Departing dean shares thoughts about architecture’s future

Mark Gelernter retires after 14 years at helm of College of Architecture and Planning, 30 years with university

April 26, 2017

If you are disappointed by the new buildings going up around Denver, you aren’t alone—University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) Dean Mark Gelernter, PhD, is disappointed too.

Mark Gelernter
College of Architecture and Planning Dean Mark Gelernter giving his farewell lecture.

Gelernter is retiring after 30 years at CU Denver and 14 years as CAP’s dean. He leaves an impressive legacy, but he didn’t use his farewell lecture on April 17 to recount his successes. He wanted to spark a discussion that could go on after he leaves, so he shared his provocative views about the state of architecture and the need to change what architecture schools teach.

“There’s this feeling that somehow our architecture is not rising up to what we expect,” Gelernter said. “Something doesn’t seem to be lining up with our values about who we are and what we’re doing with architecture. Our ideas are not working for us anymore.”

A global phenomenon

Gelernter’s lecture took a global view, but it started locally. He quoted from numerous recent articles criticizing Denver’s newest buildings and development trends. He compared them to similar articles from the United Kingdom, China and elsewhere.

The harsh criticism reveals the public is losing faith in architects.

“There’s a fundamental feeling this is not right,” Gelernter said.

Gelernter thinks the problem is that architects design buildings with little regard to place and local culture. Denver’s new office and apartment buildings could be built anywhere in the U.S. and look the same. Skyscrapers dominating the skyline in Beijing could just as easily be in London.

“These are not buildings that are helping us build a special place,” he said.

Identity and culture

Gelernter is an expert in architectural history and believes buildings reflect the values of the people who build them and the communities where they are built. People value their history and character and want buildings that reflect their sense of distinctiveness, he said.

That’s where the disconnect has arisen. For most of the past 100 years, architects have had different goals. They want to build one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Architecture schools encourage this by emphasizing designs based on abstract forms and philosophies that don’t value the local architectural heritage.

Gelernter believes that view is detrimental to communities.

Mark Gelernter
An undated photo of College of Architecture and Planning Dean Mark Gelernter, who began working at CU Denver in 1987.

“Skylines are looking the same all around the world, and this is distressing people because we’re starting to lose our identity,” he said.

A need for new ideas

Gelernter has spent nearly 50 years in architecture schools and developed some pointed views about academia and design. He noted that since World War I, the Modernist style has dominated architecture. Styles that looked back in time to Ancient Greece or to nature for inspiration lost favor.

Gelernter thinks Modernism’s philosophies have run their course, but determining what comes next will be a challenge. His suggestion is that curricula change so first-year students spend more time studying buildings and history and less time in the studio studying abstract shapes.

“We need to remind ourselves we inherit from the past, we adapt to the present, and we pass on to the future. Understanding the past provides a source of form, it drives creative invention, it provides continuity and meaning,” he said.

Gelernter won’t be around for the debate’s resolution—he will soon move to a cabin he and his wife, who also is an architect, are building in Montana. But he predicts it will be an exciting time for students and teachers.

“Our core architectural ideas are about to transform dramatically, more dramatically than we have seen in our lifetime,” Gelernter said.

Building a legacy

Gelernter’s legacy at CU Denver is considerable. He helped build CAP into Colorado’s only architectural college. That required consolidating CU Denver and CU Boulder’s architecture schools into one program at CU Denver, resolving a split that had lasted decades.

CAP’s first research centers started during his tenure. He also oversaw the creation of an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master’s program for historic preservation.

Gelernter is proud of what CAP has become, especially its growing reputation among Colorado architects. He emphasizes he couldn’t have done it alone.

“I’ve been a leader of a great group of people,” he said. “Everything we accomplished was a team effort. You can’t do these things unless you have really great people.”