August 13, 2020

The Legacy of Michael Cadwell

Mike Cadwell ended his nine-year tenure as Director of the Knowlton School in July 2020. We sat down with him to look back at his time as Director and to look forward to what the future holds for Knowlton.

As your nine-year term as director comes to a close, can you reflect on changes or evolutions in the school?

The school is named the Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture in honor of the alumnus who provided the donation that led to the construction of our building, Knowlton Hall. It is not unusual for schools of architecture to contain landscape architecture and planning but it did not seem appropriate for the other disciplines to be unacknowledged at our school, especially given the strengths of landscape and planning. We now refer to ourselves simply as the Knowlton School.

We have been fortunate to have had the leadership and support of Dean Williams. We also have dedicated and knowledgeable staff and excellent leaders in the school: Dorothée Imbert and Kristi Cheramie in landscape architecture and Rachel Kleit and Jennifer Clark in planning. They have built on a strong group of senior faculty and hired promising junior faculty, both are attuned to disciplinary shifts — in landscape architecture towards environmental concerns and in planning towards equity and social justice. Architecture still enrolls the majority of students in the school and maintains its strengths in form making and critical discourse, but there is now a dialogue across disciplines reinforced by the arrival of Todd Gannon to lead architecture. Todd would be the first to say that the form of a building has social, political, and environmental consequences.

Our professions can define how we experience the world. What do you notice in your encounters with the built environment that may not be apparent to a person not trained as an architect?

I am an architect so I can look at a building and analyze how it is built, why it is formed and sited, and even speculate on its references to architecture’s past and contributions to its future. How the building acts, however, is available to anyone and their observations will probably not be so different from my own. Knowlton Hall, for example, announces the western boundary of the main campus, its curved southern flank draws us through the grove of trees along Woodruff and into the east portico, while inside, the great ramp carries us upward through dynamic interlocking spaces capped by an intimate library and secluded garden. This experience is available to anyone. Of course, the experience might challenge some. But, a building that challenges our preconceptions of site, landscape, and construction is appropriate and, indeed, necessary to the education of planners, landscape architects, and architects.

In your approach to architecture, you have drawn wide-ranging insights, from the poetry of Seamus Heaney to the music of Parliament/Funkadelic. Is an open and informed cultural sensibility necessary for the school’s disciplines?

All of our disciplines are involved in a social enterprise and a creative practice, whether it is designing a building, park, or town. Certainly, it is important to develop a particular expertise so that you can effectively engage the world. But it is also important to be informed by the complexities of the world and the numerous ways creative people have navigated its complexities. I am an architect, but I recently read Jill Lepore’s These Truths to better understand our nation’s history and I trust it will be as important to me as my studies of construction details. I am engaged in a creative enterprise, so I gain strength from the work of artists. Seamus Heaney often comes to mind—“Go beyond what’s reliable / in all that keeps pleading and pleading…” — as do the guitarist Eddie Hazel and bassist Billy Nelson. They were no older than our undergraduates when their bandleader George Clinton locked them in a motel room with a selection of acid rock albums, a quarantine that led to some of the funkiest, dancenest, funnest music ever. It’s a big world. Our disciplines provide us with vehicles with which to navigate the world. We must remain open to the world or we’ll sail off to nowhere.

During your career at the Knowlton School you have engaged with more than three decades of students. Can you reflect the various ways the students have changed?

I recognized OSU students when I first arrived.  Like me, many came from agricultural communities.  They often had an intuitive sense of the physical world and my task was to inform that sensibility with a cultural awareness and develop the technical facility to put both into play. I still recognize our students, but this is because my son Gus is of the generation that grew up with computers.  I am often startled by sophomore final presentations that are more refined than my graduate school projects.  The cultural obligation is the same as with previous generations, but the difference is the need to ground facility in the digital world with engagement in the physical world.  I often advise students to work construction.  Educate the body as well as the head and hand. 

What are some of the challenges students have to face as they decide to pursue a career in design and planning?

Our recent graduates are faced with significant challenges. Recent events have called into question every aspect of their lives: economic, social, political, and medical. As daunting as this is, I believe that our students are up to the task. Where else at the university do you learn to assimilate a wide range of information, arrive at a creative proposal, and defend it in public? At a minimum, this is an ideal strategy for a job interview. More importantly, this is a way of life. I always encourage students to live with the same courage, intelligence, and energy with which they pursue a design project. It is a challenging time, no question. But it is a time of great possibility. It’s your life, design it.

What challenges lie ahead for the school and its disciplines?

There are, of course, immediate challenges ranging from the increasing reliance upon international markets and digital technologies to the persistent vulnerability to economic fluctuations. Leaving aside the common concerns of everyday practice, however, our broader social mandate has not changed. PBS recently aired Ken Burn’s documentary on Mark Twain in which The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was summarized by two timeless American themes: race and space. Recent events have underscored how powerful these themes remain. The killing of George Floyd has awakened us to the persistence of racism and the coronavirus has underscored an interconnectedness that trumps the vast expanse of our country and the endless individual freedoms it seems to offer.

In order for our disciplines to remain relevant, they must be more representative of the population at large and more active in communities beyond narrow professional affiliations. What discipline can survive that does not listen to unheard voices or access what will soon approach a quarter of its talent pool? What civilization can survive if it willfully ignores the environment in which it is built?

Our school is more diverse than it was ten years ago in students, staff, faculty, and leadership. We are committed to doing better. Our teaching and scholarship are dedicated to addressing our interconnectedness: social, ecological, and cultural. I remain optimistic. I am especially grateful for the great public educational adventure that is The Ohio State University.