• Dean Heather Woofter - photo by Sloan Breeden Photography

Recently, Texas Architect writer Alyssa Morris spoke with the new dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, Heather Woofter, about her goals for the school and the evolution of architectural education in our changing world.

Dean Woofter earned her bachelor of architecture from Virginia Tech in 1991 and her master of architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1998. Prior to acting as design coprincipal at Axi:Ome, she practiced at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Robert Luchetti Associates, and Marks Barfield. While a student at the GSD and practicing in Boston, Woofter taught at the GSD Career Discovery Program, Boston Architectural College, and Roger Williams University. She transitioned to education full-time as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, later moving to Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught for twenty years. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Alyssa Morris: You moved here from St. Louis. How are you finding Austin? What are some of the similarities and differences you see between the two cities? And what are some of the unique opportunities for architecture students in Austin?

Heather Woofter: Austin is a beautiful city. I’m really happy to be here. I was in St. Louis for close to twenty years. It’s near and dear to my heart. I fell in love with the people and the potential of the city. Its history—and also its challenges—make you feel like you have some possibility for impact because there’s much work to be done. They’re such different cities, though; perhaps it’s better to be reflective than to draw comparisons. 

At one point, St. Louis was the fourth most prominent city in the United States, and you can see it in the architecture from the turn of the century. It’s just incredible. Yet, from a complex set of challenges, St. Louis transitioned to a shrinking city. 

There are all kinds of social and environmental reasons why residents vacated the city and why it is so challenging to stitch back together the institutions and strong communities the city still holds. For starters, the city should address environmental justice, equitable access points to the city, and economic mobility for citizens. Designers need to think holistically to have an impact. 

When you compare this to Austin, there is a whole different set of issues, like rising housing costs, that will lead to debates about the city’s growth patterns, for example. Should we invest in tall buildings as the more sustainable way of discussing density? Or should we talk about buildings that maybe aren’t as tall and take up greater area, but are better connected to the street, potentially with greater accessibility? How will policies protect economically diverse communities despite substantial real estate taxes?

There are comparisons also in the natural boundary conditions. St. Louis has the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, while Austin has Lake Austin and all these creek systems. If you don’t think about the ecological systems of the city and the importance of maintaining those greenways, you also run short of the promise that the city has. So there’s this tapestry that connects all of us, and both cities are stewards of our communities’ natural longevity and health. 

One other difference—when I moved here, it was 108 to 110 degrees.

AM: This summer was bad.

HW: This is a tough thing, the heat. There’s no denying how our environments are changing, and the consequences of climate and weather patterns. You feel it here in a way that’s much more pronounced. You can have a more honest conversation about global warming and the scale of it.

The scale of the university is so big that, if we take on some of these challenges, we have a real possibility of making an impact through the work that everyone is doing. The faculty are tremendously connected to the city. There’s a Mayors’ Institute [on City Design], where faculty are meeting with mayors about potential and future projects to review their impact. It’s nice that there’s a systemic and structured connection between the city and the school. It’s not just ad hoc kinds of communication or one-off projects. 

AM: That leads well into this question, which is about the focus that the UT School of Architecture has had on sustainability, which your predecessor Dean Addington really emphasized during her time in the role. How do you see that developing under your tenure at the school? Is that going to remain a focus?

HW: Yes, I think it has to. We have the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD). Many faculty are doing projects through that unit, of course. We’re looking to support that center with the robustness that we see in other schools and universities around the country, and it’s certainly an area we will invest in. 

Michelle came at a critical time, following Dean Fritz Steiner and his expansion of the allied design and planning programs. Her presence in the school placed a greater emphasis on research culture, and she helped the school maneuver during the time of COVID, prioritizing student and faculty well-being. I think that she had a very strong impact in terms of thinking broadly about the issues that we’re facing with global interconnectedness. 

Through an ongoing commitment that began with Dean Steiner, she worked with the [community and regional] planning faculty and those working out of the CSD to strengthen their research presence. That legacy is so important, and it will be ongoing. She’s still a part of the school—she’s doing research for the university—and will have an incredibly important voice on sustainability into the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the breadth of her impact in its full form yet.

AM: Your work is very interdisciplinary. I’m curious: What are some of the schools and departments at UT you would like the School of Architecture to collaborate with to build a more interdisciplinary program?

HW: I’ve been a practicing architect for quite some time, working with students and being part of a larger institution while connected to a community outside the university. These connections are vital. We have a series of allied disciplines here, and the faculty and students are just outstanding. They have said themselves that they want to find systems and ways to collaborate more fully between historic preservation, interiors, planning, architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture. All of that is incredibly important in our school. 

So first, I’m focusing on creating a solid, less siloed community. We’re working on strategic planning together. Additionally, outside of the School of Architecture, there are boundless possibilities. We’re already tied to the city of Austin very closely. We align in really strong ways with the university’s strategic plan by the nature of our work. Overlays with the School of Fine Arts is apparent, and RTF—radio, television, and film communication. Public health is another obvious connection, especially with the university’s commitment to building an internationally recognized medical school within UT Austin. Between the arts and the humanities in terms of our PhD programs, the scholarship that’s coming out of the school, and then, on the technology side as well, there are strong connections to be made. 

As an architect, I have this belief that buildings can’t be standalone pieces anymore; they’re founded on principles of exchange. They need to be a part of the landscape but also a part of history and culture, the community well-being. I don’t think there’s a single project or building that can operate in a vacuum.

AM: What’s your vision for the School of Architecture for, say, the next five years or the next ten years? 

HW: That’s a hard question. I don’t think it’s difficult for any individual to imagine a school and, you know, speculate about where we are now in contemporary education and project forward. However, I believe that vision statements need to be written by the community that is doing the work and carrying it out, and it really is a community activity to create that vision. Instead of using the word “vision,” “mission” might be a bit
more appropriate. It encompasses both strategic-level thinking of where the world is heading and the challenges that we see ahead, as well as the opportunities, a space that we can occupy, and our strengths. 

We really benefit from a large school of architecture, comparable, say, to other schools around the country, and so we have a breadth of experience. We are using the university strategic plan as a framework, while also forming program goals specific to our disciplines. 

AI is a prominent discussion point, as is technology in general. It will be essential to think about AI and its presence in environmental systems or in building systems and how that might impact future work. I also think that we need to understand what AI is not—design, authorship, strategic thinking, humanity—and the unique community-based decision-making dynamics that artificial intelligence may not have. If we rely on AI, are we losing the sensitivity as well as the sympathy that comes from the human experience? Parsing out that relationship is important. 

Also: sustainability. We’ve already talked about that, but it includes ecologies and materials, as well as planning. Addressing climate inequities is incredibly important, as are issues of housing and economic development. Latin American studies with a focus on colonialism in the Americas is something that we’re particularly interested in as well. 

We will also focus on students’ success and how we shape the next generation of leaders. And then, this might seem assumed, but it needs attention: the importance of design education. How might we have a much bigger impact in the study of design education, and how could it influence the entire campus? It’s more of a radical notion, but your education as a designer, as an architect, and planner has certain methodologies that can be impactful to a broader audience. How might we collaborate with other units in the university?

AM: How do you see architectural education and training changing as we move forward into this more potentially uncertain future with things like climate change?

HW: I think students are much more aware. They come into architecture with a passion and an incredible purpose. We need to train them to be civic leaders, to think about their impact as part of a larger cohort, and to be flexible in how they solve problems. Ironically, that is maybe a more traditional way of thinking about architecture, where architects used to have a very central role in the building of projects. They coordinated the different disciplines and were really at the center of that sort of innovative thinking in putting together different types of knowledge. Now we’re at another moment in time where that kind of expertise is essential. 

When we think about what we do and the connections to the different disciplines, it’s so easy for us to imagine that architects could be collaborators in a particular space, with our own individual expertise. Those are some of the soft skills we need to float into the design curriculum, but other things like spatial thinking will not go away. When working by hand or computer you need to be able to communicate through a visual language and see space. 

Beauty is a word that we sometimes avoid because we’re living in a time where there are so many important problems to be solved. But you know, if you’re going to work with a community and you’re going to tackle some of these tough questions and problems that we have, creating a beautiful environment that lives in balance with its surroundings is absolutely essential, and it takes a lot of disciplinary knowledge to build this sensitivity. So I don’t see it all disappearing. If anything, I see a more complex problem for our future students in terms of the number of things that they need to synthesize.

Alyssa Morris is a freelance writer based in Austin.

Leave a Comment