One Sweet Ride
When a professor retires from Taubman College, a writer is hired to create a retirement profile that will appear in Portico. With his reputation for "writing the best faculty meeting minutes ever, whether or not he attended," his self-deprecating sense of humor, and masterful command of understatement, it was thought that we could do no better than to let Turner tell his own story.
I never intended to be an architect or a professor. My father painted houses for a living and I worked with him from age 10. By 12 I was painting ceilings with a 6 inch brush from a wooden stepladder. I was being taught the family business. My father wanted to name me Hartwell Dexter Turner after two streets in Detroit. He figured that such a regal name would surely benefit me. I suspect that "Hartwell Dexter House Painting" was what he was thinking. Some of my friends still call me Hartwell.
A dubious academic beginning
My academic record took a beating from the start. My fifth grade homeroom teacher wrote on my final report card, "Jimmy is a leader, but he tends to lead in the wrong direction."
I seldom thought about college until my senior year in high school. I had a knack for math and physics and enrolled in advanced classes in both. My math teacher was from Columbia University and created her own experimental curriculum for our class. We developed a new number system with its own operators and data types. Rules governed every operation and addition and subtraction and other operators were carefully defined. We built it using a notation I hadn't seen before. I was in heaven and did very well. That success had an influence on my other courses. I became a member of the National Honor Society. This surprised my literature teacher to the point that she would not excuse me for the NHS group photo. I was doing well in her class but she was sure the con was on. It took a visit from the principal to pry me loose. I think she asked him to see my transcript. She never apologized and I think she still thinks I took advantage of her.
Although there were many non-believers, I was awarded the math and art medals at graduation and my counselor suggested math, engineering, architecture, or art as careers. I was accepted to Michigan's engineering and architecture schools and eventually chose engineering. That was a mistake and I eventually found a home in Architecture & Design, although I could not name a single architect other than my high school drafting teacher. My greatest accomplishment in his class was a detailed section of a Briggs and Stratton four-cycle gasoline engine.
At first I was not a good student preferring to practice guitar or ride my bike rather than attend design studio. As a reward for this behavior, I was asked to stay home for the entire 1968-1969 school year and "Further Enrollment Withheld" was stamped on my transcript. My permanent record was tainted.
I partially blame the housing office for my situation because I was assigned a room in a new, unfinished dormitory on North Campus called Bursley Hall. The dormitory was very modern compared to East Quad where I had spent my first two years. Its location among the trees and hills of North Campus and its recreation room filled with ping-pong and pool tables added to its vacation-like appeal. We would often sled down the hill from the Commons to the Veteran's Administration Hospital and, if there was no traffic, a little push would propel us to the river. This sled run is where the Art & Architecture Building sits today.
Finding my niche
I returned to school and enrolled in a computer programming course. It was a new class and a new requirement for graduation. Professor Harold Borkin was the instructor. I had trouble programming for the first half of the term and no resources were available. In 1969 there were no shelves of computer books at the local bookstore and Ulrich's had only one or two programming books located in its math section. Eventually I learned to program and in the fall of 1970 I became a teaching assistant. Harold advised me to help anyone who needed computing assistance, including faculty, all architecture and art students, doctoral students, and anyone else on campus.
I graduated in the spring of 1973 and despite the handicap of my pedestrian nom-de-plume; I began looking for a job. On weekends I delivered pizzas for my sister's pizzeria. I had squeezed six years of required coursework into eight years of school. That alone should have impressed potential employers. On my first interview, I was asked if using computers would allow a firm to make better buildings, design buildings faster, and make buildings cheaper. I had no clever or pragmatic response.
I was hired by the college to write a user manual for a computer graphics program that Harold had been writing. When the job was completed I left town; returning a month later with no money, no job, and plenty of pizzas to deliver. I was surprised to find another paycheck waiting for me. I tried to give the money back but neither Harold nor Bob Metcalf – who was now the dean – knew how to accomplish that. I was eventually hired permanently and after a few years and a few sponsored research projects, I was hired as a research scientist and one day Harold asked if I wanted to officially be an instructor. I said that I did. The checks kept coming and I stopped trying to return them.
My first programming project was to improve 3D modeling tools in our graphics program. There was no AutoCAD or Rhino, or any relevant literature and almost nothing on computer graphics programming. My charge was to add the ability to add, subtract and intersect 3D models. It took nine months to implement a similar 2D algorithm and three years for the 3D version. I spent many years debugging them, and I still have a list of changes I would like to make. I continued to write application programs and the "research lab" began to attract large sponsored CAD research projects. I worked every day and never considered it to be a real job. If I had trouble with an algorithm I would ride my bike along Huron River Drive to Dexter to clear my head. I solved many tough problems while pedaling. It was a wonderful time.
There were few universities writing architectural related software in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Our doctoral program provided student programmers and a few faculty learned to program. We were inventing and implementing programs that, in some cases, are still advanced today. The research staff included Harold Borkin, Robert Johnson, Ted Hall, P. Lynn Borema, John McIntosh, and Patricia McIntosh. We delivered papers at ACADIA, ACSA, Siggraph and attended conferences and committee meetings all over the world. Our first CAD doctoral student entered the program in 1968. My last doctoral student graduated in 2005.
Accomplishments that I consider significant are: As initiator of a pair of CAD Fundamentals courses; the revision of the sequence of computer programming courses by adding a third and fourth course in 2D and 3D computer aided design programming sequence; as investigator or co-investigator for many large sponsored research projects from Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, Gilbert Commonwealth, Townsend and Bottum, Southeastern Michigan Council of Governors, the U.S. Navy, and others from 1975-1992; as an active member of the IGES/PDES/STEP international committee convened for the purpose of defining a neutral file format for the exchange of product design, analysis and fabrication, and the precursor to Building Information Modeling; as an active member of ACADIA and receiving its lifetime achievement teaching award; as a member of the college's curriculum committee for many years; and as secretary of the Architecture Program and College; as developer of many computer applications such as ArchModel, GEDIT, Acoustic2D, Acoustic 3D, and various prototypes: Syntax2D, Graph2D; and serving as member of over 30 doctoral dissertation committees; and as developer of many function libraries to manipulate geometries.
What I taught over the stretch of my career coincided nicely with what was or was not available commercially. From 1970-1982, there were few 2D drafting programs and no 3D modeling, visualization or animation programs available, so we wrote our own and made them available to students. During that period I taught Fortran to all students whether they wanted to learn it or not. From 1982 to 1990, AutoCAD was available but we decided to continue to develop and teach our software. From 1992 to 2006 there were many good programs available and we changed our CAD courses to use commercial programs. Recently, the Architecture Program decided to reduce the teaching of computer drafting and to concentrate on non-programming computing topics such as machine generation of 3D models. My courses were recently removed from the catalog.
How many mentors does it take to create a professor?
When my responsibilities increased (initially Harold advised me to not attend faculty meetings) I turned to my professors for advice.
Professor Norm Barnett and I have met at least once a week since 1997 when he convinced me to spend my sabbatical developing interactive architectural acoustic teaching applications. Norm is a scientist and was my acoustics instructor. Together, we created two exceptional acoustic programs. I still enjoy his stories about French horns and fencing.
Professor Henry Kowalewski and I worked on the College Rules together. The experience was somewhere between no fun and dull pain. I cried when he told me that the young architects in his office had painted his original George Nelson "ball clock" to match the color of the walls. I still get teary-eyed when I think about that poor clock. Hank was my lighting instructor, and he wrote the best exams.
When I became a full professor I decided to help Professor Bill Werner teach structures. During my second year of trying to explain "SFx = SFy = SFz = 0," a group from my recitation section came to my office and told me that I should not assume architecture undergraduates know the meaning of "SIN f." I told them I did expect such knowledge since a course in calculus was required for admission and before tackling calculus you must first understand trigonometry. It was downhill from there and I never taught structures again. I came to Bill whenever I had a problem with students or problems with the administration. The latter seemed to be status quo for me so I visited him often. Bill was my structures instructor and I served with him on the undergraduate admissions committee for almost a decade.
I worked for Professor Joe Lee on the first transformation of buildings next to the farmer's market into what eventually became Kerrytown. Joe was my studio instructor. He taught me to find value in the quality of objects. He often used a simple watchband as an example of the beauty of successful intersection of economy, craftsmanship, and simplicity.
Professors John Nystuen, Mitch Rycus, and Jim Snyder showed me that planning faculty and architecture faculty can work together. I provided maps, GIS software, and digitized maps to John, Jim and Mitch for use on sponsored research projects. This was before GIS software was widely available. For three summers I attended weeklong workshops in computer mapping at Harvard and was a digitizing and mapping consultant to SEMCOG, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and the Michigan Department of State for many years.
Professor Kingsbury Marzolf taught the courses I enjoyed most. He was engaging and humorous and presented some pretty dull material in a way that kept my interest. I think King has been a doctoral student at MSU for over 40 years. I still watch his video when it shows on late night television; I think it's called: "Kingsbury Marzolf; the Beret Years." King was my history of architecture instructor. King was the first person I poked fun at when I became college secretary and was responsible for creating the faculty meeting minutes.
Professor Al Feldt and I were members of a small jazz band for about 10 years. He played piano and I played saxophone. Not exactly a mentoring experience but I mention it because it was such an enjoyable time.
Today, an instructor changes a grade by logging on a web site and entering a few keystrokes, but back in the early 1980s, a grade change was made on a paper form and submitted to the Registrar's Office in the LSA Building. There, a recorder had to manually remove the old grade from the student's Mylar transcript and write in the new grade. It was very time consuming. I had no idea that grades were compiled and stored that way. In my large lecture class I typically gave 20–30 incompletes, but one term I gave grades of "C-" instead of "I." If assignments were finished I would submit a new grade, and if not, I would let the grade stand. I gave almost 50 C- grades one term and about the same the following year.
Beverly Brockman worked in the Registrar's Office and was responsible for architecture grade changes, and all the extra work I created was her responsibility. In December 1986, she was hired as our College recorder. A few minutes before we were formally introduced, she was warned that I was responsible for all those manual grade changes. Beverly also tells a story about calling me when she was still at the LSA Building to ask about an art student's grade for one of my courses. When she was told that I was in the "lab" she pictured a medical laboratory with the staff all wearing white lab coats. According to her I was rude.
In April 2000, Beverly and I were married in the lobby on the first floor near Slusser Gallery. The Mayor of Ann Arbor presided over the ceremony and we provided cupcakes from the Dexter Bakery. And, yes, Beverly asked me. On February 29, 2000 she baked a cake and wrote in icing, "Will you marry me?" I knew it was coming and had to sell two baritone saxophones in order to purchase an engagement ring.
Beverly made sure no one missed her engagement ring, flashing it unsubtly at any woman within striking distance. It was the most aggressive she has ever been. She showed it to Peter Noonan the lead singer of Herman's Hermits ("I'm Henry the 8th, I Am") whom we saw in a sleazy lounge in a Windsor casino; I'm sure he was devastated. It was a beautiful, two saxophone ring; very rare.
Beverly and I retired on May 31, 2009.