I’d never met Mark Childs before, although we have moved in the same circles. We were both in college in Cambridge at the same time in the 70s (Harvard v. MIT), and then Mark was an architecture grad student at the UO in the early 80s (where his professors were those who later became my colleague and friends). We have also followed similar career paths, working in the profession for about ten years before sidling into academia. He eventually ended up at the University of New Mexico, where he is a professor and associate dean, and his wife Emily is on the faculty at the medical school, working in the area of HIV prevention.
Mark’s academic focus has been on urban design, in a remarkably down-to-earth, concrete way. He has written books titled Urban Composition, Squares, Parking Spaces, and has recently coauthored a book on the old neon signs on Route 66. What I like about his work is that he really looks around at actual places and things and moves on to theory and proposals from there; unlike many academic writers he doesn’t exist solely in a world of disembodied ideas and dogmas.
Mark and I met in Seattle in March, at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual meeting . This is effectively the national meeting for academic architects, and I usually avoid it like the plague, as it is the center of all things jargonist and crazily theoretical. (My favorite paper title this year: “Provoking the ‘Thingness’ of History: The Anti-Teleological Hermeneutics of Steen Eiler Rasmussen”.) But I got dragged to the conference this year, as our housing specialization curriculum won a housing design education award, and Michael Fifield didn’t want to go receive it alone. So Greta and I flew home from Phoenix, and I braced myself for the trip to Seattle. There were some bright spots at the conference, one of which was a panel discussion on how to frame architectural research within the confines of a research university. Mark was on the panel, and everything he said actually made sense, so we chatted a few times in the subsequent days when we ran into each other. I told Mark how I was in Seattle on hiatus from our road trip, and he said we should drop in when we reached Albuquerque.
We arrived on the UNM campus and I first met with John Quale, the architecture department head, who has been working on passive house modular housing projects for years (and who coincidentally was on the jury that gave us the housing curriculum award). Then Greta and I took off with Mark, who showed us around their school (the fine Predock building blogged earlier), east side neighborhoods, and the downtown. On our trip we had gotten used to simply exploring cities on our own, doing a little research and then wandering off in whatever direction appealed to us, so it was very different and informative to have a guide who knew the background on everything we were seeing. (We had heard about the Frontier Restaurant from others, but it was Mark who impressed upon us its centrality to the Albuquerque ethos, and who dragged us in there the first time.) Mark was a keenly wry observer of the city – talking about the trends of the past decades, what had gone wrong and what had gone right. He didn’t try to hide Albuquerque’s flaws, but he didn’t understand how good it all looked to us anyway, as Phoenix and Vegas were the only other Southwestern cities we’d seen in the past 7 weeks.
After the tour we met up with Emily at one of their favorite restaurants, Pasion, a very hip and fun Latin fusion restaurant, where we ate fusion tapas and drank fusion Margaritas. Greta and I had really been enjoying all our time out in national parks and reservations, but getting back to recognizable civilization, with great food and new friends was really a treat.