determining strategic intersections between the optimal domains of physical phenomena with the practical domains of spatial, geopolitical, economic, and cultural systems. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Alyssa Morris: What do you feel have been your greatest accomplishments during your time at the UT School of Architecture?
Michelle Addington: When I arrived, it was a school of a lot of individual programs and independent activities. It was really important to me to find what was the DNA of the place — to be able to build upon that and to coalesce an approach and a vision that were born from this place. I never saw my role as swooping in with my own agenda, but rather to build upon the foundations that were already in place.
It was exciting for me to see that there was a recognition that the school was very grounded in its sense of responsibility for the public environment.
I’ve always felt strongly that it is our first mission to serve the public and the public environment. There were so many different ways that the school was doing that, particularly in the work of our planners, who have always been very engaged and involved with the city. They do incredible work on gentrification, income inequality, housing, and transportation issues.
Our architecture faculty was quite split. We had a group of young faculty members who were very interested in bringing in more advanced approaches to computational design, and others that were more interested in pedagogy.
One of the first things I did was to talk to them about what we need to explore and what we think should endure. It doesn’t mean that we hold on to old practices or methods, but that we keep what is truly enduring about this place, this university, and this city that we’re in. Part of what endures about this place is a sense of responsibility for the students — whether for the future of this state or the future of our disciplines. And I think we’re about there. I’m planning on using this last year to get that fully articulated, but I’m seeing all the different pieces come together on this.
Really key was, first, asking whom we serve and recognizing that there is an underserved majority out there. For too many years, architecture schools have focused on serving the elite. You used to see a large number of architecture studios across the country where the project was “Let’s design a building without financial or site constraints.” The assumption had always been that this was an autonomous exercise of authorship. First of all, claiming that it’s autonomous suggests that architecture or design can be thought of without context, without its determinants that are coming from other areas. This is already problematic, but the notion of authorship compounds the problem, because it suggests that the design process is about the creative expression of the individual. There are plenty of places where you can study that and practice that, but we have to have a greater sense of responsibility than serving ourselves: We need to serve others.
The way it manifests is a coalescence in the way we’re responding to societies and cultures in all of their forms. And part of addressing this from the core is understanding the questions we’ve been asking and how tightly we have hewed to our Western European origins. We need to acknowledge that we have not explored or embraced other cultures, other viewpoints, other needs, other economies, or other societies in this. We can think about the narrowness of our education, which has been stunning — the narrowness of our field, which for two thousand years has been incredibly restricted — we just didn’t see anything beyond that as being part of our purview. So this has been a key point where we began shifting our attention. We might have some hangers-on that still wish that we had a program in Rome, that still want to hew to the Beaux Arts, but I would say that we have a school that really sees itself now as being part of this larger, more complex, much more diverse world and as having a responsibility for it.
AM: What made you decide it was time to move on to a new role, and how did this new position came to be?
MA: Well, I was inspired by a friend who recently stepped down from her role as a provost to return to her work as a physicist. Last year she announced that she was a better researcher than she was an administrator and that it was time for her to return to what she did best, which was her work on climate change. I began thinking a lot about that. We should all be thinking about where we can contribute the most to society.
And so during COVID I knew that I could contribute the most by being here as dean. The management background that I gained in the chemical industry, coupled with the fact that I did part of my doctorate on indoor air quality and had actually dealt with doing the analysis for tuberculosis outbreaks, made me feel as though I was probably one of the only people at the university who could really navigate through all the COVID restrictions effectively and make sure that the school stayed safe.
But I feel really great about where this school is now. I feel like it’s in one of the most solid places it’s ever been. Our fundraising has helped us establish our urban design program. It had existed for a number of years but was hanging on by a thread. We had great people involved with it, but we had no funding for it. We now have a very exciting and growing urban design program.
I saw all these things coming into place and realized two things: One, I can go off now and do what I know probably better than almost anyone, and, two, now that the school has found its way and is on such solid footing, what a great time to bring in someone who can take it to its next chapter. I feel very good about where I brought it, but I think it needs new energy.
AM: Can you describe what the scope of your new role will be and your goals in taking that position?
MA: My own research will be putting together a really clear roadmap for what we need to address in the design of the built environment to seriously tackle sustainability. We’ve had 50 years of initiatives that are well-meaning, but we’ve made no difference. People have selectively accounted — creatively accounted — for the impacts of their buildings and the impacts of their approaches, but the bottom line is that not only has it not made any difference, but we’re continuing to increase emissions and impacts at a very high rate. And there’s actually a good reason for that, because much of what our field has believed to be the right thing to do has not been the right thing to do.
There are too few people who cross over into the field of architecture, as I did. I have a substantial background in power generation, and I feel that there are too few architects who can bring necessary insights from advanced thermodynamics into architecture, understanding how we build and design on this. Having been at a school that has planners, I have also learned how they analyze the types of data they collect, how they develop different types of scenarios, and how they unpeel the complex data to get at key learnings.
I’ll give you an example. We just had a Ph.D. student who analyzed 42 cities in the U.S., and there is a common belief — one that some of us have always questioned, incidentally, because it didn’t make sense, thermodynamically — a belief that if you densify a city, it will be more sustainable. The idea is that a denser city means people will use public transportation; people will live smaller, since there’s not sprawl; and you’re going to have greater opportunities for affordable housing so that you can support more people. This student analyzed all of the data for 42 cities, and in 41 of the cities, increasing density led to two things: greater income inequality and more problematic energy impacts on a per capita basis. What accounts for the greater income inequality is that much of the new building that’s taking place inside the city is not truly dealing with the poorest segment of society; the lowest income residents get pushed beyond the boundaries of the city and beyond the ability to use public transportation. So public transportation drops when you densify a U.S. city.
What you begin to realize from this is that people have been making decisions — cities have been making decisions, architects have been making decisions — based on what they believe to be true because it fits in with their value system, but the reality of the situation is actually quite different.
There was a belief for decades that it was a matter of will — that, being “green,” you had to be a believer in a certain type of solution. This is the attitude we’re dealing with. And I learned all this from being here with planners. I came in knowing about the energy generation side of things. I knew the bottom line of radiant forcing, I knew the wide scales of thermodynamic interactions — I understood that science before I came. I didn’t understand the day-to-day impacts on individuals and all the assorted effects that come with the decisions that we make in cities. I feel like now I am coming close to having the pieces in place and the people that need to be brought in.
AM: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about in terms of your new role or your time at UTSOA?
MA: For me, this has been such an incredible joy. To be able to work with students from the state, students who are first-generation, students who are low-income, who are as brilliant as any student I ever had at Harvard or Yale. They’re committed, but they’re committed to a greater good, and I’m not used to having seen that before. One of the reasons I left the Ivy League — I feel lucky that I spent as much time as I did there, and I had wonderful colleagues and wonderful students — is that I always felt that the problems of the world were abstract problems, abstract problems for us to look at an idealized version of. I came here, and they were real problems. It’s opened my eyes. It’s opened my eyes to how great this next generation is, and I could not be luckier that I had a chance to serve them, because they will be serving all of us as they move forward in the future.