Remembrances of Delbert Highlands

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On Saturday, March 2, 2024, friends, colleagues and students of Professor Highlands gathered in the College of Fine Arts to share their memories of him. 

Following the passing of Professor Delbert Highlands this past July, Carnegie Mellon Architecture presents a collection of remembrances of Professor Highlands from members of the Delbert Highlands Travel Fellowship committee and Steve Lee, former School Head.

Professor Highlands was a school alum, earning his master’s in architecture from Carnegie Mellon University, and faculty member for many years, retiring in 2000 as Professor Emeritus. Professor Highlands served as head of the Department of Architecture (now School of Architecture) from 1969-1975. A native of Pittsburgh, he was self-employed as an architect.

To say Delbert’s teaching was challenging and at the same time confounding barely touches the truth. It remains a singular accomplishment in the pedagogy of our field.
— Doug Cooper, Andrew Mellon Professor of Architecture

Delbert Highlands had just stepped down as Department Head when I began teaching at CMU in the fall of 1976. He was still teaching the 1st year course “Introduction to Architecture,” a course that he had initiated in 1968 as an alternative to the Basic Design courses that had been prevalent in architecture schools since the end of World War II. The course was focused on the proto-acts of architecture: “walling,” “flooring” and “roofing.” I remember students in those years puzzling over what constituted “wallness,” “floorness,” “insideness,” etc. To say Delbert’s teaching was challenging and at the same time confounding barely touches the truth. It remains a singular accomplishment in the pedagogy of our field.

Delbert was loved by students and hated by students. To this day, I feel a deep ambivalence about the man, but I honor the fact that to this day he has remained a living positive force in the careers of so many of his former students. In 2002, shortly after his retirement, I along with others organized a “roast” for Delbert. During the late 1970s to 1980s, there had been a tradition of “follies” every spring in which students would portray their lives as students in biting and often hilarious ways. The “roast” was a reprise of the best of those follies. Dan Garber served as MC in a kilt, Gregory Knoop brought Walter Boykowycz back to life, and Tim Nissen embodied Delbert’s enigmatic persona. There could have been no greater tribute to Delbert’s impact on his former students than the fact that students from all over the world returned to honor him at that event.

Doug Cooper
Andrew Mellon Professor of Architecture
School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University

Delbert Highlands taught the “Introduction to Architecture 101” course in the second floor chemistry theater of Doherty Hall when I attended in the fall of 1975. A demonstration lab table occupied the center of the room as an altar does in a church. In front of the table were the approximately 120 freshly arrived architecture students. The double doors suddenly swung open, dragging a white cloud of smoke, from which appeared a forehead that rose high and terminated at a line of black hair slicked straight back, forming a pronounced widow's peak. The head bowed. The right hand held a cigarette. The left hand held a dark blue three ring binder. After a brief pause as the smoke dispersed, the cigarette was dropped to the floor and stomped out under the right shoe. In light brown khaki pants and a light blue, button-down oxford, the man quickly moved behind the center table. The binder was opened and laid flat and inspected. Perhaps to recall the day’s lesson? Moments passed. We were still, expectant. And then, head slowly raising, he looked at us for the first time. “Good afternoon.” This was Highlands.

He repeated this performance nearly exactly every day of the week throughout the semester. The only difference between that first day and the rest of the semester was that rather than “Good afternoon,” he started with “What have you learned?” Then he waited for us. A hand would eventually be raised and a thought haltingly shared. The response was a head nod and then, turning his back to us, a word or two written on the blackboard that would sublimate the comment into a succinct synopsis until the blackboards were filled a couple of hours later. It didn’t feel like he uttered more than 20 or 30 words during the entire class. Sometimes we’d get a cryptic synopsis of the lesson at the end, but not always. When we did, it was usually short and left us wondering what was meant by it.

“What have you learned?” became the hill to climb, the river Styx we had to cross to enter the world of Highlands. The passage wasn’t an easy one. Many of us struggled with the crossing. It contained precious few signposts. We each had to find our own way.

There were moments, however. Moments when the curtain was cracked briefly, and we were given a glimmer of the structure that the daily lessons were hung on. We were introduced to how need and use were irrevocably tied to each other. How one begat the other: a causal relationship. We learned that the qualities of the object informed us of its use and why it was needed. When it began to dawn on us that architecture in its parts and its whole can be understood in a similar way, those moments were typically marked by the interjection “Ah-ha;” a moment of enlightenment.

These moments did not come easily, nor all at once. Sometimes they didn’t come at all. Although often accused of it, it was not that Highlands didn’t care about the confusion he generated. When I TA’ed for him after I graduated, we reviewed a lesson that had been handed in early in the semester and I'll be damned if he didn’t know the author of each of the submissions. I was gob smacked.

The man did care – a lot. While always serious during class, he loved the performance of his teaching. If we were lucky, we got to see moments when he shared the joy of his labor with broad, generous and lasting smiles with crows-feet crinkling the corners of his eyes, tremendous wide-eyed guffaws and doubled over laughs.

In the introduction class, enlightenment slipped away if you looked for it. Highlands could have stated more plainly what he wanted from us. But he didn’t. He wasn’t a “Starchitect” reaching for the limelight and the cover of magazines. He had no long list of published works or books. He seemed happy to teach. His legacy wasn’t his work or publications, rather it was his students. By compelling our curiosity and encouraging us to continually form, test and refine our own seeing, Highlands offered us a wondrous experience. I am grateful for Delbert not because I see the world as he did but because he gave me the opportunity and confidence to find and build my own. While I lament his passing, I celebrate his teaching – and my learning.

Dan Garber, FAIA, B.Arch ‘79
practicing architect 

I had the unusual experience of having Delbert as an instructor and, much later, of teaching with him in the design studios. The student experience was very good but limited: a one semester elective he offered briefly in the 1970s. It was a seminar designed to explore the impact that words can have on our appreciation of settings. We discussed works of fiction with vivid descriptions of place, and it was quite a break from studio, and every other course in architecture, and it left us hungry for more.

My opportunity for more came by chance; a one semester appointment as an adjunct studio instructor, pretty common for young practitioners. This led to another and another until it stretched for many years, fueled in part by a desire to continue to work with Delbert. I was assigned to the 3rd year studios where he taught and served as Coordinator. His goals were carefully aligned with the rest of the design sequence, and we kept to those goals, though each studio was encouraged to develop its own emphasis. He had us serve as regular rotating critics across the studios, and as contributors to the weekly lectures, and there developed a sense of shared purpose that was very gratifying.

That's all pretty normal to the competent management of studios. But then there were his methods, and they were beyond competent, and I think we all tried to learn from them. His studio problems were keyed to the subject matter, but they were also designed to nurture a kind of thinking, and a commitment to an iterative and investigative process, which offered a much wider value. His choice of project type was often unconventional, and that contributed to the freshness of his studios. But it was his daily interactions with students that were most striking. After providing some general guidance, Delbert didn't tell students what to do. Instead, his method was to artfully point out this or that aspect of their work that would benefit from more consideration. He would offer comments through allegorical references that sometimes left students puzzled but thinking, as these comments always proved to be on point, and he would consistently encourage students’ structured consideration of alternatives. He would answer questions directly when needed, but he much preferred to pose questions that were useful to their point in the design process. To their delight, many students found that they were carrying the development of their projects farther than they’d ever expected, and you could watch their enthusiasm grow as the semester progressed.

It didn't work for everyone. Some thought he was unnecessarily obscure. But many thrived, and many who had struggled in earlier semesters found their footing in his studio, becoming engrossed in their work in ways that would carry into the future.

I’ve always thought that from a single one-semester studio, somewhat buried at the midpoint of a five-year curriculum, he was instrumental in setting the course for some very fine careers, and that’s really something. 

Sheldon Goettel, B.Arch ‘79
retired practitioner 

“√–” Say what? As a 1st-year student in Delbert’s studio in 1971 I had never seen a grade like that in K-12, but I inherently knew that I had not quite understood the prompt. Thus began my 40-year relationship with an inspiring, imposing and intense professor, colleague and mentor. I continued to miss the point during my 1st year to the extent that I sheepishly asked for a meeting with Delbert to see if I was cut out to be an architect. His response, “I didn’t fail you, did I?”

Fast forward a few years. I had gotten registered on my first try, co-founded TAI+LEE, Architects PC, started teaching as an adjunct studio professor and eventually became a full-time instructor. First assignment? – Coordinate the 3rd year studio. Who was included on the teaching team? – Delbert. You have got to be kidding me! I still had nightmares about 1st year studio and now I had to deliver 12 lectures to the studio in front of him? The perceived challenge made me strive to make the best 12 lectures anyone had ever seen.

Fast forward a few more years. I was now department head. Should I manage the school as Delbert had during his headship? Should I emulate one of the intervening heads that served between 1975 through 2008? Should I find a new model? What I soon realized was that what I had learned from Delbert as a student and in my interactions with him as a colleague was – find my own path.

Upon reflection, I now understand that Delbert’s approach – not telling us what to do but instead, posing thought provoking questions and challenging us to investigate on our own – was akin to the proverb of teaching one to fish rather than giving fish. He taught me to question the question, to comprehend the people with whom I was working, to understand the place in which I was situated and to articulate the intentions of the endeavor.

Since Delbert was one of the most impactful individuals in my career, I can only hope that his lessons have enabled me to have an impact on the students and colleagues with whom I have had the pleasure to interact during my long Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture career.

Steve Lee, AIA, LEED AP
Professor and former School Head
School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University

I was fortunate to be able to take a number of classes taught by Delbert Highlands and also attend a summer abroad program with him in Turkey in 1996. His classes focusing on the history of architecture were inspiring, engaging and challenging. Although Professor Highlands expected simplicity and directness from his students, his lectures were layered and complex. He would set the stage, provide glimpses of the relevant historic context, and let students make the connections. He had an endless archive of black and white overhead transparencies; some of those images are still etched onto my mind today.

Spending every day with him for two months during the summer abroad program in Turkey provided me with a better understanding of Professor Highlands as a person. Although some perceived him to be stern and uncompromising in the lecture hall, he was warm and friendly in person during this travel setting. When a student got sick, he attended to them, found medicine, and followed up to make sure that they were feeling better. When other issues arose, he would step forward, stay involved, and make sure that everyone was doing well. In short, he cared. He cared not only about adhering to high academic standards, but also about the people he was teaching.

When I was selected as the first recipient of the Delbert Highlands Travel Fellowship, it was a special moment and a unique opportunity to utilize the knowledge from the Highlands lectures. Many years later, I am fortunate to be part of the selection committee for this award, which encourages applicants to “study collections belonging to locales,” in keeping with Professor Highlands’ thinking. As we review the proposals for this award, I inevitably ask myself: “What would Delbert think?” We may think that we know the answer to that question, but we never will. And that is how Delbert would have preferred it.

Can Tiryaki, B. Arch. ‘98
practitioner and 2010 awardee of the Delbert Highlands Travel Fellowship