Practitioner, Professor, Journalist, Author and Cartoonist
Alumnus Roger Lewis has had – and continues to have – a pretty remarkable career, as full of unexpected turns as a novelistic page-turner. The story began in Houston in the 1950s – a place he knew, by the time he was in his mid-teens, that he would eventually leave – and moved to Massachusetts when MIT offered him a full scholarship directly out of high school. He headed for Cambridge with plans to become an engineer, a mathematician or a scientist but by the middle of his sophomore year he was ready to drop out, convinced that he didn’t want to be any of those things but not at all sure what he did want to do.
In an attempt to help him find his direction, the dean of students asked him the obvious question – What do you like to do best? – and the answer just fell out of him: ‘Draw’. So the dean suggested he consider looking into architecture. ‘I didn’t even know how to spell it,’ he says now. ‘But I ambled over to Building 7 and had a look around at all the drawings and models and I thought – you mean you can get credit for this?’ So he signed on and began his BArch in his junior year.
Six years after arriving in Cambridge, graduation presented him with another decision about his direction and he found the answer in the halls – a Peace Corps poster announcing that Tunisia needed architects. ‘I thought that looked more interesting than drawing toilet partitions,’ he says, ‘and I loved the idea of the Peace Corps. What could have been cooler than going into the Peace Corps and doing what I’d just finished six years learning to do?’
So he applied and was accepted and spent the next two years in North Africa working for the Tunisian Ministry of Public Works, responsible for designing more than thirty government-financed projects, over half of which were actually built. Municipal auditoria, shopping facilities, schools, a boy scout camp, a movie theater, a hotel, a historic mosque renovation and public gardens: a pretty impressive portfolio for someone just two years out of school.
‘I couldn’t turn out the drawings fast enough,’ he says now. ‘And it had a tremendous impact on my career. When I started my firm a few years later, one of my first commissions was to do a housing project in Venezuela for Boise Cascade, partly because of my Peace Corps experience – I knew how to build in a foreign culture. Since then, I have counseled many students to consider the Peace Corps.’
After two years in Tunisia Lewis came back to MIT for a masters in housing and community development, then moved to Washington DC to establish his own architecture and planning firm. Since 1969, his firm has produced award-winning private residences, low-income and elderly housing, community buildings, art centers, recreational facilities, commercial structures and schools.
And meanwhile, as he was doing all that, he also helped establish and nurture a new school of architecture at the University of Maryland, where he taught for 37 years – he is now Professor Emeritus – helping to initiate the school’s first summer study abroad program and its first-ever program in Russia. ‘My great ceaseless passion,’ he says, ‘is not to be ceaselessly passionate about only one thing. I’m a person who likes to change.’
True to that character trait, he added journalism to his resume in 1984, initiating a series of essays for the Washington Post. ‘It seemed to me the profession was doing a very bad job of communicating with anyone other than themselves,’ he says. ‘Architects were all preaching to the choir. So I pitched to the Post a series for laymen about the history of the city and its architecture.’
To provide visuals for the series, he drew cartoons – he’d been drawing cartoons all his life, including several for VooDoo, MIT’s humor magazine – and the essays and cartoons were so well received that the series turned into a weekly column called ‘Shaping the City’. Today, twenty-eight years later, the column continues – now biweekly – covering everything from architectural design, planning and land use regulation to housing, historic preservation, transportation and infrastructure, landscape architecture and public policy. In 1987, the AIA Press published a compilation of the columns, and the accompanying cartoons, and over the years the cartoons have also been shown in several exhibitions, including a one-man show at the National Building Museum and, this fall, a show at Washington’s Cosmos Club.
Remembering how clueless he was about the field as a student – ‘I really didn’t know what I was getting into,’ he says – he next wrote a book to fill a gap in the literature. In 1985, just one year after he started with the Post, the MIT Press published the first edition of Architect? A Candid Guide to the Profession. In the decades since, the best-selling book has been used as an introductory text for would-be architects at universities throughout North America, and has been translated into Spanish, Japanese and Korean. He is now working on the third edition, due out on 2013.
In light of all his experience – including, since 2007, a regular appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi show, broadcast by WAMU-FM – we asked Lewis what advice he would give to our current students, particularly in this economic climate. ‘The advice hasn’t changed,’ he said. ‘Be aware that fads and fashions will be gone by next week; architects need to embrace values that are more sustainable and lasting. Consider deferring mortgages, spouses and children; they can constrain your ability to travel extensively, to start a business and take risks. Do it more for love than for money; very few architects become rich.
‘And remember that people with architecture degrees are not limited to being architects or architecture professors. Many students don’t go into conventional practice today; there are many more options than in the past, and architectural education prepares you to do a lot of things. You’ve learned how to approach totally new, unprecedented problems and you’ve become comfortable dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Those are skills you can apply anywhere. Look around you. What needs doing?’