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Milton S.F. Curry and Our Education of Architecture

The Dean of the USC School of Architecture Talks Inclusivity, Community, and His Origin Story


Before taking the position as Dean of the USC School of Architecture, Milton S.F. Curry taught at University of Michigan, during which time he co-created Michigan Architecture Prep, a program designed to prepare Detroit Public School students for careers in architecture. Many of those students continued their studies at the University level.

We caught up with Milton to talk inclusivity in his field, community development and his own origin story.

“Then a person whom my mom had gone to high school with married a man who became one of the first black astronauts. He never went to space, but he went through the program, then ended up a sculptor.”

CV Henriette: How did you get started in architecture?

Milton S.F. Curry: When I was young I was interested in design—graphic design, playing around with different ideas in composition and color by doing book reports and different types of research reports in third and fourth grade. That translated into an interest in drawing. Then a person whom my mom had gone to high school with married a man who became one of the first black astronauts. He never went to space, but he went through the program, then ended up a sculptor. In my contact with him, I got into drawing and sketching which later lead to an interest in making models.

CVh: Tell us about your current position.

MC: My current position is Dean of the School of Architecture at USC, the University of Southern California. It’s overseeing the school of 700+ students and 100+ faculty within a research University with 19 other schools and colleges.

CVh: What brought you to education?

MC: It was by accident. I was at Harvard for grad school. At that point, I had worked in New York for several years at a large architecture firm, and I knew that I didn’t want to go back to that. It didn’t really kick in that I could go to a smaller or a boutique firm—I knew it was possible but somehow it didn’t feel like the ideal next step.

A good friend of mine was applying for jobs in academia, and I was like “Oh, maybe I should take a look at that.” That was the beginning of me looking into what jobs were available, starting to put a portfolio together and thinking beyond my design work to other course and interests. Particularly the non-architecture courses. Those were a sort of mapping of other interests, the product of which were research papers which then became the genesis of ideas and an aspiration to go into teaching and academia. Teaching offered a way of exploring the research interests I had and my interest in design.

CVh: Building a pipeline for motivating underprivileged kids to consider architecture is a passion of yours. What sparked this? Traditionally, what have been some of the barriers of entrance around the study of architecture?

MC: I grew up in Fresno, California—racially segregated, like many cities, and that racial segregation produced a qualitative mapping of the best and worst of public schools. Even though my parents were upper middle class—my father was a physician—his patients were black working class, and we lived in the working-class black American community. But I was bussed across town to the primarily white schools because that’s where the quality education was. My parents were very focused on the quality of our education.

My mom then went from a housewife with five kids to a community organizer to someone who pressed the school board into changing their responses to forced bussing, which was happening in that era, and pushed them to look at inequalities that were directly related to responding to these edicts to the desegregation of public schools. Many of the negative aspects of that fell onto minority communities. Eventually she became a school board member.

I saw upfront the inequalities. I was bussed across town with students who were mostly black American. After we got off the bus, I’d go to the gifted and talented program, with primarily white students, and they would go into courses that were at a lower level because, then there was also tracking, which meant minority students were put into lower level classes. We’d then get back on the bus and go home. They were my friends. I saw how residential segregation lead to educational disparities and all the inequities that flow from that.

At the point when I was in high school, the amount of black architects licensed in the country was at something like 1.5%. Today, some 40+ years later, it’s 2.5% or maybe 3%. It’s gone up maybe 1.5% in 45 years. It’s astonishing. That can be applied to Latino and Native Americans as well. Those facts weighed on me as far as the responsibility that we have as educators towards the next generation of architects. If they’re going to be homogeneous, that means the architecture that’s going to be produced is coming out of lived experiences of people who are heading to this profession from a homogeneous situation, not only ethnically and racially—but also from a class perspective. That led to an interest and a responsibility to do a lot more than had been done thus far in the profession.

CVh: What are some of the ways you see architecture programs changing to meet the needs of different students? What are the ways they need to change?

MC: There is a lot of work being done exposing children at young ages—second, third, fourth, fifth grade—exposing them to architecture, and I think that’s great. There are more architecture enrichment opportunities with one-week programs, camps and different summer programs.

On one level that’s great. On another level, I want to look at quality and pedagogy—what’s being taught in these programs. Even for third or second grade I want it to be something that is rich and robust—something that represents the best, the complexities of our profession and discipline, while being age appropriate.

We also need to grapple with impact. We’re seeing third graders from an inner-city school spending time with an architect. Are they applying to schools? Are they getting in? Are they becoming architects? If not, we’re failing. Period. The metrics seem to apply to the feel-good moments where we expose people to something. Yet, we need to look at the tracking mechanism. Are they actually moving into the discipline? If not, it’s just a feel-good moment.

What I like about our school at USC is that 20% of my undergraduates are the first generation to go to college. That’s extraordinary in terms of presenting that access and opportunity. It’s not just about the racial and ethnic numbers, it’s cross cutting that with class. Class doesn’t replace a focus on race and ethnicity—or gender, for that matter, or sexual orientation—but it’s a cross cutting, an integration of these elements we also need to look at.

I don’t think our pedagogy, the way that we’re teaching architecture, has caught up with that solution quite frankly. It’s going to take time because our teaching faculty is also homogeneous. Until we get more people educated in architecture, we’re not going to get more people becoming faculty. So, we have to work with the faculty we have to make them much more conscious of how they’re teaching, who they’re teaching, and be open to the kinds of diverse backgrounds students are coming from.

CVh: During your time at U of M, were you involved with projects with the Detroit Public School System, what is that experience like working with public schools?

MC: I started a program at the University of Michigan in Detroit called Michigan Architecture Prep. I worked with the Detroit public school district for about 18 months prior to starting it with Dr. Irene Norde, who is head of the office of mathematics. We worked closely to identify students and develop the program, which took place during a semester of junior year.

We ran that five consecutive semesters with a group of about 60 students per academic year before I left University of Michigan. I dealt with Detroit Public Schools quite a bit in that capacity.

CVh: Do you know if any of those students still have an interest in architecture? Did any of them go on to apply to schools?

MC: University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Detroit Mercy, and Lawrence Tech. We had graduates of our program go to all those schools. I would expect that to remain the case.

CVh: Another important topic for you is the work on understanding the complexity of urban development and community development. You’ve stated they “are not necessarily compatible goals.” How would you define each? Urban development and community development? What are some of the ways they overlap and contrast?

MC: That’s an interesting pairing of questions. I’ll take Detroit as an example. If you look at Detroit, you have the downtown core that’s heavily influenced by wealthy real estate interests. This is urban development. Is it community development? In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. The community is whoever can pay. We often confuse the two.

In some cases, it’s becoming an entertainment zone, a play zone, a recreational zone. In other cases, there are efforts to truly develop community at the same time that you’re trying to increase density, increase activity. Social space, civic space, and recreational space are all pieces in this puzzle. Additionally, there’s retail and a mixed use. You’re looking for people to pay for goods and services.

Urban development is, in a way, facilitating the city and its perpetual development. Community development is building constituencies around the nature of that evolution. It’s building communities around activity-based and habitation-based places—places to live, work, etc. Cultural institutions have a role in that. Often we celebrate urban development that has not met the criteria of Urban Development. We don’t ask the question “What constituencies is this for?” If it’s not multi-dimensional, why are we doing it? It just silos different groups into different areas. Not that every group has to be everywhere, but I think that forcing that question is important when trying to find the true value of and contributions of these new developments.

CVh: Architecture is a discipline that influences all of us on a daily basis. Yet, as you’ve pointed out, it’s controlled by a small segment of the population. How can those outside the field of architecture join the conversation?

MC: There are conversations like these, distributed through the news media, that provide a low threshold for people to listen and get educated, have a knowledge exchange about something that they may be interested in but do not have a deep understanding of. Magazines look at architecture and urban space. The Design and Architecture Podcast is something out of LA by Frances Anderton. These are low threshold opportunities for people to gain knowledge while listening to conversations that are easily absorbed.

Going back to the previous questions about urban verses or complimenting community development, often the people most affected by these changes, are very well educated about the facts on the ground—what’s happening in their communities, the loss of investment, the degradation that’s hitting their communities in disproportionate ways compared with other communities. In some cases, those affected most by the inequities in developing urban areas are the most articulate about the problems.

They may not have the vocabulary to articulate the solutions or the options that are available to people like me who have studied architecture and know what’s going on in Europe, Paris and Mexico City. So, it’s up to us to bring to the table that knowledge exchange. There are a lot of opportunities, and there should be more, quite frankly, for academia to engage the public.

CVh: Where are the places where those voices crossover? Do you find yourself at the table with these communities?

MC: At the USC School of Architecture—if you look at our new website, we’re talking about ourselves as an academic cultural institution. The porosity that we desire is to not be a cocoon within the bubble of a research university. We talk about educating citizen architects. Again, architects are not off to the side, designing buildings in a vacuum. They’re citizens. They’re trying to educate their kids. They’re going to community meetings, involving themselves in committees and doing pro bono work, in some cases. They’re not just building for the 1%.

We need to do work as a profession and a discipline to be more articulate about the ways we do want to contribute to the larger issues that affect not only the building I’m working on for a client but the larger societal issues. As an academic institution, we need to be more transparent, bringing people in from the communities—organizers, people whose views on gentrification and development may be different than ours. To bring them in to have those conversations and debates and then to bring our students to those places and not shield them from what’s happening in the real world.