The Gibbs Spotlight: Shawn Schaefer

GCA Communications intern Kali Curtis (K) spoke with Shawn Schaefer (S), the director of the Urban Design Studio here at Gibbs! We sat down with Schaefer to learn about how the use of technology and design methods has evolved throughout his career. Schaefer received his Master of Architecture (1993) at the University of Oklahoma. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello everyone, welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kali Curtis, and I am a web development and professional writing intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today, we are talking to Shawn Schaefer. Shawn Schaefer graduated with his master’s in architecture from OU in 1993 and he has been the director of the Urban Design Studio since 2000. The first question I’m going to ask you here is how have design methods and practices changed in the field of urban design since you were a student? 

 S: I barely know where to begin, right? There are so many things that have happened since I was a student in the practice of urban design and the construction of cities. I’ll list some of the things and some things that have influenced me the most. One is community-based participatory research and design. I think a lot of architectural designers, especially from maybe my generation, or the generation before, there was a lot of this solitary genius, like, you know, “well, we’ll go away, we’ll come up with this beautiful, rational design, and everybody will love it” sort of thing. And that didn’t work out so well. Now, we use a completely different approach where we basically are servants to our communities and our clients. And we ask them to set the agenda, or the program for a design, that sort of thing. So, I think that was a big shift, a big change in the methods.

You know, a lot of things have happened. Sustainability and resilience was something that I can’t really remember getting into too much in school. But now, it is extremely important. You know, we’re facing things like climate change and globalization, mass urbanization around the world. Designing for acute shocks, and chronic stresses have become a big part of what we’re interested in. You know, some other methods sort of embraced over the years, things like using design games to engage people in the design process and using behavioral economics when we create spaces. You know, thinking about how people will use our spaces, both as they were functioned to and how we might not have anticipated they might use. 

Shawn Schaefer (standing, left side) with Urban Design students who were working with community stakeholders during the Chapman Green Placemaking project in 2017

K: So, you said that you’ll use design games. What do you mean by that? 

S: My hero in this area is a guy named Henry Sanoff and Henry is still around, and he’s actually worked with some of our students on projects. But he came up with this idea to actually involve users of buildings or, you know, citizens of neighborhoods or public spaces, and to come up with games that were fun to play to help them develop ideas. So, I’ll give you an example. We did a project here in Tulsa called Tulsa Midtown Redux. One of our city councils at the time asked us, “Hey, can you help us with this? Because we’re having this issue.” So, we have an old historic neighborhood in Midtown, and it’s got a lot of great old homes. There are some major streets like Cherry Street and Utica Avenue that go through the neighborhood, and there’s a lot of commercial development taking place. The developers are in some cases tearing down buildings, they’re adding parking lots, parking is spilling out onto the residential streets, it’s having a negative impact, the neighbors are up in arms. What can we do, you know?

So, what the studio did was we actually invented a design game that we could play with the neighbors and the developers, and we brought them together. Instead of antagonizing them, having them, you know, in an adversarial position, we asked them to work together and come up with “what would you like to see, developers?” And “what would you like to see, residents?” Some of the residents wanted no development. Well, that was not the premise of the game because we need development, the city needs development. And the fact of the matter is probably a lot of these neighbors, you know, end up going to the shops and restaurants and things that were being developed. So, it was just a matter of getting them focused on the issue and getting them working together.

The students built models, they were planning models, so they were pretty large scale and they were building blocks like Legos, you know, that we cut out on our own Laser and people had to stack them up, they had to provide for parking, you know, it was pretty realistic. What we found was, that at the end of the day, the developers and the homeowners actually were pretty much in agreement with what they wanted. The real problem was the city’s zoning ordinances and other regulations wouldn’t let you build them. Right? Both the residents and the developers wanted to build their buildings right up on the property line. And they wanted to make it very walkable, and they wanted mixed uses. But at that time, you couldn’t do any of that. You had to have a big front yard setback, you had big parking lots that were required. You know, it was very difficult to do mixed-use or anything like that. So by doing that game, we were able to get them to think together and work together, and that sort of lowered the temperature. And it also pointed out what the real problem was, which I don’t think is what the city really expected to hear.

It took quite a while to even change any of that, but it has been changing, right? I mean, we do have more mixed-use zoning available. We’re still kind of working on the setback thing. The parking situation is a lot better, too. So anyway, that’s an example of a design game. But there’s a lot of different kinds of games and one of the things that one of my former students, David Beech, was working a lot with the Tulsa and Union public schools, and he developed design games that were electronic that you could use via the web and social media. 

K: Thank you so much. Now, how would you say that the use of technology has changed since you were a student?

S: Oh, man, that’s another massive thing. So, I mean, I guess I’m getting pretty old. But when I was in school, I remember Professor Dietrich. I remember he taught a computers in architecture class. I still remember one of the assignments we had was to write a program to draw a circle and it was like a weeklong assignment. We were programming in Fortran, I think it was. It was like three pages of code, just to make the computer draw a circle and print it out on a piece of paper, you know? And so that’s how primitive it was, right?

I remember we got AutoCAD, it was some very early version, you know, like, 2.5, or something. And we tried using that. We didn’t have any email, we didn’t have cell phones, you know. I’m not that old, but I mean, there was not a lot. When I graduated, and I started working at Marie Jones Marie, the first job I did was for the Army Corps engineers, and we drew everything by hand. And the second job was for American Airlines, and they required CAD. I remember the company had to buy a computer to do it. And I was the youngest intern, right? And so, they figured, well, he can figure it out. Nobody else knew anything about it. And I remember they got me the computer, and it had four megabytes. Not gigabytes, four megabytes of RAM. And everybody was like, “Oh, my God, that is incredible. Four megabytes of RAM.” So, you know, it was very, very different in terms of technology.

Just since I’ve been the director for 20 years, things have changed dramatically. So, we have rapid prototyping tools in the studio, we’ve got a stereo lithographer, we’ve had a laser cutter almost the entire time that I’ve been director. We acquired a drone to take aerial reconnaissance surveys. We have parametric and procedural modeling programs that we use, things like Rhino and Grasshopper, and City Engine. I learned all about GIS and big data, and I’ve been doing those sorts of projects. These are things I had no clue about when I was a student. I mean technology, and then, of course, like cell phones and stuff, and using those in practice, using those in for community outreach and things like that. That’s just really changing things.

I’m reading a book right now called the Smart Enough City, about the role of technology in how cities work, and how we shouldn’t rely on technology to solve things, and in a lot of cases, trying to do so oversimplifies the problems. The problems in cities are not just to make things as efficient as possible. You know, sometimes you can make things efficient. So, like in the book, the example they use is at MIT they designed a system where the cars could talk to one another. And you didn’t have to have any stoplights. And so, the cars would go through just whenever they wanted to go through. And that’s very efficient. You can put a lot of cars through the intersection quickly that way. But it didn’t think at all about pedestrians and cyclists, or public transit or anything. And they were totally left out of the equation. So, that’s kind of an example of how technology could go awry if you’re not thinking about the issues in a broad way.

K: Okay, thank you. So, it sounds like technology’s really advancing a lot. But the people part matters a lot more too.

S: Yeah, it does. Right. And I think there are advancements in that too. And it’s harder, I think. One of my colleagues here, Dr. Hellman, he’s in the school of social work. But we’ve worked together a lot. And I’ve learned a lot from Chan. He’s an experimental psychologist, and his expertise is in the theory of hope. So, like, if I were to ask, how would you define hope?

K: I kind of see it as something like a motivation for you to like, for things to get better. I don’t know if that’s a good way to explain it.

S: Actually, it is. So, what I learned from Chan, is that there are actually three parts to the definition of hope. Okay. And you mentioned two of them. And most people I talked to only mentioned one, okay. So the one that I hear most often is, it’s a vision or setting a goal for the future, where you see yourself in a hopefully better position than you are now. Okay, so I hope for that, right? And what Chan sort of taught me was that if you just have that, it’s not hope it’s just a wish. That if you really want to achieve that goal, you need two other things. You need a pathway, or pathways, to get you from where you are now to that next better state. And you need the other part that you mentioned, which is the motivation or the agency to take the path, right. So like, even if you have this vision, and you have a way to get there, if you don’t actively do it, if you don’t extend yourself and take the path, you’re not going to get there. And it’s just a wish, right? And so like it’s raining here today, I wish it wouldn’t rain. You know, some people might say, “I hope it doesn’t rain,” right? But, what they really mean is they wish it wouldn’t rain because they don’t have any pathway or agency to change that.

But this sort of thinking, you know, really resonated with me. And I started thinking, well as urban designers and architects, designers of all stripes, I think we do a pretty good job at that first part. We’re good at envisioning things, we’re good at working with people and helping them set their goals, but we’re not so good with the pathways and agency part. You know, it’s kind of like, “Well, here’s your design. Good luck with that.” Right? So, as I’ve learned about this, one of the takeaways is, hey, we need to focus more on pathways and on agency. And, you know, I think one way to do that is with placemaking principles. And I learned a lot of this working with the Institute for Quality Communities. Everybody over there, Shane, and Hope and Ron and Vanessa, and the placemaking conferences that we’ve had, and all the experts that we brought in, you don’t have to make a grand plan, you know. It’s actually more important to get people involved, take things sort of step by step, and prototype and test them before you come up with a grand plan. And you can actually activate the spaces that way in an incremental way. And I think that helps build hope. You don’t just have a plan. If there’s no pathways or agency, it just gets put on the shelf like, “there’s our plan.” Right? So, I think there’s progress being made.

Neuroscience is also making a lot of progress in learning how we see reality. And I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately about embodied cognition, and how everybody experiences a place, not just in their mind, but in their body, and the body and the mind are connected with the environment. So that’s another thing to put into practice when you’re designing a space.

Urban Design students with Shawn Schaefer (fourth from the left) at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis in 2018.

K: Thank you. Yeah, that description of hope really resonates with me. To me, whenever you’re talking about hope for the community and having a plan, you really need teamwork or collaboration for all of that. The next question that I have for you is how have the changes and methods of design and technology personally affected you through your own career and projects?

S: I don’t come to a project or, at least I try not to come to a project like, “I’m the expert,” or “I know at all.” It’s more like “I’m a servant to help,” right? Maybe I can help, maybe I have certain knowledge, or I have certain skills that I can help them achieve their goals. You know, I think being humble and having humility is very important. And also, to not be defensive when you design something. I try to subscribe to another psychologist that used to be at Oklahoma State, Robert Sternberg. And he used to say that he followed a market principle for ideas, right? And so like, ideas are cheap, you buy them low, and you sell them high. If ideas are good ideas, they’ll appreciate in value. But if they’re not so good, then they’re cheap, go get another idea. Don’t just try to hold on to a bad one. So, you know, I think I try to follow that in my practice. And I think what you were saying about, you know, teamwork, and working in multidisciplinary environments is definitely where we’re at, and where we’re heading even more because things are so interconnected. And particularly cities, as sort of complex adaptive systems, no person can know it all, no person can grasp it, even a multidisciplinary team may not be able to grasp it all.

K: Thank you. What would you say is the most valuable thing that you’ve learned at Gibbs college?

S: For me, it’s just to keep learning. Right? And that’s one of the reasons I like teaching because I meet with the students all the time, and they always know more than I do. They have new ideas; they keep me on my toes. And, you know, I just like to learn things. Mastery I think is a fun thing to do, you know, to take something that you don’t know, and work at it, develop the skills, so that you know, at some point you have command of it. I don’t know how best to put that, maybe that’s a value that I learned at Gibbs. You know, one of my favorite professors, when I was a student, was a guy named Jay Randall. He very much sort of taught by example, he was into phenomenology.

I remember the first day of class, my friend Don and I, were coming to class. And we heard this like “clang, clang, clang” noise, right? The school was in the stadium at that time. And I was like, “What is going on? I don’t know. What is that? I don’t know.” And it was getting louder, louder. And we get there, and Professor Randall on the first day of class, he’s got an anvil. You know, like the wily coyote Anvil from Roadrunner cartoons. And he’s got this piece of metal, and he’s got a ball-peen hammer, and he is pounding on it. And it’s turning into, like, this beautiful shape that, you know, it’s got all the marks from the peen on the hammer that he’s hammering it with, and we were just transfixed by that. I think that’s like an example of mastery, right? Like he was trying to show us not by words, not by like, “Oh, you must do this, or you must read this” or something. But like, “watch me, okay, and you’ll see how it’s done.” Right? And then someday, you know, maybe you will be able to make a beautiful metal sculpture. Or not a metal sculpture, but whatever you’re trying to master, you’ll be able to master it.

K: Thank you so much. So, my next question is, what thoughts did you have about the field when joining? And how did your thoughts differ from reality?

S: I think you’re sort of trained to think that architects have a lot more power than they really do. A lot of the decisions are made by other people, your clients, people that hold the purse strings, code officials, there are just so many other things that you have to adapt to. And I think that really, you know more than anything else, it’s something you had to adapt to in practice. And you adapt pretty quickly to that. If you can’t accept that, well, you’re probably not gonna last that long.

K: Okay, so you basically learned that the reality is that you don’t really have a lot of control over what you’re wanting to build. Because that’s kind of what your clients’ needs and what they want that you have to look for.

S: Yeah. Most people don’t look to you as the final authority on things. Right?

Birdseye view of Shawn Schaefer’s design for the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, circa 2015.

K: Yeah. So, did you have any projects that you would want to talk about and share?

S: So, I’ve been doing this so long, I have, like many, many projects, and I can bore you to death. But I’ve got, you know, I’ll just tell you, maybe a couple that stand out in my mind. So, when I first started teaching, when I first was the interim director, one of my first classes, we worked on a project here in Tulsa for Southwest Boulevard. It’s like a mile-long corridor that goes through the old part of Tulsa on the west side. It goes through an area called West Tulsa area called Red Fork. You know, I had some students and one of my first students, Weldon Bowman, who’s now a very successful architect here in town who runs W Design. At the end of that project, we had a big presentation that we gave. We were working with the Southwest Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, and the planning department, Pat Treadway, I know was there, and some of the other leaders in the community. We had a big exhibit and a big presentation that was very well received.

At the end of it, the chamber asked the students to come up, and they presented each of the students with a little plaque. That was, “we appreciate your efforts to make our community better.” And, you know, it was basically a little award for them. I remember afterward, Weldon came up to me, and he was just like, “Oh, this is so great,” right? “This is what makes it all worthwhile.” And I told him, I said, “as long as you keep that motivation, you’ll always be gratified with what you do.” Right? And the goal should be to get the plaque, not to make money or become famous. The goal is that you get that plaque, and you know you’ve made a difference with the people. I mean, that’s one incident that really, you know, sticks out in my mind. I’ve got tons of project stories, you know. How long do you have? Right?

K: Well, I like that that really stood out to you. So really a good motivation to have is the satisfaction of fulfilling someone’s needs and having them appreciate the work.

S: Right, for me, when you’re retired, and you know, you’re on your rocking chair, out on the porch, I think you’re going to remember the people. You’re not going to remember “Oh, I made X amount of dollars on that one. Oh, yeah, that’s good.” Right. You know, that doesn’t do it for me. Of course, you got to make a living. I’m not saying you just go around as an idealist, you know, like Voltaire or something. But I think that if you don’t do it for that sort of reward, if it’s all about you, it’s going to be hollow at the end.

K: Thank you. Did you have any other thoughts that you wanted to share today before we end the interview?

S: Well, you know, I’ll just say I’m very grateful to be the director of the urban design studio. I’ve enjoyed my time here and with the college, particularly all the students and faculty that I’ve worked with over the years. I think it’s a real privilege to have the position I do.

K: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you participating in this interview with me.

S: Yeah, well, sure.

K: Thanks again for listening to the Gibbs Spotlight. Tune in next time for more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture.

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