by AIA New York
Robert Geddes, FAIA, former Dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture, has passed away on Monday, February 13 at age 99.
Geddes was born in Philadelphia in 1923 and served in the United States Army Air Force during World War II. Geddes returned to Yale University after the war, but left without a degree to earn an M.Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Following his studies, he joined the firm Hugh Stubbins before founding Geddes Qualls Brecher Cunningham Architects in 1953.
While an accomplished designer, Geddes is best known for his role as the first Dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University. His tenure, beginning in 1965, is credited with elevating the discipline of architecture at the university and shaping an interdisciplinary approach to architectural pedagogy. Prior to his arrival, architecture was taught as part of the Department of Art and Archaeology. From 1950 to 1965, Geddes also taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Geddes was also an active member of AIA New York, serving as the Chapter’s president in 1997, during which he was involved in instrumental early conversations about the founding of the Center for Architecture. “Architects and the public need to come to a place where the spirit of architecture is evident. It should be at street level, with the kind of neighborhood presence that enlivens urban surroundings. To get the real dialogue and action invigorated, women, minorities, young architects, and others need to be coming to this place,” said Geddes in a 1997 issue of Oculus magazine. “We who are so concerned with the idea of ‘sense of place’ don’t have one of our own.”
I came to know Bob Geddes slowly. Initially I was the very-junior faculty member brought from left field. Later, as we became better acquainted, Bob became a mentor in both academia and practice. He came to embody, to me, the almost-impossible balance between the theoretical academic and the great practitioner. His support of our socio-politically motivated, humanistic research work, juxtaposed with a visit to his raw concrete building at the Institute for Advanced Studies, permanently cemented my respect for him as an architect and as a very special human being.
During our time at Princeton, we witnessed the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the first Earth Day, Bubble Day, and the invasion of Cambodia. A student, Nick Pyle, dropped out of my studio and went off to war to be killed in action in Vietnam. On the cusp of my departure, Princeton’s campus became legitimately coed. Bob Geddes supported the big student strike but also reminded us why we had come to study in the first place; he reminded us of the importance of that focus, and cautioned that all should not get lost in the dust of turmoil.
At Princeton, from the seeds of great unrest and under the siege of change, a new generation of leaders emerged. Bob Geddes should be held, with great pride, responsible for his part in bringing that about.
Bob was always reinventing the world, and always for the better. That is how I think of him.
– Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA, NOMA, President, Lance Jay Brown, Architecture + Urban Design; Co-Founder, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization; Past President, AIA New York Chapter
For all his important, noteworthy accomplishments in architecture, education and as an urbanist, Bob Geddes’s greatest was the Princeton University School of Architecture. He was a great dean!
Before he became the first dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture, it ran as a sophisticated atelier under the academic and spiritual tutelage of the renowned Frenchman, Jean Labatut. The administrative head was called the Director. Brilliant, talented architects and teachers grew out of the program, and it had a larger-than-life presence and influence in architecture and academia. But within the university, it was a stepchild of the academic Department of Art and Archeology. Bob understood that, with a dean at the helm, Princeton would be considered on a par with the other major schools, which, until then, it was not. The position of dean was a condition of his acceptance of the appointment.
As dean, he had profound understandings of what makes a school of architecture great. He believed deeply that the best place for architectural education was in a great university. He understood that the success of a dean was in large measure to be able to step aside, support, and bask in the successes and accomplishments of a great faculty. He was an astute judge of academic “horseflesh” and built and expanded an accomplished faculty.
Bob understood that as a unique discipline in the university, to be a legitimate, respected participant in university affairs, architecture needed to be explained to the university, especially the senior administration—the president, provost, senior deans, and the other deans in the university. To accomplish that, whenever new senior administrators took office, Bob took them to lunch and explained—indefatigably and cheerfully—why and how architecture belonged in the university and, most importantly, why and how what the architecture faculty did, both in teaching and practice, that differed from traditional scholarship, was fully the equivalent of traditional scholarship—and the worthy equivalent in the pursuit of academic tenure. He was unfailingly effective in these teachings…except in the occasional instance when a recipient of his wisdom was unable to learn.
With an unusually broad range of interests, he was a true citizen of the university, with friends and intellectual playmates in the humanities, engineering, and social sciences. That enabled him to build cross-disciplinary bridges and to support the bridge-building of faculty members eager to make important connections. During his deanship, two remarkable undergraduate programs were invented that crossed conventional disciplinary lines—almost in opposite directions—and enriched the university. The program of Architecture and Engineering connected architecture and civil engineering while the program of European Cultural Studies connected architecture with the humanities, engaging social and intellectual history. For both programs, the School of Architecture was essentially the crucible, the place where the synergies came together—a locus of importance at the university.
In the essential professional disciplines, and in establishing a significant PhD program, the school flourished and became at least an equal competitor with the other major schools, as the alumni attained significant professional and academic positions and stature everywhere. He was a great dean!
– Alan Chimacoff, AIA, Architect, former Princeton Professor (1973-88), and photographer
Bob Geddes through his profound vision brought architectural education into twenty first century relevance.
– Carmi Bee, FAIA, President, RKTB
Few people have a transformative impact on your life. It comes when someone believes in you, in your talent and potential, and gives you an opportunity. This is what Bob Geddes did for me and so many others.
Bob’s advice was simple: find a way to make a real difference in how we understand and make architecture more meaningful.
Bob demonstrated this belief when he collected a brilliant faculty and helped curate its teaching and scholarly production, making architecture a more significant cultural production.
Bob’s model of leadership guided me and so many others. Witness the number of architecture deans, chairs and Topaz Medallion winners that emanate from Bob’s Princeton years.
Bob’s vision, leadership, mentoring, and positive spirit carried beyond his Princeton years. He is why so many people have and continue to make a difference in the discipline and profession of architecture. Thank you, Bob!
– Harrison Fraker, FAIA, William Wurster Dean Emeritus, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Design, Department of Architecture, UCB; Chair Emeritus, the Energy Resources Group, UCB
When I was about four, I recall asking my dad what he was interested in. I expected or wanted an answer such as fire trucks, spaceships, or the like. He responded, “Space.” About 15 years later, I understood what he meant.”
– David Geddes, son