Bruno Leon: Founders Award
The following are remarks given by Professor of Architecture and former Dean Stephen Vogel ’70, ’75 at the School of Architecture’s 50th Anniversary Dinner on Sept. 27, 2013 at the Detroit Athletic Club as John Leon accepted the Founders Award on behalf of his father, founding Dean Bruno Leon.
In 1964, when I arrived at the University of Detroit with my fellow classmates, many of whom are here tonight, we were divided into groups to meet with various professors to discuss J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—a book we were all asked to read over the summer. Into the classroom I was assigned, walked this tall, silver-haired, movie star looking, charismatic personality named Bruno Leon. We commenced to discuss the ideas presented in the book. I knew instantly that the architectural education we were going to embark on would be nothing like I imagined prior to coming to the University, and that the dean would be an inspiring figure in that education. Little did I know, that years later, I would work for Bruno as a faculty member at this University and succeed him as dean—a daunting prospect to say the least.
I should say immediately that the Catcher in the Rye was only one of hundreds of books that Bruno encouraged us to read, including the Tao of Physics, The Landscape of Man, Camus’ The Rebel, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, Huckleberry Finn, Barrnet’s The Irrational Man, etc. You get the picture.
This new School of Architecture that Bruno envisioned was based on a humanistic philosophy where people and their spiritual, as well as technical, needs were the center of architecture, not some faddish formalism based upon the narcissistic ego of an individual architect. This philosophy, by the way, was written as a manifesto in large type and mounted in the stairway of the Engineering building for all to see. I am sure the graduates from the 60s and early 70s who are here well remember the sentiment, if not the words. This philosophy, which I hope that Will and I have carried forward, was evidenced by community-based studios starting in the 60s, and was the foundation that ultimately led to the creation of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center and other civic engagement projects that the School is so well known for.
In his student-centered approach to education, students were encouraged to think for themselves and to find unique solutions to each problem presented to them. The emphasis was on design, but Bruno always promoted technical proficiency that led to that design.
His work with I.M.Pei at MIT and Buckminster Fuller early in his career informed the basis for this architecture. To emphasize this, Bruno created the Buckminster Fuller Chair of Architecture at U of D. Buckminster came to the School numerous times to meet with students and lecture—of course the lectures were infamous for their length!
Bruno was also an advocate for international studies so that students can gain a global perspective and think beyond the confines of provincialism. The two programs he began, the Volterra-Detroit program and the exchange program with the Warsaw, Poland University of Technology, have endured over 25 and 30 years respectively. This summer, Bruno was able to come to the grand opening of a permanent facility in Volterra, Italy, where he told the assembled citizens of Volterra that this was a dream fulfilled.
Bruno retired to his birth town, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 20 years ago after being dean for an amazing 30 years. As you are all aware, we were saddened when he passed away this summer unexpectedly at the age of 89. He, like J.D. Salinger, who passed at almost the same time, led an amazing life—his impact on us, the alumni was incalculable.
He was recognized by the University in 1984 with the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and was recognized by the American Institute of Architects with his Fellowship for his contributions to architectural education.
We are recognizing him tonight with the Founders Award of the School of Architecture that, as you will see, contains the Chambered Nautilus—the symbol Bruno selected for the School in 1963.