Doug Kelbaugh

Doug Kelbaugh
Dean, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan

Tottered on: 12 July 2006
Temperature: 78 F
Ceiling: overcast
Ground: long grass
Wind: SW at 6 mph


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TT with HD: Doug Kelbaugh


HD: Would you actually like that end, or ...

DK: ... oh, whatever, I don't know.

HD: Guest choice.

DK: It's funny, I naturally gravitated to it.

HD: Actually, I think the view is better, and I think it's that the natural resting position of this thing is with that end up. I tried mightily to get it exactly perfect, but you know how that goes. Or maybe you don't.

DK: Well, I haven't been on one in a while. I can go back as far as you want. I can go back further. How much do you weigh?

HD: Like 160.

DK: That's about what I weigh.

HD: I'm right on the end. Do you mind if we get the picture taking out of the way now?

DK: Go right ahead. ... [Ed. note: photos are taken]

HD: And we can actually get this thing going.

DK: Oh, so the idea is to keep it rolling. Okay. Sort of the rhythm, I got you.

HD: It has a hypnotizing effect.

DK: I'm sure it does have a therapeutic effect.

HD: So you actually rode your bicycle over here, which means that bio that's posted on the Taubman College website is not kidding when it says that you're a bicycling enthusiast.

DK: Indeed. That's actually my wife's bike. She also bikes a lot. Mine is in the shop after eight years of commuting on it. It's in the shop today, ironically, just getting a new chain, and a new tube that was flat. I don't bike every day to school, but I bike in the good weather. I take the bus some days, either the Ann Arbor bus or the University of Michigan system. And I drive one or two days a week depending on what my needs are the rest of the day.

HD: So what route did you take over here? You were on North Campus?

DK: Right. I came down Bonisteel Boulevard to Fuller. I take Fuller, which turns into Allen. Basically I go down by the train station down by the south side of the river, and on to Detroit Street, Fifth Avenue. And then I just sort of zig-zag through downtown and out on Washington.

HD: And then you came down Washington, which meant that you had a final uphill, mountaintop finish.

DK: But nothing like the Tour [de France], which is going on right now.

HD: Are you following that?

DK: I do. We follow the Tour, because we also bike recreationally. We have two very fine road bikes. In fact, we may go out tonight, if the weather is good. We try to bike two to three times a week in the summer. And we've taken some long trips, including three in Michigan, and one in Europe, and quite a few in the Pacific Northwest, which is where we lived until eight years ago.

HD: In Seattle.

DK: Right.

HD: I noticed that you had written a piece called Things I like about Seattle: A Personal Inventory, or something like that, and I wondered if you had started your inventory for Ann Arbor yet?

DK: You know, I actually don't remember that piece. You must have done a thorough job of researching my bio. I think that might have been a parting piece I did for the newspaper as I was leaving.

HD: Let's see, it was published in the Daily Journal of Commerce.

DK: Okay, that is a local newspaper, so it would have been a newspaper piece. No, I haven't started writing that about Ann Arbor, because A, I don't see leaving in the foreseeable future and B, when I arrived here, the head of the Observer--I think he's maybe retired now this was eight years ago or seven-and-a-half--asked me to drive around town with him, which I did once or twice. And then he recorded my comments and published my impressions, which were primarily complementary. But some of them were a little trenchant and critical. I was unabashed about my initial impressions pro and con, and he was happy to publish them all, obviously, as a journalist. There are many things I like, and then some things I don't like.

HD: Do you remember any of the particular comments that were maybe a bit more critical from that piece?

DK: I don't know if I mentioned them in that piece, but one would be the fact that there still isn't a lot of good contemporary architecture in Ann Arbor. There are some good examples on the campus of the university. But downtown and in the inner, city area, there's not a lot. For a city of this size and sophistication, I would have expected a little more. There's some very nice contemporary houses out in the leafy neighborhoods by people like Bob Metcalf, my predecessor by two, but not a lot of institutional or commercial buildings downtown that are particularly good examples of modern architecture. There are some very fine examples of Victorian, and Georgian or neo-Georgian, neo-Colonial buildings downtown. And in general, I like the fabric of downtown a lot. In fact, I live downtown. But I think there could be some exemplars. Right down the street here, the new Y[MCA], I think, is a step up. But I don't think the city's reached its potential.

HD: What I like about the Y as contrasted with what used to be there, is that you can actually see across to and from Huron. I mean the sight-line across that lot is now wide open, whereas it used to be that you couldn't really see in either direction past that ramshackle collection of buildings.

DK: I very much like the downtown. I mean, everybody likes Main Street and that general district. It's physically and socially and commercially successful. It's a pleasant place to be, it's a good place to eat. It's a shame over time, some of the more every-day uses have been washed out, like hardware and drug stores. Unfortunately that's typical of these American revitalized downtowns. They all often tend towards entertainment and restaurants. So it doesn't quite have the mix that it used to have, but it's still a compact, walkable mixed-use downtown in the great American tradition and in the great European tradition. It would have been better historical luck if the University of Michigan campus was maybe two or three blocks from Main Street rather than five or six. I think that gap is a little wide to span. The connectors, William, Washington, and primarily Liberty, get a little thin. Obviously, it's nice if there's a separation between the commercial center and the campus, but if it was half the distance, I think more people at the university would eat lunch downtown, there'd be a little more interaction, and the town would be a little more coherent.

HD: So do you think there's anything interesting to be done about that brute geographical separation in terms of an urban planning challenge?

DK: There's no way to decrease the physical distance. The psychological distance could be diminished if Liberty, for instance, becomes more developed, which it is. Someday, as the Calthorpe proposal suggested, there might be a shuttle bus that maybe continually ricocheted back and forth between Ashley and State Street on Liberty, perhaps on a dedicated right-of-way. I don't think that's quite needed yet. If we ever get rail back along the line that runs through downtown, the obvious place to put a station downtown would be at Liberty. It'd be an obvious place to have busses depart from and return to.

HD: Well, speaking of obvious places to put things. With the breaking news yesterday, or was it the day before, that Google [intends to locate an operation here] ... there's now intense speculation about where, in general, they might want to locate around here, and if they located downtown, what the best strategy might be. So it seems like there might be a opportunity to possibly build something totally from scratch that might serve Google's needs, and might also at the same time perhaps give us the kind of exemplar of the kind of good contemporary architecture that you were lamenting the dearth of.

DK: Exactly. Well, there's certainly sites downtown big enough to build a structure that would accommodate up to 1000 employees. I think they're figuring between 200,000 square feet and maybe a quarter million. The Brown Block, for instance, would certainly suit them. But I would hate to see a large, single-use office building become their home. Indeed, I don't think that's what they're looking for. The reason they came to Ann Arbor is the walkable, mixed-use, convivial atmosphere. So ideally, they would be part of a mixed-use development that would have stores, possibly even housing, as well as offices. And the Brown Block, the Kline Block, would be big enough to accommodate them.

HD: But the Brown Block, that's currently a surface parking lot, right? So in addition to the extra parking needs of the Google employees, you'd have ...

DK: ... you'd have to build some underground parking there, probably more than one level. But there's talk of a new parking garage to replace the one at Washington anyway. Hopefully, a lot of the Google employees, which they suggest are going to be on the younger side, would be singles or small households that would have few, if any, cars and might be more prone to move around by bicycle. That seems to be the lifestyle that attracted them to Ann Arbor in the first place. Now we may be dead-wrong. They may be going to move out into a more suburban setting. But I sense that's not what drew them here. I guess until they divulge whether they have an urban or suburban strategy, it's sort of useless to speculate. We actually have plenty of jobs downtown. I think there's room for these. The bigger dearth, or shortfall, in downtown is not jobs, but housing. A better investment, not that it's exclusive, would be downtown housing. It would also be nice to create enough downtown population to support a supermarket and a drugstore and maybe a hardware store. That would take quite a few units. But indeed that's exactly what the mayor's task force has suggested. It's up to 1500 units over the next 15 years as I recall, or maybe 2000 over 20 years, roughly 100 a year. That may be a little more than the market can absorb, but ultimately they're going for another couple of thousand units downtown, which could still be done in a mid-rise fashion, wouldn't require high-rises. Although personally, I'm not against some buildings being 10, 12 stories.

HD: Have you looked at the The Gallery project in any kind of detail, the one on North Main, that's going to replace the old Greek orthodox church?

DK: Ah yes. That one, I think, is a little bit too tall for its site. It's down to 11 is it? I think one tower is 11 and one is 9? I think it's two or three stories too tall. But I think downtown, closer to the core, you could have 10, 12 story buildings. And on certain sites, maybe as high as 15.

HD: So you mentioned that you thought downtown has plenty of jobs. Taubman College is adding jobs, you're hiring a couple of Centennial Professors, right? It's one, possible two, is that right?

DK: We've already hired one and we're in the process of talking to another possible appointee. We have other searches as well. One for someone in land-use planning and real-estate. We're about to advertise for someone in architecture who does sustainable building and environmental technology.

HD: Would those two be tenure-track or senior appointments?

DK: The position in sustainable building and environmental technology could be either junior or senior. And the position in land-use planning and real estate could be either junior or senior. The Centennial professors were meant to be full professors. And we were lucky enough to hire June Manning Thomas, from Michigan State, who's a real expert on Detroit, on social equity and justice issues in urban planning, racial issues. Someone we've wanted for years, and we were able to attract her.

HD: So for a position like that, I'd guess it's not a matter of weeding through applications. Legitimate candidates would be people you'd sort of invite to apply?

DK: Exactly. The first two positions, which are essentially filling vacant positions, we'll get quite a few applicants unsolicited. We'll also probably solicit a few. But in the case of the Centennial professors, they were almost exclusively solicited. They're not the kind of people that you want to make apply. The kind of people you want would typically be the ones who would not be likely to apply.

HD: So it's not like you ran a Google Adwords campaign to recruit the Centennial professors?

DK: No, we didn't. We did have an ad. We're required by law to have an ad.

HD: Oh really? And where does that ad go?

DK: Well, we put it in the usual academic journals. And we're required by law, or at least by policy at the university, to advertise in certain minority journals, which we always do. Since I've been here, we've hired a lot of faculty. I think it's up to about 40 now, who are either tenured or tenure-track to replace retirees and people who have left. So we've had a huge turnover.

HD: The balance of those hires, are they pretty evenly split between architecture and urban planning?

DK: Well, architecture is the larger program. It's about four times as large. So more of them have been architecture. When I arrived, or the year before I arrived, there were 23 full professors. This year there were 9. We just promoted one, so there are now 10. But as you can see, it was a top-heavy faculty. It was 23 out of a faculty of maybe 45 or 50. Now it's a much younger faculty that is growing up together and, I think, flourishing.

HD: Is there any sense of friction in the College between architecture on the one hand an urban planning on the other?

DK: Any college of architecture and urban planning inevitably has friction between the two. They're somewhat different cultures. One culture, the architectural one, is more interested in and driven by aesthetics and cultural and theoretical issues. Planning is more of a social science and more like other fields in the university in the sense that it lends itself more to scientific methodology and scholarship.

HD: Stuff that you can measure.

DK: It's more quantifiable, it's measurable, it lends itself more to research. And the faculty are all expected to have a PhD and to do scholarly research. Architecture, because it's more of a creative discipline, doesn't necessarily require a PhD. In fact, most of the design faculty have master's degrees. Indeed that's the side or the tradition I come out of. I'm the only dean with a terminal degree of a master's degree. The terminal degree that is required for teaching in architecture is a master's degree. However, in architecture doctorates are required in architectural history and theory, building and environmental technology, and in socio-cultural studies.

HD: The only reason I asked the question is that yesterday I had a recent graduate of the master's program in urban planning on the teeter totter, Scott TenBrink--I don't know if you recognize the name--but he asked me to pass along this encouragement to you, and that is: that you continue to go along on the Expanded Horizon field trip. That's a weekend, ... ?

DK: ... probably four day trip ...

HD: ... right, to some city. He thought that made a huge positive difference in how the urban planning component integrated into the college. So, duty done. I've passed that along.

DK: What's particularly nice about that program is that the students organize it themselves. They pick the city, they organize all the meetings, the itinerary. I don't know how long it's been going, but I think I'll continue. I went with them last year, that's a year ago fall, to Toronto, and it was very interesting.

HD: You brought a sheaf of papers that you said you're working on, and you left them unattended briefly. I didn't read through them, because I figured it might not be in final, polished form ready for someone else, but I did notice that there's a huge chunk of it that's handwritten. So I wanted to ask you about your writing style, that is, your process. Obviously it doesn't require you to be at a keyboard?

DK: I write a lot of memos on the keyboard. But when I'm writing articles, essays--this happens to be a chapter of a book--I tend to do it in freehand. I can do it a little more quickly. I'm not a particularly fast typist. And I can make lots of cross-outs, subtractions, additions, in a way that seems to work. As the dean, I have the luxury of a staff person who can type for me. That's something I'll have to give up at some point. So I may have to learn the keyboard more. And I do write a lot. I enjoy it. I used to design for kicks and for pleasure and relaxation. Now, I find the written word is easier to express myself in.

HD: So do you ever write any fiction?

DK: No, I've never dabbled in fiction. I've written some poetry, but not recently. I tried my hand recently. When I bicycle, I often am ruminating and cogitating and thinking, and I did try to write down a poem a couple of years ago.

HD: Anything that you might have committed to memory?

DK: No, I'm afraid not. I can't remember it. I was not that impressed with my attempt.

HD: Do you remember what the subject matter was?

DK: It was oak trees. There are beautiful, large, muscular white-oak trees, that populate a lot of the country roads we bike on to the west of Ann Arbor out towards Dexter and Chelsea. I've always been impressed by these oak trees.

HD: Do you typically take Huron River Drive when you head out west of town?

DK: We typically take Huron River Drive. We may do that this evening. That's a much denser forest along the river's edge. These oak trees are typically along the edges of agricultural fields. And they're sometimes free-standing, which makes them much more dramatic. You see them in their full 360-degree splendor. Because oak is such a strong wood, the limbs can cantilever out, further than most trees, so they can have a very grand, sweeping width to their shape.

HD: The one piece of yours that I actually read through was the Seven Fallacies of Design or Seven Fallacies of something. I forget exactly.

DK: Seven Fallacies in Architectural Culture.

HD: I actually read the long version, not just the abbreviated version.

DK: I'm impressed.

HD: Well, what impressed me was, One, its accessibility to me as a reader, as a complete non-architect, a non-expert. I mean there were some places where I thought, Okay, that's an allusion to some specific person that clearly architects know but I don't, but for the most part it was accessible. And the second thing that struck me was that the writer's voice seemed, to me, to be one that, as you said, really enjoyed writing and had fun doing it. Based on that one piece, it seems to me like the reason you write a lot is because you really enjoy writing, as opposed to feeling like you're driven to do it, or you feel compelled to do it.

DK: I think you're right and you're wrong on that. There are times I really do enjoy it. I look forward to it. And I am willing to do many drafts. I think why it's fairly understandable to a lay audience is that I go through many drafts. And I try to be as succinct and clear and vivid as possible. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I have an idea, or a thesis, or a point that I feel so compelled to make, that I do sort of force myself to write it. But once I get started, I generally enjoy it. In fact, this piece you just referenced is something that I was asked to do and was at first reluctant to accept. That's a chapter in a book that the American Institute of Architects is writing next year. They're celebrating their 150th anniversary nationally and they're doing a 20-chapter book. They asked me to write the last chapter, on cities, and I didn't really think I had time to write another article.

HD: That's the topic? Cities? And you get one chapter to cover it?

DK: I have one chapter to do cities, more particularly, the role of architects in cities. This is not a scholarly work. This is a work to promote the Institute and the profession, to try to publicly educate readers about what architects do, who they are, what they aspire to, etcetera. So it's not a deep or scholarly piece. Indeed, it has to be accessible, to use your word, to both a professional audience and a lay audience. I had trouble getting started. It's maybe a little bit like riding a bike: once you get warmed up, it's usually fun.

HD: Is there anything else particularly on your mind today besides the possibility of a bike ride later this evening?

DK: Well one thing on my mind today, I'm playing golf tomorrow. Golf I find the single most difficult and frustrating activity of my adult life. It's interesting and challenging, because as an American male, I've been trained all my life, programmed, to run faster, jump higher, hit harder, etcetera, and here's a game that requires restraint. It almost has a zen-like quality of holding back, but not holding back too much. You have to find that perfect balance between focus and relaxation, which I find difficult to achieve. I've never been able to master it. But as I remember Lee Bollinger, the former president [of the University of Michigan], once saying, it's very important to do at least one thing in your life that you're not very good at, because it keeps you humble. Golf certainly keeps me humble. But the other thing that was on my mind, which was triggered by bicycling up your street, is this wonderful row of houses you live in. It fits very nicely into my essay about the Seven Fallacies of Architectural Culture.

HD: Is it representative of a fallacy?

DK: No, it's actually representative of a strength. One of the problems that has plagued modern architecture is the need to be incessantly and continuously inventive, sometimes with good reason, but sometimes for its own sake. And as we've run out of functional issues to solve, we've often indulged in frivolous change, needless originality and mandatory invention. And it tends to produce cities that are a collection of fairly one-off, exceptional buildings, in many cases well-designed buildings, but they don't necessarily create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

HD: Would you say that Columbus, Indiana, is an example of that?

DK: Columbus, Indiana is the archtypical example of a collection of wonderful buildings by good architects that doesn't necessarily add up to a city.

HD: Yeah, I grew up there.

DK: I remember that. I've only seen Columbus, Indiana, in the middle of the night driving across the country and I want to go back. It's a wonderful place. I think J. Irwin Miller deserves a lot of credit. There's some truly great buildings there. And it may even hang together as a town, but not necessarily. Like I said, I only saw it at night and I sensed that it probably didn't. But it makes the point very emphatically that a good city, a coherent city, in my opinion, has to have both quiet background buildings, as well as more extraverted foreground buildings. And you need more background buildings to set off the foreground buildings.

HD: So the houses of Mulholland qualify as really good background buildings?

DK: Right, well, what I like about them is that they're more or less identical, but because they're different colors and some have been adapted over the years, there's a nice variation on a theme. Probably when they were built they were all exactly identical in terms of color and material, which would have been erring on the direction of monotony. But now, I think there's a nice balance between order on the one hand, and variety on the other hand. And it's that balance, I think, that makes for a good city. So I always find it refreshing even to look up and down this street as I drive down Liberty and peek down the hill. But it's also a pleasure to drive or bike up or down it. I think variations on a theme, which is what makes many European cities so great, is something our cities could benefit more from. One of the things that makes European cities so beautiful, so beautiful in fact that Americans spend billions of dollars a year going to look at them and to enjoy them, is the fact that they are built of more consistent materials and forms. So when you do have the cathedral, or the city hall, or the opera house, or the train station, they really stand out as extraordinary exceptions in the urban fabric. Because our cities are built out of a greater polyglot of materials, where we have brick, stone, and wood houses on the same street, of different colors and of different styles and vintages, I think it tilts to too far towards chaos and disorder. On the other hand, a lot of subdivisions, built in the suburbs, are too repetitive. They may have superficial differences. For instance, their front porches are different or their floor plans are flipped, or the garages are ...

HD: ... the variations sometimes tend to feel like they've been chosen off a drop-down menu.

DK: Right, they seem to be a little forced, and a little arbitrary, and not very convincing, whereas the variety along this street and other streets in Ann Arbor, seems more convincing. The main difference being, most American neighborhoods were built one house at a time, and now suburbs are built subdivision at a time. So they are in the other direction of being too repetitive and monotonous. So on the one hand, we have cities that are often too chaotic, for my taste, and suburbs that are too repetitive.

HD: I would like to know what the chronological history of the construction of these houses was, whether they went from the top of the hill to the bottom or the reverse, because the floor plans of the houses, if you notice, about midway down the hill, they flip.

DK: Do they?

HD: Yeah. And the result is that the houses towards the bottom of the hill have their driveways and their side doors oriented the way you would expect. Our side door, you'll notice, opens onto this short hill down to the next lot, whereas it really should be on the driveway side.

DK: Interesting.

HD: What I like to imagine is that they were building these houses, and then some supervisor came along when they were half-way down the hill and said, Okay, don't go back and change the ones you've already built, but let's get the rest of them right.

DK: Well, that's possible. So you think they started at the top and moved down?

HD: That's my theory.

DK: That's possible. They may have tried to introduce a little variety, they may have made a mistake, it's hard to know. I sense that they were all built in one campaign, a year or two. Am I wrong about that?

HD: I couldn't tell you, I don't know.

DK: They look like they were all built by the same builder, so in a season or two would be my guess. And they're not only illustrative of variation on a theme, they're well-proportioned houses. A nice scale to them. They're friendly, welcoming. The porches are welcoming. And indeed the porches make for a convivial street, I assume. Do people sit out on them?

HD: Yes. Absolutely.

DK: So, it's good they're not just for show, which is often the case in the suburban setting. They're just added on as an amenity that is superfluous. So this is a model street. I'm not sure every street in Ann Arbor should be this coordinated, but it's nice to have some.

HD: Well, I've certainly enjoyed living here so far.

DK: I congratulate you on your choice, and on your choice of interview medium. This is really a remarkably relaxing way to have a two-way exchange.

HD: I'm glad you've enjoyed yourself. Thanks for coming.

DK: Thank you.