Robert Geddes, the School of Architecture’s first dean and ‘gatekeeper to architecture’ for generations of students, dies at 99
Robert Geddes, the first dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture, the William R. Kenen Jr. Professor of Architecture, Emeritus, renowned urbanist and innovative educator, died of natural causes on Feb. 13 at his home outside Princeton. He was 99.
Geddes was a professor of architecture and civic design at the University of Pennsylvania when Princeton’s then-President Robert Goheen invited him to formally establish a School of Architecture at the University in 1965. Princeton’s architecture program had been housed in the Department of Art and Archaeology.
“Under his leadership over the next 17 years, the School of Architecture emerged as a major center for the exchange of architectural ideas by forging close ties between design and other disciplines,” said Mónica Ponce de León, the dean of the School of Architecture and professor of architectural design. “He elevated architecture’s standing in the humanities by bringing to the school figures such as Alan Colquhoun, Anthony Vidler, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman and Robert Maxwell at a time when the teaching of history and theory were disfavored in architectural education. His model for architectural education persists in most architecture schools today.”
Geddes was a pioneer in forging deep connections between architecture and the humanities, social sciences, public affairs and urban design. He always focused on the social basis of design — for buildings, landscapes and cities.
“Bob Geddes was a practicing architect, an urbanist, a thoughtful writer and an influential educator,” said Stan Allen, the George Dutton '27 Professor of Architecture and a former dean of the School of Architecture. “For Bob, architecture was always enmeshed in a complex web of social, political and ecological relationships. I recently re-read his 1982 article ‘The Forest Edge.’ More than 40 years ago, Geddes was already speaking to the need to integrate architecture, ecology and landscape. At a time when questions of climate change have made these issues more urgent, Geddes’ legacy is more important than ever.”
Lance Jay Brown, an assistant professor of architecture from 1967 to 1972, witnessed the impact Geddes had on the school and its students during those years of turbulence in America. “Bob's leadership excelled, under dynamic and critical circumstances, in nourishing both our student and faculty communities,” Brown said. “All this he did while guiding the school towards a more fulsome and holistic approach to architecture and the architectural profession.”
"By inviting from the outset promising young architects — both designers as well as some of the most important architectural critics and historians — Bob established the intellectual atmosphere that still defines the identity of our school," said Mario Gandelsonas, the Class of 1913 Lecturer in Architecture, professor of the School of Architecture and director of the Program in Urban Studies. A 50-year friendship began when Geddes hired Gandelsonas' wife and architectural partner Diana Agrest as the first woman faculty member of the School of Architecture in 1973. Gandelsonas joined the Princeton faculty in the late 1980s and when he was asked to step in as an acting dean 10 years later, he remembers, “Bob became a innvaluable adviser with his deep knowledge of the University administration."
Geddes was born on Dec. 7, 1923, in Philadelphia. He began his undergraduate studies at the University of California-Berkeley in 1941 but transferred to Yale after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to be closer to home. His time at Yale was interrupted by three years of military service; he met his wife, Evelyn, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, while teaching radar operations in Madison. After returning from military service, he attended Yale for four semesters but did not earn an undergraduate degree. He earned his bachelor’s of architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design in 1950, which was later designated as a master’s degree.
Geddes made one of his most significant contributions to architectural education in 1967, co-authoring what became known as the Princeton Report for the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The report advocated that architecture students first complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program followed by a two-year master’s program, allowing more time for liberal arts. This model galvanized cross-disciplinary connections and displaced the prevailing trend of a five-year joint bachelor’s/master’s program that existed at many architecture schools in the U.S.
In 1982, he stepped down from his role as dean but continued at Princeton until his transferred to emeritus status in 1989. In 1984, Geddes received the Topaz Medallion for excellence in architectural education, the highest award given to a North American academician by the AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. In 1990, he was appointed the Henry Luce Professor of Architecture, Urbanism and History at New York University.
He co-founded a collaborative practice, Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham: Architects (GBQC), in Philadelphia and Princeton, in 1953, which continuously won national and international competitions. The firm also designed several buildings at universities in the United States, and in the Princeton area designed the dining hall quad and social sciences building at the Institute for Advanced Study; Princeton Community Housing’s Griggs Farm neighborhood; and Architects Housing Company, a home for seniors, in Trenton.
As an urbanist, Geddes was a consultant for the Center City Plan of Philadelphia (1988) and the Third Regional Plan of New York (1996), among many other projects. The GBQC master plan for Liberty State Park was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979, the first show it ever mounted on urban design. In 2001, he joined Goheen and others to create Princeton Future, a civic association to revitalize the downtown.
Many of his undergraduate and graduate students went on to prestigious posts in the academy and in the field.
“Few people have a transformative impact on your life. This is what Bob Geddes did for me,” said Harrison Fraker, the William Wurster Dean Emeritus of the College of Environmental Design at UC-Berkeley, and a 1962 undergraduate alumnus and 1964 graduate alumnus. Geddes launched Fraker’s career, hiring him to join GBQC in 1966, then hiring him to teach at Princeton in 1968.
“Bob’s advice was simple — find a way in which you think you can make a real difference in how we understand and make more meaningful architecture. Then make it manifest in your practice, teaching, research and writing,” said Fraker, who, prior to Berkeley, was the founding dean of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota.
Stefanos Polyzoides, the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Dean of the School of Architecture and professor of architecture at The University of Notre Dame, also got his start at GBQC. “Geddes was one of the kindest and most generous human beings that I have ever come across,” said Polyzoides, a 1969 undergraduate alumnus and 1972 graduate alumnus who came to Princeton from Greece. “He extended to me the unique gift of feeling welcome in this country. He was a quiet, powerful catalyst for good.”
He said Geddes encouraged wide-ranging debate about ways to move beyond “a normative modernism argued on aesthetic grounds alone,” which he felt intuitively was going to eventually fail. “It is not surprising that many faculty members and students at the school during and after his tenure as dean ended up being protagonists in a variety of movements: post-modernism, deconstructivism, and new traditional architecture and urbanism.”
Sarah Whiting, who earned her master's in 1990, is the dean of Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture. One of her favorite Princeton memories took place in a design studio Geddes taught. They were designing a small hotel in Philadelphia; the first assignment focused on the context and issues surrounding the site. Geddes divided the class into three teams.
She was on the “Red” team, which presented its analysis in rap. “Admittedly, we hoped we might be pushing the buttons of our instructor, who was, after all, ‘already’ 65,” Whiting said. “Much to our surprise, he loved our presentation, and the rest of the semester we each benefited from his precise and constructive instruction. We discovered what had, I think, underpinned his remarkable tenure as dean: In his patient, bemused and clear way, he gave running room to us all.”
In addition to his graduate seminars, Geddes was famous for his undergraduate course, Architecture 101, "Buildings, Landscapes and Cities," which he created and taught for 25 years. Karen Stein, a member of the class of 1984 and an architecture writer, grew up in Princeton and obtained permission to audit Geddes' 101 course when she was a senior at Princeton High School. She distinctly recalls the first day, when Geddes walked in and placed a Rietveld chair on the table in front of him.
“I remember his signature bow tie, round-framed glasses — which, I learned later, were a nod to every architect’s architect of the era, Le Corbusier — and broad smile,” she said. “The audacity of the red, yellow, blue and black chair and then Bob’s verbal dissection of it as a symbol of modern architecture — what it said about space and form. I was smitten.”
That experience convinced her to apply to Princeton, and the following year she was back in Peyton Hall, taking the course again, this time for credit. “He was the first gatekeeper to the world of architecture that I encountered, and his personal warmth and sheer enthusiasm for what architecture is and could be opened a whole world to me,” she said.
In 2012, Geddes wrote “Fit: An Architect’s Manifesto” (Princeton University Press), which argues that buildings, landscapes and cities should be designed to fit: fit the purpose, fit the place, fit future possibilities.
In 2018, he was awarded an honorary degree from Princeton. In 2019, the School of Architecture introduced The Robert and Evelyn Geddes Award, given on Class Day and bestowed to the graduate student in the Post-Professional Master of Architecture program whose record combines outstanding work in design and the best academic average.
Geddes was the recipient of dozens of honors and awards, including the inaugural United Nations/Consortium of Sustainable Urbanization Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, honoring his work that has influenced how cities are planned, designed and managed. He was a fellow of the AIA and the National Academy of Design, and a member of the Society of Architectural Historians.
He is survived by his son, David Geddes; his daughter, Ann Geddes; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. Geddes’ wife of 73 years, Evelyn, died in 2020.
Donations may be made to the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture online (select “Areas of Greatest Need” and mark “In memory of Robert Geddes” in the “Additional Information Field”).
View or share comments on a blog intended to honor Geddes’ life and legacy.