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2007 Distinguished Teaching Professor: Gerald Larson

If you call Jerry Larson a “turkey,” he’s thrilled. If you call him “sir,” he sighs. Both those attitudes stem from his globe-trotting teaching style.

Date: 3/28/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover

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“Stealth students” – fast, imperceptible and observant.

Jerry Larson

That’s the learning goal Jerry Larson has in mind when leading his students on national – and global – tours as part of architectural “road trips” throughout the United States and Europe. He trains his students like commandos: Get in fast… and get out even faster. All while securing the design-oriented photos so prized at the top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Larson, an associate professor of architecture and just named the university’s 2007 Distinguished Teaching Professor, explains, “Some of the famous buildings where we might stop will have security personnel who are very much not keen on allowing photos within the structure. It’s a skill to get in and get out before security grabs you or, more importantly, grabs your camera.”

Larson recalls when he himself was taking a few design-oriented photos inside the First National Bank of Chicago: “I was on my way out headed for the door when, from behind, I hear an emphatic, “Sir!” I knew I was busted.”

And that’s why Larson so dislikes hearing himself referred to as “sir.” It’s never good news.

And why does he so like hearing himself described as a “turkey?” For instance when Larson alumna Lyn Eisenhauer, senior vice president of VOA Associates, Inc., in Chicago, explains, “Jerry Larson… what can I say? He’s a TURKEY!! Many of his former students call him this as a compliment [he’s earned] over many decades.”

Jerry Larson and students
Jerry Larson with his students in an architecture studio.

The nickname, carried over from Larson’s own college days into his teacher career, is a  compliment to his supportive relationships with and dedication to students. And it’s a nickname that’s taken on a life of its own – as evidenced by the fact that Larson-led architectural field trips came to be known as “Turkey Tours.”  Recollects Eisenhauer, “In 1976, in the midst of my most academically challenging quarter of school, I suggested a field trip to Chicago to break things up a bit. Hence were born the ‘Turkey Tours.’”

Larson led that original tour and many others that followed, weekend tours not only to Chicago but Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and many other cities. He asserts, “On every trip, we regularly re-enact a ‘D-Day landing.’” That might mean getting into and out of a security-conscious building quickly. It might mean getting off a double-parked bus, obtaining a photo objective and getting back onto that bus double-quick. Or it might mean outrunning bloodthirsty mosquitos in Finland.

Yes, Larson admits that sometimes an excursion bus will park too long in front of a noted building. “I have the students on a timer. They have to bail out like they’re jumping out of a C-41 cargo plane. They know they have 15 minutes to study a building before the cops are going to come to give us a ticket. We’ve reboarded at the double quick and pulled away even as the police have pulled up.”

Or better yet: A New England tour in 2002 that included a stop in New York City. “That trip provided what I believe was my greatest challenge,” opines Larson. “Unloading 140 students from three buses – luggage and all – on Eighth Avenue at rush hour. We did it all in under 15 minutes.”

And then there was an excursion to see a world-famous building in the Finnish countryside. Mosquitos “the size of NFL linemen” swarmed the bus and the students. It was a day both students and professor proved they could really run.

In time, Larson’s tours became integrated into the challenging curriculum at DAAP. For instance, sophomore students in architecture and interior design are required to enroll in a fall-quarter immersion studio where they learn to integrate aesthetics, theory, practice and basic mechanics of building design. As part of that studio, they also go on the road to study architecture around the country. By the end of the quarter, they produce their own analysis of buildings, complete with text, sketches, computer models and photos.

Jerry Larson with student
Jerry Larson, right, discusses the model of a 1,400-foot-tall Chicago skyscraper with student Brendan Dillon.

The basic idea of this challenging, real-world curriculum is the fact that architecture cannot be taught solely within the confines of the classroom. That’s especially true of DAAP students, states Larson, who have a level of sophistication and a work ethic far above that of students in other programs. He adds, “A lot of that comes from co-op. Co-op and working in the real world brings a level of sophistication not found in other programs. They’re intelligent, passionate and incredibly creative. They are unbeatable, and there’s no way they can be confined just to the studio.”

Because of the caliber of his students, Larson also pioneered the use of technology to podcast his course lectures so that his students could review complex materials whether on campus or on co-op. For instance, architecture student Katherine Willard has used her iPod to download Larson’s digital lectures. She says, “I went to class, but I’d listen to the lecture again while I was in studio working on a project. If he’d been going a little fast in class, I could listen again. Some people listened to the lectures [again] while working out.”

Willard even listened to Larson lectures after the class was over, and she was on a South Carolina co-op. And she’s not the only one. Larson receives several requests for digital versions of his lectures from alumni every quarter.

So, whether live or online, it’s obvious that Larson – a noted researcher completing a book on the history of the skyscraper – sets an unstoppable pace for his students. “I’ve always been that way,” he jokes, “It all stems from my own student days in the University of Michigan marching band. Once, in front of 40 million TV fans, everyone else in the marching band stopped on cue. Net me. I just kept going.” And it looks like he’ll never stop.


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