Nils Gore is a Professor at the University of Kansas, a licensed architect, and a founding principal of Dotte Agency. His work consists of directing a number of student design/build projects in Mississippi, Kansas and New Orleans. The work has won design awards from the AIA, AIAS and the ACSA; and has been published in numerous scholarly journals and books. Nils is a graduate of Kansas State University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design and has taught at the Boston Architectural College, Mississippi State University and the University of Kansas.
I am a proponent of experiential learning, and as an engaged scholar have pursued an academic path where the classes I teach—particularly the design studio—have placed students in contexts outside of the typical classroom setting, and working in communities on "real" projects. In these studios, I am a proponent of design/construct projects in the public interest, at a range of scales. The important thing is for students to develop design intentions out of the act of making something, so that the design is responsive to the situation. In my typical studio project, they learn about the nature of materials by working with real materials. They learn that it is not easy to translate an ambiguous personal vision into a built reality. Direct experience of the Real in (seemingly) simple projects fosters a fertile environment for learning complex and numerous lessons: aesthetic lessons, technical lessons, collaboration lessons, labor lessons, economic lessons, social lessons, and psychological lessons.
I see my role as a teacher as less one of me teaching them, and more of me setting up situations, through community engagement, whereby they can learn. And the most effective way I have found for students to learn is by doing. Doing promotes complex thinking about the situation at hand, and engages the whole body/mind in the experience. The action required to do a task embeds the knowledge in one's body/mind in a meaningful way. As John Dewey states: The sole direct path to enduring improvement in the methods of instruction and learning consists in centering upon the conditions which exact, promote, and test thinking. Thinking is the method of intelligent learning, learning that employs and rewards mind….And where (students) are engaged in doing things, and in discussing what arises in the course of their doing, it is found, even with comparatively indifferent modes of instruction, that (students') inquiries are spontaneous and numerous, and the proposals of solution advanced, varied, and ingenious. (Thinking in Education, Chapter 12).
My community engaged scholarship—as described by Boyer—has resulted in numerous community-based constructed projects, most of which are externally funded. Several of these have received peer-reviewed recognition in the form of design awards, have been presented and discussed in scholarly presentations, and the lessons learned have been disseminated in peer-reviewed journals. From a learning point of view, the students involved in these projects have received an enhanced educational experience that will make them better architects—and citizens—in the long run.1 The people we have engaged in communities have benefitted from our participation, and have gained a greater understanding and appreciation of their own communities. The University of Kansas has benefitted as well, in the sense of expanding its own mission in communities and its evolving role as an institution of higher learning.2
1.Peters, S. J. (2004). "Educating the Civic Professional: Reconfigurations and Resistances." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(1), 47-58. and Colby, A., Beaumont, E., Ehrlich, T., & Corngold, J. (2010). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement (Vol. 19).
2.7. Stanton, T. K. (2012). New times demand new scholarship II: Research universities and civic engagement: Opportunities and challenges. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(4), 271-304
- Materials, tectonics, design/build, prototyping, community design, engaged scholarship
In 1990 Ernest Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate to "end the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission." 1 In his report Boyer acknowledges that, over time, research has come to mean knowledge that gets discovered in the academy within a positivist epistemological framework and then disseminated to users in a one-way flow of information, with little regard as to how the end-user accepts and applies that information.2 At the same time, the other functions of the university—teaching and service—are segregated in their boxes and assessed by other measures of value. Scholarship Reconsidered calls for a reconsideration of these activities to promote an enriched vision of academic life, in a constructivist epistemological worldview: "Theory surely leads to practice. But practice also leads to theory. And teaching, at its best, shapes both research and practice. Viewed from this perspective, a more comprehensive, more dynamic understanding of scholarship can be considered, one in which the rigid categories of teaching, research, and service are broadened and more flexibly defined....(T)he work of the scholar also means stepping back from one's investigation, looking for connections, building bridges between theory and practice, and communicating one's knowledge effectively to students." Boyer reconceives scholarship in four broad areas: the scholarship of discovery, the scholarship of teaching, the scholarship of integration, and the scholarship of application.
My work touches on all four of Boyer's categories, but the last—the scholarship of application—is probably most apt. "The scholarship of application, as we define it here, is not a one way street. Indeed, the term itself may be misleading if it suggests that knowledge is first "discovered" and then "applied. The process we have in mind is far more dynamic. New intellectual understandings can arise out of the very act of application--whether in medical diagnosis, serving clients in psychotherapy, shaping public policy, creating an architectural design, or working with the public schools. In activities such as these, theory and practice vitally interact, and one renews the other."4 In the years since, Boyer's "scholarship of application" has come to be known as engagement, and "describes the collaboration 'between higher education institutions and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.'"5 The idea of reciprocity is the key to understanding how my work fits into the rubric of engaged scholarship.
My professional discipline is a project-based discipline wherein design problems come to the architect, are sized-up through research and analysis, and then "solved," in the sense that some design response occurs to address the initial problem. The success of the solution lies in how well it answers to the initial problem statement. At a strictly utilitarian level, this is a relatively easy thing to do. People, after all, have been designing and building shelter for millennia—in the interest of keeping warm, dry and safe. But as the critique of one's success moves beyond mere shelter, things become murkier, more difficult to assess. Does the project meet larger social, political, cultural or artistic goals? Does it enhance or detract from its urban/rural context? Does the natural environment suffer or benefit from it? Are people happy and healthy in it? Does it contribute to the economic well-being of its inhabitants? Is it replicable?
To answer these questions one must look beyond the goals of the architect and consider the larger context. Architectural projects don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in response to the needs of a client and a community and are formed through that partnership. The community-based design/build projects that form the basis of my work are positive exemplars of reciprocity in action. New Orleans, for instance, as a cultural environment, is a rich stew of influences that necessarily affect the outcome of the work there. When my students and I travelled there to meet the people and immerse ourselves in the realities of the place, we responded with a "solution" that was absolutely driven by those influences. Just a few months after hurricane Katrina, we sat in a stark room in a damaged church and shared stories with neighbors who just survived the tragedy of the storm, and we were all transformed in a fundamental way. Those stories became a part of the work and the work became a part of that continuing survival story. The cultural context becomes both the inspiration and the beneficiary of the work. This work couldn't happen in a one-way, positivist flow of architectural design. To try that would be to fail before even starting.6 To insure the project's success the community needed to participate in the conception of the work at a fundamental level, and as professionals we needed to take them seriously. This is the reciprocal relationship that endures in this kind of work.
In the past few years, I, along with some colleagues, have found a set of community partners based in Kansas City, Kansas working on issues of public health as they relate to the built environment. We were invited to establish a presence in the city and provide design assistance on a continuing basis. In 2013 we established Dotte Agency, a community design hub "connecting communities and tackling problems through design." We did so without any internal funding from KU, but with sweat equity, the generosity of our partners, and project funding that supports the mission of the work. Dotte Agency is now the locus of my current and future work.
1. Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 1990) p. xiii.
2. Weerts, D J, and L R Sandmann. "Building a Two-Way Street: Challenges and Opportunities for Community Engagement at Research Universities." The Review of Higher Education 32, no. 1 (2008): 73-106. and Kellogg Commission On The Future Of State And Land-Grant Universities (1999). Returning to our roots: The engaged institution (Vol. 3). National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, Office of Public Affairs.
3. Boyer, p. 16.
4. Boyer, p.23.
5. Driscoll, Amy. "Carnegie's New Community Engagement Classification: Affirming Higher Education's Role in Community." New Directions for Higher Education 2009, no. 147 (2009)
6. See, for example, projects like Pruitt Igoe, the catastrophic social housing project in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe is the poster child for the failure of architects and planners to truly understand the needs and circumstances of disadvantaged housing tenants. It was demolished less than twenty years after its construction.
- Design build
- Engaged scholarship, community engagement
- Public interest design