Published May 7, 2020
John Paul Eberhard, path-breaking architecture educator, researcher, and practitioner, and founding Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, died on Saturday, May 2.
Eberhard’s leadership in creation of what was then known as the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, was just one in a series of signal achievements in a career that spanned more than six decades.
The cause of death was complications from infection by coronavirus and congestive heart failure. Eberhard was 93. Lois Caroline Saxenmeyer Eberhard, his wife of nearly 70 years, passed away April 12 at age 88.
“John Eberhard provided the inspiration and the driving force for the creation of this school half a century ago,” Dean Robert G. Shibley observed. “What is most poignant at the time of his passing and in the 50th anniversary year of the school, is that the ethos of inquiry and innovation in service to the common good, which he embodied, is still alive and well in the school. We can never forget him.”
In June of 1967, Eberhard hosted a small meeting in Washington, DC, to discuss the future of architecture education at a time when many in the profession felt that architecture had lost its way. At the meeting was UB President Martin Meyerson, then planning the establishment of a new architecture school on his campus. A year later, Meyerson, having considered most of the promising young architects, planners, and designers then working in academia and beyond, tapped Eberhard to lead the effort.
Eberhard arrived in Buffalo in June 1968 to take up his post at a school that had no students, no building, no curriculum, and no faculty except for himself. He met that fall with members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to introduce himself and explain his project. An old-school practitioner named John Y. Sloan III was in attendance, as the late Ted Lownie once recalled.
“Dean Eberhard,” Sloan declared, “I hope you are going to teach these people how to draw.”
“Mr. Sloan,” Eberhard replied, “I am going to teach them how to think.” Whereupon Eberhard left the meeting.
"That urgency generated a missionary zeal to create new type of learning and a new type of design practice."
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The exchange only captured a whiff of the radical reconceptualization of design education that Eberhard intended to implement at Buffalo. Inspired by general systems theory, one of the great intellectual fashions of the day, Eberhard understood the challenge before the profession was not to design better buildings but to redesign the entire process by which society planned, designed, and delivered the built environment.
“John wasn’t interested in doing buildings,” recalled David Stieglitz, who both taught and studied at the school in its early years before a long career as an architect in Buffalo. “He was interested in remaking the social landscape.”
Eberhard quickly recruited a small cadre of young teachers to design the initial program: Michael Brill, a brilliant and charismatic young architect; Terry Collison, then working as a new town planner; George Borowsky, a student of “advocacy planner” Paul Davidoff; Richard Chalmers, the only remotely conventional architect in the group; and a gentle Egyptian-born planner, Ibrahim Jammal.
They were all people Eberhard knew personally or by reputation through his vast network of professional contacts. He recruited the first class of graduate students in the same way. Peter Hourihan, already responsibly employed as a project manager on construction in Boston, was in that first cohort along with other similarly mature and previously credentialed grad students.
The first master plan for the school, with typical Eberhard flair for romance, was entitled “Apprentices to Tomorrow.” The initial graduate degree program was a Master of Architecture in “Building Systems Design.” A more conventional bachelor of architecture program was offered through the night school, Millard Fillmore College, partly as a concession to the local profession. An undergraduate program in Environmental Design came a year later with a curriculum intended to stoke systems thinking in young students.
"Serendipitously, I discovered John’s pioneering program inciting me to harness both my creative and analytical aspects."
In the earliest years, students in the graduate program took courses across the university but spent most of their time working on design and research projects through the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI). Consulting fees helped pay scholarships for students and salary amendments for faculty; Eberhard spent much of his time farming his same network of contacts for jobs to keep everyone paid. Many of the projects were not architecture, per se, but creative problem solving more broadly.
This was at the crux of Eberhard’s philosophy of architecture education. "It is no longer sensible,” he said in an interview for the cover story in Engineering News Record in 1968, “to talk about one body of men (sic) called architects as though they were the only ones involved in architecture.” The creation and management of the built environment would require interdisciplinary teams of which architects would only be a part. The architect might be the coordinators of such teams, but they would also involve engineers, psychologists, politicians, economists, ecologists, artists, technicians, and others.
After five years in Buffalo, and nearly a hundred projects through BOSTI, but facing mounting pressure from university administration for a more conventional and professionally accreditable architecture program, Eberhard decided to move on.
His time in Buffalo was just one chapter in a remarkable career. Drafted into the Marines at the end of the Second World War, he earned his undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. In 1952, with his partner Roy Murphy, he established Creative Buildings, LLC, a firm specializing in construction using prefabricated components, including a patented chapel that could be disassembled and moved to follow its congregation.
He earned a master’s degree in industrial management as a Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also taught for several years. From 1959 to 1963 he served as Director of Research for the Sheraton Hotels Corporation. In 1963 he headed to Washington where he participated in the reorganization and development of the National Bureau of Standards. In 1966 he succeeded his friend and colleague, Donald Schon, as Director for the Institute for Advanced Technology. Then to Buffalo.
In 1973, feeling he had taken the experiment at UB as far as he could, Eberhard accepted a position as President of the AIA Research Corporation, building a program that had barely existed into an organization with 60 staff and a $10 million budget by 1978, much of the work involving urban planning, renewable energy, and energy-conscious design.
Eberhard crossed paths in those years with Dean Shibley, then building the architectural research enterprise in his position with the US Army Corps of Engineers Office of the Chief of Engineers. Shibley contributed to Eberhard’s work through the Defense Department’s first engagement of post occupancy evaluation.
Eberhard arrived in Buffalo in summer 1968 with a vision to
radical reconcceptualize design education.
From 1981 to 1988 Eberhard served as Executive Director of the Building Research Board at the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. Just past 60 and contemplating retirement, Eberhard instead accepted an appointment to lead the Department of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In the fall of 1994 at age 67, Eberhard began what was, in a sense, a brand new career, still focused on research in architecture, but now investigating the connections between form and space and the brain. He took a position at the American Architectural Foundation as Director of Discovery, leading eight years later to the founding of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, of which he was the first President. At the NewSchool of Architecture + Design in San Diego, he created the first curriculum to teach architecture students about neuroscience. And beginning in 2010, he served as a consultant to the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
Students and faculty colleagues remember a man who was both passionate and perspicacious, a radical in a three-piece suit, at turns brainy and emotional. He would sometimes lecture students so fervently about their opportunity to fulfill the social change mission of their profession as to bring himself to the brink of tears.
Robert Searns, a member of the first graduating class who made a career as a pioneer in the development of urban greenways, remembers Eberhard as simultaneously “creative and out of the box” yet “established and solid,” someone who could combine right-brain and left-brain thinking.
Hourihan, now retired as a principal with CannonDesign, remembers Eberhard for his passionate advocacy for fundamental change in the way that architects go about their business, the process they follow, how they learn, how they investigate a problem, how they work together in multi-disciplinary systems. Hourihan, much of whose own career was invested in research, saw Eberhard’s need to know “why” at the heart of his quest for evidence as the basis for design, “long before architecture embraced ‘evidence-based design.’”
"One of John's favorite expressions was that if you seriously wanted to learn a new subject, the best way was to start right out be teaching a course in it or writing a book, preferably both."
Tom Tiedeman, after earning his masters at UB in 1973, followed Eberhard to the AIA Research Corporation where he worked on the computerization of the building codes that set the ground rules for architectural practice across the nation. As much as anyone from those early years, Tiedeman spent his career fulfilling the very idea of “building systems design.”
Tiedeman appreciated Eberhard’s broader view of architecture and his encompassing definition of technology as “the sum of the means by which society creates what it wants and needs.” And it wasn’t enough for Eberhard that students learn technology, they needed to learn how to move it forward.
“Creating a new school at Buffalo,” Tiedeman wrote recently, “became a means to truly advance technology, not just training young people to use our existing bag of tricks, but also inspiring them to create wholly new approaches to achieve the built environment.”
As commencement speaker and recipient of the School of Architecture and Planning Dean’s Medal in 2012, Eberhard asked the assembled graduates, still grappling with the aftermath of the Great Recession, to live out the inclusive understanding of architecture he had always espoused:
“Don’t be discouraged by the market for traditional architects at the moment,” he said, “but expand your vision of the future. As Harriet Tubman once told us, every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember,” he continued, seeming to choke back tears, “you have in you the strength and the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world.”
"John Eberhard and his new school made the difference. The spirit and sense of mission was indescribable."
Eberhard is survived by his four children and their spouses: Carol Eberhard Kessler and J. Christian Kessler; John David Eberhard and Michelle Ferketic; Richard Alan Eberhard; and Barbara Ann Eberhard and Eric Cahoon. His beloved step-grandchildren are Linnea Kessler-Gowell and Jason Kowalewski, and Ian Christian Kessler-Gowell and Sarah Kunkleman, and he is great-grandfather to Miles Christian Kowalewski and Max Christian Kessler-Gowell.