Christine Theodoropoulos joined our department in Eugene in the mid-1990s, coming from a prior teaching position in southern California. Our department has an unusual criterion when we are searching for new faculty members: everyone who will teach courses in the department should also teach design studios. We don’t want some faculty (especially those who teach technical courses) to be isolated in their specialties; since architecture is all about integrating an incredibly wide range of scales and issues into a design project, we think it is important that specialized knowledge and different approaches be brought into the studio, and we want our faculty to always be thinking about how their particular focus and expertise contributes to the design process. Christine was a perfect faculty candidate from this perspective. She had an undergraduate engineering degree from Princeton, then a masters in architecture from Yale (where she was friends with Mark Rylander, another factor to her credit). She left LA and moved to Eugene with her husband Mark (who had extensive experience working as a construction manager on the Getty, among other projects), and her two young sons.
From the beginning, working with Christine was a pleasure. She was a thoughtful and smart design teacher, and with her structural engineering colleagues, fundamentally changed the way we teach structures, shifting it more towards how architects actually apply structural concepts in the design process, rather than just the learning of abstract structural principles (which was certainly the way I was taught). But more than that, she was a good friend and the definition of collegiality – someone who more than pulled her own weight, who was always searching for simple solutions, and who didn’t feel the need to belabor the obvious (not a common characteristic in academia). Once when she and I were on a faculty search committee together, she walked into a meeting and said, These are the three candidates whom I think are clearly the best. I said I completely agreed, and she said let’s just invite them to campus. We then adjourned what was probably the shortest committee meeting ever held.
Given these qualities, she was a natural for the thankless job of being department head. When we needed to find a new head in the early 2000s, Christine and I were both mid-career faculty and likely candidates, so I did a quick survey of our relative qualifications, which immediately convinced me that Christine was much better suited for the job. Happily Christine and the rest of the faculty concurred, and Christine took on the position, eventually agreeing to re-up for two more three-year terms.
As always, these were years of tumult and straitened circumstances at the university, but Christine strategically navigated them with tremendous steadiness, integrity, and innovative thinking. She had enough experience and wisdom to keep things in perspective, and she quietly accomplished a lot, with a minimum of fuss. My favorite moment was when I had attended a meeting with many other faculty from across the university, and found that they were all freaking out about some directive out of the provost’s office. They were having meetings, plotting strategies, writing memos and letters. One colleague asked me how our department was dealing with this, and I said that I hadn’t heard anything about this before; she just stared at me in disbelief. I went back to Lawrence Hall and asked Christine about this crisis. She said, Oh, I just don’t think this has reached the level yet where we have to pay any attention to it. She was right – it never became a big issue for us, and she saved us weeks of worry and unnecessary dithering by just quietly tracking it herself.
Christine’s sterling qualities were noticed not just by us, so four years ago she moved off to San Luis Obispo to be the dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design at Cal Poly. It is an excellent school, with a very large undergraduate architecture program that is consistently ranked the best in the country. Christine and Mark moved into a cool rowhouse/loft unit in a hip new mixed-use building downtown (their boys are grown and off on their own), where they are enjoying the down-sized simplicity and urban pleasures of life in SLO, after the years of suburban family domesticity in Eugene.
We had a lovely dinner visiting with Christine, catching up on family and friends, hearing about her life at Cal Poly and in the more general world of architectural education in the US, and some interesting adventures she’d had in consulting on architecture programs in the Mideast. But as always with Christine, much of the conversation was about how things and people were doing in Oregon, and how we had been faring on our trip; even after years in her new life, Christine still hasn’t let go of the habits of caring about and strategizing for all of us back in her old home.