G'Days ahead for Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Richard Blythe’s preferred leisure activity is competing in triathlons and multi-sport endurance racing.
A typical day might start in the dark with a brisk “Run with the Dean” – joined by faculty, staff, and students that Blythe invites to an open weekly series of “Hang Outs” designed to unite college constituents in informal settings.
By 8 a.m., Blythe is in the Dean’s Office at Cowgill Hall, sharply dressed in a black and white suit (no tie), tackling a busy schedule of meetings, emails, speaking engagements, and initiatives to advance the “Beyond Boundaries,” global land-grant vision outlined by President Tim Sands.
Since arriving on campus in October, the award-winning Australian architect and educator has worked quickly to assess the college’s culture and programs; engage faculty, staff, students, alumni, and supporters; and propose new initiatives that complement and enhance the way it operates.
“I get excited by big ideas,” he said. “I see the greater human endeavor as being a continual need to remake the world in a new way. Academia goes wrong when it puts in place rules and regulations about what knowledge, learning, and research should be. Those rules exclude and stifle innovation. I like the idea of fluidity. If you’re too rigid, you miss opportunities to be great.”
An Emerging Vision
Barely five months into the job, Blythe is already establishing a Practice-Based stream of the Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech that will be the first of its kind in the U.S. The program would enable working architects and other practice-based disciplines to earn their Ph.D.s using the practice as a primary research tool. He proposes a three-to-four-year program in which Ph.D. candidates meet twice a year for a practice research symposium, where they present their work to an advisory panel of faculty, practitioners, and peers.
Blythe internationalized a similar program for RMIT University, taking it to Vietnam and Spain. The program became a successful model that has been adopted at universities throughout Europe and Southeast Asia.
“The Practice-Based Ph.D. brings the knowledge of a community of practitioners to academia and challenges those practitioners at the boundaries of their disciplines ,” Blythe said. “As a university, it helps us anticipate the future of practice. Over time, we hope to build other practice-based models in disciplines like construction, fine arts, policy, and government.”
Blythe also champions a global, interdisciplinary “Big Projects” approach to research and curriculum. He’s proposed a new degree in which students join a big-picture, real-world project, partnered with government, corporate, and academic entities around the world – in lieu of traditional curriculum. Instead of taking classes, students would rotate through roles on the project – aligning their interests and talents with the needs of the team and their professional partners. Blythe cites existing cross-disciplinary projects like the Virginia Tech FutureHAUS or TEAM Malawi efforts to improve infrastructure and health conditions in one of Africa’s poorest nations as examples of “Big Projects” that could one day become the basis of a new approach to a university undergraduate degree.
“Sixty-five percent of children entering school today will work at jobs that don't exist yet,” Blythe said, citing a statistic from the World Economic Forum. “Our role as a university is to prepare ourselves and our students to adapt to the complex, changing needs of our world. We’ll be tackling new problems and jobs we’re only just beginning to imagine.”
Engaging and Uniting
In an effort to seek input from the college and Virginia Tech extended community, Blythe has created multiple ways of encouraging people to engage. He’s hosted Meet the Dean Alumni Socials and networking events in Richmond, Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach, Chicago, Roanoke, and Blacksburg, drawing nearly 1,000 attendees. In his first four months, he convened more than 120 meetings with college faculty and leadership. At weekly “Hang Outs with the Dean,” Blythe invites anyone interested to join in runs, bike rides, and discussions of books and topical news stories. In large auditorium “Dean’s Discussions,” he welcomes faculty, staff, students and expert guests to explore areas of challenge and opportunity in the college. A new web-based internal forum encourages faculty and staff to get involved in the decision-making process through polls and online discussion groups.
“I wanted to create spaces where members of our community will feel comfortable jumping into the discussion of where our college is going and how we’re going to marry up with the Beyond Boundaries direction that the president has set for the university,” he said. “My hope is that others will dive in to do a lot of the talking and proposing.”
Blythe’s entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit have won over many college and Virginia Tech constituents.
“I welcome him and look forward to sharing with him going forward,” said Preston White, founder and CEO of Century Concrete, an alumnus of the building construction program, and member of the college’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction Industry Board. “His vision is to unite the various disciplines of architecture, construction, art, landscape and real estate with both industry and education to work on global solutions. His background in architecture, construction, and research allows him to approach this with a new vision. This truly reflects President Sands’ Beyond Boundaries vision.”
“I think there's something to be said about a dean making a conscious effort to know the students,” said Cat Piper, an architecture student from Honolulu, Hawaii, who is a regular at the dean’s Hang Outs. “He’s creating conversations that otherwise wouldn't have a space in a traditional classroom setting. I really like how these events foster a relationship between students and the administration that makes us more active in our own education.”
“I’m not sure there are many deans who can carry on a thoughtful conversation about automation in housing while running a seven-minute mile,” said Bobby Vance, an architecture faculty member and two-time college alumnus who participates in Runs with the Dean. “Our dean can.”
The Accidental Architect/Academic
Blythe has always challenged the status quo. He grew up in Tasmania, the son of a developer/architect and artist/teacher mother, in a small, friendly town similar to Blacksburg. His grandfather founded and led the first architecture school in Tasmania. He grew up in their studios.
But Blythe had a different path in mind. He wanted to be a poet. After enrolling in the university and judging the required 17th century literature courses “too stuffy,” he dropped out to seek refuge in a completely different environment.
He got a job as a deckhand on a fishing boat and went out to sea for a year – an experience that reshaped his appreciation of intelligence.
“Going to sea with fishermen was the ultimate pursuit of the poetic idea,” he said. “They were larger-than-life characters who had the oceanscape imprinted on their bodies. One guy was totally illiterate – yet if you were in a sticky situation on a boat, he was the one you wanted in charge. He had a kinetic intelligence at a high level. That was an eye-opening example for me of how intelligence works.”
Blythe returned home and enrolled in architecture school – more out of a sense of duty than desire. But upon beginning his studies, he was surprised to find the creative environment he’d been seeking in his architecture and building classes.
“I suddenly understood that there was a fundamental poetic condition in the love of architecture,” he said. “The act of designing and building something gives us a meaningful connection with our world as it changes in front of us.”
Over the next two decades, Blythe co-founded an award-winning international architecture firm (TERROIR); lectured at the University of Tasmania, where he served as deputy head of the School of Architecture and was the vice chancellor’s representative on the Tasmanian government’s Building and Construction Industries Council; and became head of the RMIT School of Architecture and Design.
In addition to establishing the RMIT practice-based research Ph.D. program in Europe and Asia, Blythe led the school to secure $6.8 million in funding for multi-university research alliances, including a grant from the Australian government to lead a 15-university Design and Architecture Practice project. He was primary author and lead researcher for the 2013 Marie Curie Initial Training Network grant ADAPT-r, a collaboration between RMIT and six European universities.
Now at the helm of one of America’s leading colleges of architecture, construction, design, and policy, Blythe aims to preserve its strong legacy, while also imbuing it with fresh momentum.
“I’m proud to have the opportunity to be a dean in an American land-grant university,” he said. “I’ve been given a fantastic college. We have a great journey ahead of us.”