Alum Stories: English & Integrative Design

BA alumnus and urban designer Bob Close finds the English skill set--reading, comprehension, synthesis, invention, and written presentation--essential for the challenges of the 21st century.

Bob Close
In September of 2011, after founding and running Close Landscape Architecture+ here in the Twin Cities for 35 years, Bob Close (BA 1969) took a leap into the unknown: He shuttered his nine-person office and accepted a job with AECOM, a global company of some 46,000 employees. AECOM provides professional expertise for building, natural resource, and social projects, with branches in energy and environment, government and transportation, design and construction.

Close is director of landscape architecture for the U. S. Midwest region--which in practical terms means he's helping to design city projects in, say, Saudi Arabia with AECOM architects, engineers, economists, and urban designers. "I really like AECOM's mission," Close remarks in an interview at his office in the LaSalle Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, "to bring together what they can to solve the world's complex problems."

When the offer came, Close was already pondering a new start. "Design is more and more an integrative process," he explains. "What I had been thinking about doing was totally restructuring my practice--not being a room full of landscape architects. Having a few landscape architects, architects, a private developer, having an economist, an environmentalist, an ecologist, an engineer. We did a project like that for the Central Corridor at the West Bank, had all those people around the table, and it was really fun."

These days the table is virtual as often as it is not: "Really, within the [AECOM] network is anything you need," Close notes. "Here in Minneapolis I might need somebody from New York or somebody from Australia. But we have the technologies here--the smart board, the web access--so that you can have a drawing up and in Jakarta they can see you."

This English major didn't intend to end up in urban design. Close's father Winston, who died in 1997, served as University of Minnesota advisory architect and professor; his mother, Elisabeth Scheu Close, who died in 2011, was the first female licensed architect in Minnesota and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University in 2003. The two met as graduate students at MIT, where Austrian native Scheu also received her BA, and started their own architecture firm (and marriage) in Close's hometown, Minneapolis, in 1938.

Close Associates, Inc., was known for Modern residential design, although the Closes also designed Ferguson Hall on the U campus. According to Bob, architecture was such a consuming topic at the home dinner table that all three Close children deliberately turned away from the practice in college. "We didn't want to take over the business," he remembers with a smile. "Back then, that's the last thing you wanted to do."

After he graduated with a double major in English and Studio Art in 1969, Close traveled and worked with no definite aim. And then, when he was living on a farm near Cannon Falls, an offer fell in his lap. "One day," Close describes with amusement, "a guy who I'd never seen in my life knocked on my door--he knew who I was. And he asked me if I'd like to assist him. He was a landscape architect and a city planner; he had a one-man shop in Farmington. And he lived about a mile down the road. Charlie Tooker, his name was. I worked for him part-time for a couple years, and then he just looked me in the eye and said, 'You're wasting your time; you need to go back to school.'"

And so Close came back to architectural design, "through the back door, basically," he says with a laugh. With a growing family, he decided to stay in Minnesota and earn a BA in Landscape Architecture at the U. He began working for one of his teachers while a student, took on teaching design studios after graduation, and shortly after, as he describes, "I just hung out my shingle and thought, 'We'll just see how it goes.'" It went, slowly at first, but before the recession Close Landscape Architecture+ was gainfully employing 15 people. In 2007 he was elected to the Council of Fellows of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Close served five terms as an adviser to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council on its Livable Communities Advisory Committee. And he has been active in the Urban Land Institute Minnesota District Council.

As an undergraduate, Close was transfixed and challenged by his classes, ranging from astrology to meteorology, Shakespeare to studio arts. "I talked to a lot of people, including my parents, and everybody encouraged me to get a liberal arts degree," he recalls. "They said, 'You will learn more about more things than you can possibly imagine; you'll get a fabulous foundation for wherever you end up.' And that was absolutely right."

There's a bit of an edge to Close's tone: he's well aware that popular media, during the recent recession, have taken to critiquing the usefulness--and price tag--of any post-secondary study that doesn't directly prepare one for a high-need occupation. "As a student I read a lot of stuff I would have never read," he goes on. "I learned how to present, how to capture my ideas in words. Comprehension when reading; synthesizing information, and being able to distill it. I still love words. To me, that's what oftentimes architects are lacking--they can't express themselves as well as they might, certainly not in the written word.

"Communication is critical with a client," he stresses. "You want to be sure that they know that you heard them. And you give it back to them: you say, 'Here's where it's led me, it's led me to these thoughts, and that translates into these ideas for you.' Because design is such an iterative process, it's extremely beneficial to hear well and translate what you hear. That's the best way to build trust with a client and to build an idea."

With his focus on process and communication, and his engaging, friendly manner, one suspects that Bob Close would've been an excellent teacher. And, indeed, he did teach urban design and architecture studios at the U for nine years and interdisciplinary design studios at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for three. Not coincidentally, one of his favorite instructors in English was Professor Emerita Toni McNaron, a pioneering proponent of the more democratically organized classroom who was at the same time as rigorous as any old guard. "I really liked her classes in particular, just because of the intensity," Close reveals. "She was extraordinarily demanding. Out of fear if nothing else, you read, you thought, you interpreted. She was never easy on students, but she squeezed the very best out of them."

Close participated in the 1996 Twin Cities Campus Master Plan for the U, once again returning to his, and his dad's, stomping grounds. He has been tickled to watch many of their recommendations come to fruition, including light rail down Washington Avenue. "Yeah, the '96 master plan was all about livability and blurring the lines between town and gown," he says. "And you can see it: it's transformed in many ways. I see good food in Coffman Union--I see people cooking there. You don't have to go to the Campus Club to get a decent meal. I see the Scholars Walk and see connectivity being paid attention to. The influx of some interesting architecture. Land care, their landscape arm, is doing a fabulous job. To me, the University is paying attention to the fact that it can be a more beautiful place."

Once again, an integrated approach to a complicated problem, one that necessitates skills in listening and reading, comprehension, synthesis, invention, and written presentation. Skills for the challenges of the 21st century that the study of English provides in full. "English was a logical place to be, and I got a lot of encouragement to pursue it," Close declares. "I'm glad I did."

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on November 3, 2012 12:25 PM.

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