The Gibbs Spotlight: Dean Hans Butzer

This week Dean Hans Butzer (B) joined us in celebrating the one-year anniversary of The Gibbs Spotlight podcast! Hannah Reed (H), a communications intern here at Gibbs sat down with Dean Butzer to discuss how his background as an architect prepared him to take on the role of Dean of the Gibbs College of Architecture.

H: Hi, everybody, welcome to The Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Hannah Reed, and I’m a graphic design and social media intern here at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we are celebrating one year of The Gibbs Spotlight by speaking with the one and only Dean Butzer. He has been the Dean of the College of Architecture, and he’s played a major role in the design of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, the Skydance Bridge, and Scissortail Park. Dean Butzer, welcome. How are you doing today?  

B: I’m doing well, Hannah. Thanks for inviting me today. 

H: Of course, we are so glad we could get you on the podcast with your busy schedule. So, we wanted to go back a little bit and give a background of you as a person. Where are you from? And can you tell us a little bit about your life leading up to Gibbs?  

B: Yeah, it’s always a fun question to talk a bit about from where I come because it’s layered as with so many people out there in the world. I was born into a German family in Madison, Wisconsin and spent about a third of my childhood in Germany. My family went back and forth between Wisconsin and Germany, and eventually the Chicago area and Germany through the good part of my younger years, visiting family. All our family is in Germany, except for the immediate here in the US. And so we, you know, learned German. German is my first language; we spoke it at home all the time. And I felt like when I was in the US, as a kid, I was a German. And when we went to the see relatives in Germany, I always felt like an American. And so it was always an interesting question, as to declaring from where I harold because I’m sometimes never really sure if I’m from anywhere, or perhaps from many places at once. 

H: Best of both worlds.  

B: Yeah, it really is. And it’s opened up a lot of doors for me, Hannah. Into the latter part of your question about life before Gibbs. That dual identity of being part-American, part-German made it easier for my wife, Tori, and I to move to Germany after we got married after we finished architecture school at the University of Texas, living there for five and a half years, being fluent and having an easier time just getting work in Europe back in the 90s. We got some great work experience and that prepared us to come back to the US for me to go to grad school and prepare to kind of slide over into wearing an academic hat, as well as the practitioners hat. And so, you know, coming to OU was kind of a plan, certainly in terms of wanting to become a teacher as well. 

H: How did you know you wanted to get back into academia? 

B: I come from a long line of teachers, whether it’s at the K through 12 layer, or from the university level. My father taught at university for 58 years. My uncle retired not that long ago: he was a mathematician teaching in Germany at a university. My grandmother was a schoolteacher, my mother’s a schoolteacher, my sister’s a schoolteacher, and it’s just, it’s in our blood to want to be a part of helping inspire and guide in a school setting, through pedagogy. So it’s just something I do with pride and in part also a sense of obligation to help bridge and prepare the younger generation for a more successful future. 

H: Back to architecture, how and when did you first become interested in it? 

B: Well, growing up, part of my childhood in Germany, we would spend so much time on the road with my uncle, and my grandparents, in particular. They lived in Aachen, which is in far Western Germany, just by the Belgian border. We would take either weekend trips whether it was just hopping across into Belgium for a couple days, whether it was Amsterdam, Brussels, or going up into Holland for a couple days, but we’d also take longer road trips into France, throughout parts of Germany and Switzerland. It was through those excursions that I came to see how different cultures define the buildings in which they live and commune, and it was easy to start noticing just how differently people who live so closely together could still do architecture that looks so different. I took real joy in those differences and real joy in the public spaces that are so lively in Europe, in part of a Western culture that I’m well acquainted with, and together those fostered to me a passion for the built environment. By the age of 14, I realized that maybe architecture or engineering was a path that I would really enjoy. 

H: So, you went to the University of Texas. Were you set on architecture going into it? Or did you go back and forth between architecture and engineering while in college?  

B: Yeah, great question. At the time that I was in my senior year in high school in the Chicago area, my parents were unsure whether they were going to move to Texas or whether they were going to stay in the Chicago area. And my dad taught at the University of Chicago at the time. Basically, the way it looked, was that if I went to the University of Chicago, meaning we weren’t moving to Texas, I was likely going to go to UC. Since they didn’t have architecture, I was going to go into political science and economics. And if we were going to move, then I would apply to UT Austin’s architecture school. Obviously, my life would be very different today, if my parents had decided not to move, but I’m certainly glad they did, and I had a great experience in my undergraduate years at the University of Texas, Austin, it’s a great school, great place to learn about architecture, and I’m also very fortunate to meet Tori there and fall in love and start what’s become a 30-year relationship with her. 

H: It’s really inspiring to see two people make that work. I mean, I’ve just been reading about feminist theory and architecture for our theory classes right now, and it’s really inspiring the partnership you guys have, if you want to talk a little bit more about your firm that you guys founded together? 

B: Yeah, I’d love to share a bit. Tori and I were really good friends in architecture school and would often give each other desk crits and it was purely out of friendship, and camaraderie that’s typical of architecture students in school. And somewhere in there, it started to become a little bit more than just friendship, and by the time we graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from UT in 1990, her uncle approached us about designing a deck for his beach house in pirates beach on Galveston Island. And so, right out of school, Tori and I found ourselves designing together, there being real consequences with that work together. And we quickly discovered that we think differently, and the way we get to where we are heading is quite different, but the commitment to designing together and working it out together never wavered. It’s never been easy in our collaboration. We do disagree frequently and are always reminded of how personal designing can be and how vulnerable a person can feel. They’re putting their design idea out there and suddenly getting feedback from someone very close that, hey, maybe your design could be a lot better. Like I said, for over 30 years now we’ve been collaborating, and it’s taken those 30 years to better understand each other. They call it a process for a reason. We certainly never feel like we know exactly what the other one’s going to say and how the other is going to react, but we can say that every day is different. And every day we are reminded of being open minded to one another. That definitely plays well within being prepared to being open minded as you collaborate with your colleagues, whether they’re fellow architects, interior designers, landscape architects, planners, contractors, and so forth. But then also, of course, with your clients and the people that you hope will enjoy your building or place that you’re creating. 

H: So with the firm that you’ve both founded, are there shared design principles that you try to implement in every one of your designs or showcases? 

B: Absolutely, we very much are always thinking about designing places for people. You know, there, there is no point in investing all these resources that it takes to build buildings or to create places of significance if we aren’t premeeting, keeping the number one priority: the joy and well-being of those who may use and participate in these spaces that we design. So we’re very dialed in, we are always observing how people use space, we travel as much as we can to try and get a better handle on how different people use certain places and over time, you begin to realize that, you know, it’s dangerous to make generalities. You really have to take time to study a community, to study a client, and to study the place in which they’re inhabiting so that what we end up designing is fulfilling, it’s uplifting to people, it’s something that helps anchor them to a certain place and it makes them feel, you know, we talk a lot these days about belonging and places of equity. That’s always been a priority for Tori and Me and that really is still the driving force between behind all of our work. We want people to feel that they can anchor themselves and establish that Z axis within our work. 

H: Is there a project that you’re most proud of that you’ve done recently, or in the past? 

B: Yeah, I would say, certainly in our more recent collaborations, the Scissortail Park cafe building, an ensemble of pavilions. We started that project in 2009, and it only officially dedicated in September of 2019. We spent years and years on that project and designing and developing our ideas, and we argued a lot over the designs and the detailing, but it feels so good to see it finished. And we both we see the finished buildings, these pavilions, these places are belonging, in that downtown park, we are filled with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. And recognize that the perseverance, the commitment to each other, but also wanting to do the best possible places of shelter for our city, for Oklahoma City, for central Oklahoma that would stand for decades. We just came away feeling so proud of how things turned out. And you know, it made us feel even better when the American Institute of Architects recognized the Scissortail Park cafe and pavilions with an Honor Award. It became a second layer of validation after just seeing how much the community loves the pavilions in the park. 

H: Congratulations on that honor. With it being from 2009 to 2019 were you able to to discern any changes in your own design philosophy from then? 

B: That’s a great question, I would say yes. And it has to do with, over time, this growing appreciation for the human scale in architecture. It’s easy, when you’re getting started in architecture, to be thinking more about the form of things, what things look like, is it going to take a great photograph. It’s almost thinking of it more as an object as opposed to a place of anchoring. Over the decade that we were working on scissortail Park, I think we can see in ourselves and certainly in the completed ensemble of pavilions, that evolution, moving what initially started as building forms, to places and spaces anchored by this thoughtful build structure. 

H: Thank you for that explanation, I definitely can see that, being an architecture major myself, freshman year is a lot of thinking about things as objects, and as I’ve gone forward with the curriculum, it’s a lot more about how to be a person in a space and how to be empathetic to people. And that’s just so critical to design.  

B: Yeah, I mean, it requires a great sense of maturity in a lot of ways. And when we think of buildings as form it probably becomes far too personal and potentially limiting. But the more we envision others as in building a relationship to that, place that space, you must learn to let go and to create a little bit more, what I sometimes call, forgiveness in the architecture to ensure that more people could relate to that space. 

H: Absolutely. So you’ve been dean at the college for how many years? 

B: Well, I started out in spring, or late winters of 2016, as interim dean. 

H: You were a professor long before that, weren’t you? 

B: Yeah, so I’ve been at OU for 21 years now. And it’s been an amazing ride, but, you know, I became Director of the Division of Architecture in 2013. Following the the unfortunate passing of Dean Graham, President Boren, and the regents asked me to step in as interim dean in 2016. And it was only in 2017 then that I was named Dean and removed the title of interim. 

H: So was it an easy decision to accept the dean position? 

B: It was not an easy decision. Never in my career, did I seek administrative roles, my passion has always been as an architect who loves to teach, so it was a very challenging proposition, when I was first approached to serve as Director of the Division of Architecture because it meant that I would have to begin to let go of my role as practicing architect and the sense of obligation I feel there not only to my dreams, but also knowing that by shifting to an administrative role, all the people who worked in our firm and you know, whose livelihoods my leadership helped support could be at risk. I accepted the challenge, and it certainly hasn’t been easy to manage on the personal side, but at the same time, my love for OU and my love for this College of Architecture has only grown. And as a result, I’ve accepted these challenges first as director and now as Dean, knowing that it would all be at the expense of my ability to practice in a way that I always dreamed of. But the tradeoff is so worth it. It feels so good to see the success the college is having. We’ve doubled our endowment in the last five years, and enrollments are up by 60%. And it’s certainly my hope that all our graduates are experiencing when they’re here at the Gibbs college, but also after they graduate, that they really feel like they’re at the college during a really great time in history. We are prospering as a college, the faculty have never been stronger, the research or the faculty has never been more focused, and the students are just so incredibly sharp and hungry to learn and find ways to leverage their skills to build more flourishing and supportive communities. 

H: So, you kind of touched on it just now, but how do you think that the college has changed since you came on as a professor versus director versus Dean? 

B: Yeah, we’ve definitely been evolving. You know, as a young faculty, you observe all these years of how the college has worked, and you think a bit about what’s working well, what you wish could be even better. When I was suddenly confronted with the opportunity to serve as director, I realized that I had this unique opportunity to act on those things that I had been observing for the previous 13 years. So that sense of obligation to really take action and try and bring about the kind of changes that I’d always hoped for and that I knew that many of my faculty colleagues had always hoped for. And so here we are trying to grow the sense of transparency of how the college operates, whether it’s its finances, whether it’s just overall strategic decisions. You know, it’s quite historic,  where we are now. And I think everyone benefits from that. The confidence is building and how we’re structured and how we make decisions, but even more importantly, the opportunity for everyone to feel like and to realize they really do have a voice, I think, is becoming more prevalent. You can never stop listening when you’re a leader. And you have to be a responsive leader, so it’s certainly something that I’m trying to do as I grow into this role. I certainly feel fortunate to get to act on so many of these opportunities. 

H: So you also mentioned that you wear many hats, and that sometimes it’s hard to juggle them. Do you have any advice? I mean, that you wish you yourself could take or for other students?  

B: Well, I have no regrets. I start there. You know, all the decisions that I’ve made and opportunities that others have provided me I’ve seized and sought to leverage to help others. That’s something that’s deeply ingrained in me as a child, seeing my parents and all that they’ve tried to do to serve others. I would and I do encourage my own children, to not let themselves try and take on too much, that there is a beauty in just being focused and dig deep and just stay in one place for a while and try to do one or two things really well. That’s probably far better strategy than trying to do too many things somewhat well. So that would be my advice. Maybe keep it a little bit simpler than perhaps I’ve been doing as of late. 

H: I mean, this year has been quite the exception to the norm, I think. And all the different roles our faculty and students have had to take on being online tech experts and spending all your time at home with your animals and learning how to interact with them when you usually leave during the day. So we’re wrapping up on time here, but do you have any advice for prospective students that are looking at joining the College of Architecture? 

B: My advice to students considering joining Gibbs college is that, first and foremost, college is a time to discover. And, you know, our college offers these seven different programs, all neatly and professionally related. And across these seven programs are countless opportunities for potential students to find themselves. There’s no one way to practice architecture or practice as an interior designer, landscape architect, planner, environmental designer, contractor, or urban designer. There are so many ways in which you can find yourself and be yourself within any one of the disciplines offered by a college. And if there’s one thing our communities need today, that is more planners, designers, and builders who come from a wider range of backgrounds. So perhaps the most important message that I could share with prospective students of the Gibbs College is that the Gibbs college, with its seven programs, offers many opportunities for individuals from a wide range of backgrounds to find themselves. When we seek to design places of equity, places of belonging, to plan, design, and build these places, it’s so important that those who are doing the planning, designing, and building come from different backgrounds. That’s the best way in which we can ensure that not only will our students find their own place and discover and reach their own potential, but to do so knowing that their perspective is helping make it easier for others, with their own range of perspectives to get to participate in all the benefits of the built environment. 

H: Do you have any advice for current students? 

B: Persevere and remember that certainly what 2020 and 2021 have taught us is that nothing is certain and that we need to always be willing to learn, to be willing to adapt, to keep our heads up, chin up. The needs of communities across the globe haven’t changed. The world needs us more than ever. And so whatever, life, COVID, or whatever it else, it might be, all the other surprises of life that are thrown towards us in our paths, stick it out, you have value. The world needs you, and just keep reaching your potential. 

H: And lastly, what’s something you’re proud to have seen happen within the field since you joined or something you look forward to seeing happen within the field? 

B: The thing I’m most excited about to have seen evolve over the last 30-35 years of being in the design professions is I see more and more how important the planners, designers and builders are trying to respect the viewpoint of people who are going to use our buildings, our communities, these spaces that we’re working on. When I was in school, there was an awful lot of theories being circulating around and a lot of obsession over the shape of buildings, but there wasn’t enough conversation about, “for whom do we build?” And I’m just beyond happy to see the disciplines evolve to this point. Having grown up in a house with parents who studied anthropology, the study of people and their cultures and their values. It’s very gratifying to see how my disciplines of choice have evolved to truly value cultures and perspectives of people. 

H: Thank you so much for that and thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great talking with you. 

B: Well, thank you, Hannah, and I’m thrilled to have been invited to share as part of Gibbs Spotlight and big kudos to you and the rest of your team, Dr. Angela Person who leads this team, and all the other Gibbs Spotlights that you’ve created so far and posted on the Gibbs website. Gibbs is about people, and the Gibbs Spotlight is just a wonderful way to recognize the many individuals and the many perspectives that make who we are here at Gibbs. 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.