Dean Adrian Parr
Talk About It
Profile: Adrian Parr
When you first meet Dean Adrian Parr, you feel like you’ve known her your whole life. Because she is so down to earth and welcoming, you forget for a minute that you’re talking to someone has traveled to all parts of the world conducting research as the UNESCO Water and Human Settlements chair. Or someone so fluent in Italian that she spent part of her graduate studies translating Italian works of philosophy into English. Or someone who has produced several films, written three books, and was director of the TAFT Research Center at the University of Cincinnati. But only for a minute because then you begin to witness her passion for the cultural, environmental, and political activism that has drawn Parr national and international recognition. She now joins the D-FW area as the Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs (CAPPA) at the University of Texas at Arlington.
To start off, tell us a little bit about your early childhood years, and where you grew up.
My dad is a very well-known performance artist in Australia, and my aunt, whose work is displayed around my house, is also a contemporary artist. As an only child in that context, I spent a lot of time hanging out in studios. Art studios were my playroom to a certain degree. I was exposed to some incredible thinkers and art practitioners at a young age and even spent time at the Paris Art Biennale as a kid. It was an interesting childhood, and I really appreciate that I had that type of opportunity growing up.
I grew up in Sydney, where we lived in the middle of the city, but on the weekends, we would always go to the Blue Mountains. Because of that, I developed a really intimate relationship with landscape. I would spend my time getting lost in the mountains and trying to find my way back, constantly pushing those limits as a kid. I had a lot of freedom to explore my environment and context in my own terms, and that’s something that’s stuck with me to this today.
Credit: Shirley Che
What brought you to Dallas, and how did you get to UTA?
A search firm reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested in applying for the position. I didn’t really know where Arlington was at the time, but knowing it was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area sparked my interest. I had been told that the cities in Texas are political divergences within the state of Texas and thought that was a really interesting condition. I’m intrigued by the relationship between the rural, urban, and suburban, and the question of how we negotiate those spaces, and how is architecture a part of that negotiation?
Also, knowing that Teik C. Lim, Ph.D., was the provost was another reason I decided to come to UTA. I had worked alongside him before, and I have enormous respect for him. If you’re going to make a career move, you want to make sure you work for someone with similar values.
What are some strengths of the CAPPA program that you saw coming into the school? As a dean, what areas do you hope to grow, expand, or challenge?
Parallel Construction, the Design-Build studio at UTA, is a real gem. One semester, the students work together to design a low-income house, and in the second semester they physically build it. After the project is complete, families can purchase the beautifully designed home well below market rate. I want to figure out ways in which we can expand the design-build studio as well as integrate it into the curriculum as a permanent part of the program.
Also, I think Brad Bell’s materials work is extremely promising and exciting. There are some interesting alliances that can be formed between that program and the Design-Build program that are mutually beneficial. Lastly, I believe architectural theory needs to have a bigger platform and a voice. Kate Holliday is doing some amazing work with the Dillon Center, and I’m interested in ways in which the center can foster its relationship with some of its community outreach work with the Design Build program as well.
Beyond those niche pockets of research, we have really talented faculty and incredibly hardworking students, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds. I’m deeply committed to being able to democratize education, and I think given that kind of student body, there’s enormous scope for a dean to have a positive impact. We’ve started work with CityLab High School where students can start receiving college credit for architecture in high school, providing them with opportunities to lower their student debt, amongst many other benefits, when they enter college.
What do you see as your role as dean of CAPPA?
I see myself as a representative of my faculty and staff and students. I’m a representative both out into the broader university community and the city, but also nationally to represent their interests. We’re living in a time in history which is becoming increasingly more and more divisive socially and politically, and I think as a dean you have an incredible opportunity to provide platforms to bring people together and for people to be able to communicate their differences in a mutually respectful and non-threatening way. That is my principle of leadership moving forward. The question I constantly ask is, “How can I lead with empathy?”
Credit: Shirley Che
Congratulations on your invitation to curate an exhibit with CAPPA at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2020! Tell us more about that opportunity.
The European Cultural Academy holds an exhibition in conjunction with the Architecture Biennale every year, and in my capacity as UNESCO chair, they’ve asked me to curate a small section of it on Water and Human Settlements. It was originally going to be an exhibit to show the films that I’ve been producing, but I thought it would be great to do something that was more locally generated. I want to showcase some of the research that our faculty is doing in this area on water and human settlements, and then create a selective studio and application process for students who wanted to be involved. Heath May with HKS will be working with me on the exhibit as well.
For the exhibition, we will be researching the intersection of inequity, natural resources and the built environment in our region. We will be collecting data from the D-FW area, looking at all the waterways that make up this area, highlighting where the socioeconomic differences lie, mapping flood zones and then seeing how those things overlap, which we know they do. We want to understand where the most vulnerable communities are in that scenario, what’s being done about it, what are some things that could be suggested, as a result of some of those findings.
You are very clear about your priorities and what you stand for, which I’m sure at times has received opposition in our current political climate. How have you dealt with pushback throughout your career?
I have a lot of friends who have very political views, but no matter how hard that is for them that I hold a different political position, I’m even more committed to retaining a friendship. I think it’s important to lead by example. If we have a problem with social and political divisiveness, then we ourselves can’t fall prey to that. That’s the first and most important thing.
I’m also comfortable with having people voice their frustrations about my positions. For example, when it comes to discussing climate change, I have no problem responding to that. The Fourth National Climate Assessment report was just issued in November of last year, and my response to climate change is always, “I don’t believe in climate change, I trust in climate change science.” There’s a big difference between appeals to belief and appeals to trusting science and the hard empirical work that’s been peer-reviewed and done for decades.
Credit: Shirley Che
On your Twitter account, you posted an article about Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who spoke in front of the EU in Belgium about climate change and helped secure billions of dollars in funding to fight it. She inspired worldwide protests by teenagers urging politicians to unite to address global warming. What role do you think the students at CAPPA can play in D-FW with these kinds of issues?
There’s a particular amount of energy that young people can bring into play, and I’m also interested in other forms of political activism that don’t always work within the institutionalized framing of politics. What I mean by that is as we look at some of the environmental and social challenges that we are facing across the world and locally, the worst impacts are going to be happening to people that currently have no voice within the system. That includes other species, young people, and people in other countries. The impact of climate change has no borders or boundary. For example, climate change is causing sea level rise at Maldives, where islands are sinking; ice shelves are disappearing in the Arctics, where I went for my UNESCO work, and people’s homes are literally falling off into the ocean. These are other people’s realities, and we have no conception of just how hard it can be.
I’m interested in how you can provide platforms for those kinds of entities in the world to be able to have a voice and share their stories. That’s why that young girl [Thunberg] caught my attention, because I was proud of and inspired by her bravery. It doesn’t matter if you can’t go to the booths to vote; you can create change another way. It’s about tapping into people’s imaginations and exercising our own imagination, both the material and the immaterial. How do you produce these creative combinations that in turn produce other ways of living in the world?
Studying climate change and seeing firsthand how it could severely impact people’s lives around the world, how do you deal with a subject this heavy?
I think it’s pretty simple for me. First of all, having kids forces you to be present; they don’t give you any other option! But on a more serious note, yes, there are some intense things that I have had to encounter as UNESCO chair. For example, I’ve had my car hijacked. But you just have to be able to put that behind you. I’m not the victim here. I live a privileged life. If anything, I know I have to be positive and strong to keep trying to make the best contribution that I can. There’s no room for a sense of victimhood in all of that.
Credit: Shirley Che
Considering your expertise and background, you are perfectly suited to be an important contributor to the conversation about the Trinity River, hence your appointment as a member of the Design Advocacy Committee of the Trinity Park Conservancy. The Trinity River project has seen countless design iterations over the city’s history. What are your thoughts on the current design for the Harold Simmons Park, and do you think the it will ever be realized?
The biggest strengths of the design for me, coming in as a newcomer to Dallas, is firstly, it’s designed to flood. I do think that is incredibly important, because it allows us to embrace the natural forces and vicissitudes of water, rather than try to be defensive against it. Water does not subscribe to human-made boundaries.
I also want to make sure we are looking at the neighborhoods on either side of the park, understanding that the river is not a bounded entity in the sense of social impact. There is also gentrification that comes from having a beautiful park. How do we not push them out because of this incredible asset that’s now coming up into their communities? How do we ensure the communities get to stay there and enjoy this new citywide amenity? These are questions that are coming up with the Design Advocacy team and are being talked about seriously.
You write a lot about how radical interventions, in tandem with working within existing systems, can effect change for the environment. As you state, this protection for the environment is often at odds with the competitiveness of market capitalism. Are there examples of interventions in Dallas that you think are making steps forward in how we think about our city socially, environmentally and culturally?
In my New York Times interview, I speak of a “bastard solidarity.” What I meant by that was there has to be some radical interventions, but you also have to be able to work within the system. If it’s just radical, then you will always be marginalized and positioned on the outside. There’s a lot to say about working strategically and being nimble across different platforms.
For Dallas, I think about Better Block [Foundation], which is a fantastic example. Kevin Sloan’s work on rewilding the Trinity is an interesting way of thinking about the city’s relationship to unbuilt areas. I think the Trinity River Conservancy’s work with the Harold Simmons Park serves as a sort of mediating space. It’s not wilderness, it’s not built up, but it’s the thoughtful negotiation between the two — while honoring both the communities on either side — that’s so important.
Interview conducted by Carolyn Mulligan, AIA, an associate at Corgan. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.