Dancing In a Candy Store
Architecture dean loves possibilities of both gown and town
By Suzi Steffen
|Spillout! was a collaboration conceived of by Frances Bronet and designed for Albany, N.Y.’s Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company. UO design students helped design and build the structure, which incorporates 700 yards of spandex hand-woven into the frame on and through which dancers moved. (photos by gary gold)|
|Frances Bronet. Photo By Todd Cooper.|
Frances Bronet knows she’s an anomaly — engineer, architect, dancer rolled up in one, grounded in the traditions of Europe and Canada and driven relentlessly toward the future in Oregon — but she’s moving her school and our city forward.
Bronet, dean of the UO’s School of Architecture and the Allied Arts (known around campus as Triple-A), dove into the job in 2005 after a successful career as an architecture prof and acting dean at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. A professional architect and the instigator of several architecture/dance collaborations both in Troy and with UO students, she’s also an instructor who brings together students in design, students in biomedical technology and other fields to research things like making safe, loving environments for preemie babies. In other words, being at the state’s flagship liberal arts university, with all of its possibilities for collaboration, lights her up like a menorah on the last night of Hannukah.
This is one busy woman. You might find her with her family at Brush-Fire do-it-yourself ceramics, typing up notes for a keynote lecture at the Oregon Arts Commission Summit while her two children paint. You might bike alongside her as she heads in toward Lawrence Hall. Or, if you’re a traveler, you might discover Bronet working on several projects at once as she flies out of town yet again.
She sat down with EW over lunch a few weeks ago (and answered some follow-up questions over the phone) to chat. Talk to her, and you’ll be drawn into a world where possibilities stretch out like the rubber in the bands through which a dance company performed in her project Spill Out! Talk to her, and you’ll start to see hope in the air.
Tell me about the differences between Troy and Eugene.
Troy is not a university town in the way that Eugene is. Eugene, I think, is seen as one of the top 10 university towns in America. It’s about the quality of life. There’s an area that’s driven for and by students, this strip [of 13th Avenue]. That doesn’t really exist in Troy. Engineers and scientists are not the people who support a social and cultural world. You’re not going to have cafés that develop around engineers; that’s not where they’re spending their time. They’re people who work in labs, on experiments, and then go home. So I come from a place that’s an engineering culture to a place that has no engineering.
There are 1,600 to 2,000 Triple-A students — that’s a lot more than you were used to from RPI, with a few hundred students in architecture. Not that you have to deal with all of them.
Well, they are under the umbrella. Let’s put it this way: The department of architecture here is two and a half times as big as the entire school of architecture at RPI. The one here has two sites [Eugene and Portland]. You have not only the two sites but also interior architecture, and co-directing product design. That’s just in the department of architecture alone.
You crossed a lot of disciplines at RPI.
Yes, I personally did — and dragged a lot of my faculty with me!
At the end of the Savage series of lectures this February, you were talking about how great it was that the UO had the humanities and all of the options it has. Do you think you’re still feeling like a kid in a candy store?
Oh yeah. That’s really good. Of course, it’s more like a kid in the health food section! Or an adult in the health food section. It’s amazing. Everything about the UO, when you walk onto that campus, says you’re on a liberal arts campus.
There’s a sign: “You can think about your corner office, but let’s think about other corners of the world.” That kind of stuff wouldn’t be up at RPI. There was a kind of engineering ethos, which is let’s look at the problem and solve it. But the idea that you question in a collaborative way, which crosses all people? No. It’s not as if it didn’t exist; it just wouldn’t have been as overt or as encouraged. It wasn’t a fertile landscape for a kind of public intellectual in a broad-based sense, whereas here it is. You feel as if it’s encouraged, and if you put yourself out there, you’ll have support. This place feels like home.
The deans here are very open to collaboration, to idea exchange, to faculty exchange. We all see that in a place like Oregon, where resources are tight, that the way to actually make them go much, much further is to work together. It’s been wonderful. No doors are closed. That’s been great.
Let me change tack. Did you grow up bilingual in Montreal, or speaking French? I was thinking that it wasn’t an official language at the time when you grew up.
In the [1960s and] ’70s, there was the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. English had been the business language until that time, so the schools were split. So when I grew up, I took French an hour a day, but nobody was speaking it. I grew up in a completely English environment. The schools were completely split. People walked to school, and if you’re French, you walked here; if English, there. And never the twain shall meet.
But my father, who is an immigrant from Poland, spoke nine languages. And because my parents were working class, they spoke French because everybody they worked with spoke French.
I went to McGill, and it was all English at that time. There were very few French people, maybe two or three in my class. That changed. You go to McGill now, and it’s completely different. At least 50 percent of the students are French.
You said in your April keynote speech at the Oregon Arts Commission summit that you grew up literally dancing in the streets with your friends. So why architecture?
I think it’s complicated. My father has a second-grade education; my mother didn’t finish eighth grade. I grew up in a working-class environment. Nobody knew anything about college, but at my high school, there were ambitious kids. My friends, most of us children of Holocaust survivors, grew up the same way, in accelerated classes, and so we knew education was a big deal.
I had a lot of mixed messages. My father was telling me, take secretarial classes so that you’ll always have a job, a back-up, and never tell the guys that you’re smart because you’ll never get married. But I was good in art; I was good in science. I was one of the top 10 students in the province. I was driven; I saw myself as a kind of maverick. Whatever everybody else was doing, I was going to be different. Nobody was going into architecture.
Even though I was a top student, I still had self-esteem issues and thought, “It’s possible that I’m going to fail when I get to college, so I’ll go into engineering, which is the hardest. And if I fail, I could go into hard sciences. And if I fail that, I could go into biological sciences. And if I fail that, I could go into arts.” So I had a lot of rungs I could collapse on. I knew I was not going to be happy in engineering although I loved the students — all collaborators, all straight-shooters, no guile.
Both architecture and engineering were not an easy fit. They were things I worked really, really hard at. What comes easily to me is engaging social communities.
I imagine there weren’t very many women in architecture and engineering at McGill.
Certainly not in engineering. Architecture had 25 percent. But in respect to that, I did some things that were crazy. I would put myself in unfamiliar terrain. I decided to do this student summer employment program in the army. I just wanted to see what it was like to be in a place which was totally unfamiliar and be not only the only girl, but the only girl who was raised in a city, and it was really … there is something about working out what it is to be a stranger in those environments. I think I like figuring out how to engage arenas that I don’t really understand yet. Maybe it was about testing my social abilities and constantly putting them into a place where they’re unfamiliar.
The military how do I maneuver; how do I lead in that group? I was the smart one, so they came to rely on me whether it was passing first aid or figuring out the physics of the rifle. I would trade off: I’ll help you study; you clean my gun.
I know these are unusual areas to discuss — I’m trying to ask you questions you don’t always get asked.
And it does open up why the UO is like being a kid in a candy shop for me. Because it has multiple social environments and intellectual arenas I don’t know. I don’t know very much about art history at all, and I know very little about arts and administration. Fundamentally, I’m a learner, so it’s like, wow. Just being fundamentally curious about how other cultures engage and then learning through doing, learning in action. Being able to reflect while we’re in action — that’s my job: Acting, then being able to immediately reflect and then move on.
I wonder how many administrators would think of their jobs that way. You mentioned at the arts summit how surprised you were at the lack of education funding in Oregon.
Are we the poorest institution in the [Association of American Universities]? We are, or we could be, but I go back to that poster about your corner office or the other corners of the world and think about the luxury with which we operate in America. And I think Oregon is aware of that all of the time. Yes, we don’t have enough resources to run the school the way we want to, but we also know that there are other corners of the world we operate in. We’re always in this sort of paradox.
When I was at RPI, it is a private school with high tuition, so resources were in abundance. But the town was not as rich a place to be in terms of Eugene’s lush environment. This is a very robust political, social and physical environment. Upstate New York is certainly very beautiful, but the city of Troy — a lot of the downtown of Troy was gone.
What do you think about downtown Eugene and what should or could happen, architecturally speaking?
My experience is that the best way for any environment to be enhanced or transformed is that all the constituents have to be at the table: local government, people who live there, people who shop there, tourists — they all in some way have to be at the table. You have to couple local expert knowledge with nationally or internationally aware researchers, put them together and put various proposals on the table.
With architecture, planning, landscape architecture, historic preservation — having all of those departments at hand, the great thing is to grab that expertise, couple it with the local expertise and spend some time educating each other mutually so everyone can come together with a proposal that is beyond what people already have in their minds.
There are risks; there always are risks, and sometimes you take a few to imagine an extraordinary future together. But sometimes the act of partnering builds trust between the voices who are experts from the local community and experts who have been nationally and internationally educated. It takes a long time; it takes years of building trust. We really have to develop a collective imagination, a collective dream.
So what do you think about these “downtown charrettes” that UO architecture faculty and students have been putting on with the community?
You’ve got community members who have deep stakes; the American Institute of Architects; people who are well-educated in design and thoughtful about their community because they live there and are thinking about what could this place be; and faculty putting ideas on the table, trying to get people to look at what those ideas mean.
Some toes will be stepped on. The question is, how do you listen and put some things in place so that you can move.
We need to take some action, and then we can evaluate, and we can do this in a very thoughtful way. Action, reflection, action, reflection. It’s sad not to see Eugene active on a regular basis, that the downtown is not always in a buzz. How do you make that happen? There isn’t just one answer.
It must have been hard to move across the country from your parents, and it’s not easy to get back.
You know, I wasn’t interested in the position before I interviewed. A number of people on the faculty asked me to throw my name in the ring, and I said, I can’t, it’s just too far. I thought Buffalo was too far; I thought Atlanta was way too far. They said, “Look, just come,” and I came, and that was it. It was dangerous for me to come because I’m somebody who gets married on a first date.
It was very quick. When I get into a relationship, there’s no dating. You’re in, or you’re out.
I think the idea of being in a place that had all of these disciplines and this deep sense of collaboration from the faculty, and this place of social justice, and thinking green, and design excellence and relationship between teaching and research — it was everything I’d been doing.
If we go back to how I make decisions in my life, go back to putting myself into situations where it wasn’t a good fit?
This was a good fit. As a faculty member [at RPI], that was a great thing; I loved teaching; but this is the fit. I can be uncomfortable in terms of a learning situation whenever I want to; I can throw myself into a different discipline if I want. But I like clearing things out of other people’s way so that they can be successful.
I really enjoy putting things in a way so that people are able to reach their aspirations, their ambitions. It’s often tough because of the resources.
I realized that one of the things I am good at is recognizing other people’s genius. I always wanted to run a think tank; I want to put all of these people together so we can really make a difference in the world. It hit me two years ago: Well, I am running a think tank. I mean, what is a university but a think tank? What do I need to do to be able to get people of diverse interests, intellectual challenges and curiosities to see that oh, if I speak to somebody who’s doing nanotechnology on materials research that that could affect the way I’m thinking about self-healing materials in rooftops? That’s really exciting.