Beacon on the Hill - Morbito

What I Learned at Kent State About Architecture, Revolution, and the Beacon on a Hill

In the spring of 1976, my fourth year of architecture school at Kent State University, I and forty-four of my classmates boarded a flight to Rome. Practically the entire fourth-year class was on its way to a quarter studying in Italy, with long weekends backpacking through Europe. Part of me looked forward to the adventure. The other half wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Excitement sat with angst in the cheap seats of a Pan Am jumbo jet. Most of us had never been out of the States. No one spoke Italian, which shouldn’t have been a problem because previous study abroad classes were chaperoned by faculty who did. In my year, though, we would travel alone and unsupervised. There were rumors of infighting between professors over who would accompany the class. In a Kafka-like pronouncement, the chair of the department declared my group free to find its own way, a provocatively bestowed declaration of independence. We were given vague handouts suggesting Arthur Frommer’s paperback, “Europe on $10 a Day,” be our means of finding lodging and meals. Michelin would guide us to weekend architectural tours.

My transfer from engineering at the University of Pittsburgh to architecture at Kent was spurred by the infamous shootings of May 4, 1970. It was a time of rioting in the streets and student protests on campus. We have got to get it together, sang our subversive anthem because the revolution’s here. I imagined myself on the front lines, fighting against a trumped-up war. Power to the people, Lennon implored. Right on, I agreed.

As it turned out, I was late to the rebellion. Two years after I arrived at Kent State, the anti-Vietnam War zeitgeist was kaput. Apathy had killed campus activism, and as I would learn, politics kept it from resurrecting. I met no radicals during my time at Kent State—except one, and he introduced me to another.

Papa Joe was a bear of a man, five-foot-nine stocky, barrel-chested, neck as wide as his head. Even in an elegant Italian suit, he remained the gruff running back he’d been at Carnegie Tech. The chair of Kent State’s architecture program was quick to smile, but quicker to growl, which heightened the dread of a passing hallway encounter. Scuttlebutt had it there was tension between him and the teaching staff, that Joe ran blitzes and end runs around faculty. Although there were also stories of pit bull loyalty to students, conventional wisdom advised avoiding contact with the man, which I heeded. In four and a half years at Kent, I had only two conversations with Chairman and Professor Joseph F. Morbito, FAIA. The first was my fifteen-minute interview for admission.

When an invitation to submit a portfolio arrived in the mail, I cobbled together drawings from a high school drafting class and a few artsy photos developed in my home darkroom. Dressed in the only sports jacket I owned and my least faded jeans, I pointed my Volkswagen Beetle west.

Rolling through the trees of Western Pennsylvania, and then across spare Eastern Ohio, I wondered what I would tell the admissions committee if someone asked why I wanted in. Why would a Pitt aeronautical engineering student want to graduate KSU as an architect? Um…shitty grades? Not a good plan. If the issue of poor freshman year academics came up, I would redirect the committee to my high school transcript, which was stellar, and then deftly change the subject. Hey, how about those Golden Flashes?

But I might have to sidestep another topic during my interview. Someone on the committee might mention the shooting of students mere feet from the architecture building. The tragedy was still in the news; investigations and recriminations were underway. What to say if asked about the massacre? Downshifting off the Ohio Turnpike, I auditioned responses. Maybe something innocuous like, It was such a shame. Or play dumb with, Yeah, I heard about that.

Many called the killings murder, but others felt the students had it coming. A day before the shootings, then Ohio governor Rhodes ordered students to cease demonstrating and banned campus gatherings of more than a single person. He promised to drive radicals and dissidents out of Kent, to “eradicate” what he called the “problem” of demonstrations. Rhodes sent in the National Guard and labeled the protestors as Brown Shirts, “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” Rhodes lit a fire and then fanned the flames.

Better dead than red was the right-wing response to the left’s Make love, not war. I assumed the admissions committee would toe the conservative line so my reason for transferring to Kent State could not leave my lips. I would have to lie.

I wended past open fields and found a campus asleep on a warm, sunny day. The architecture building was easily recognizable from newspaper accounts of the shootings.  Unknowingly, I pulled into a parking space near where Allison Krause, a girl who’d planted flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ guns the day before being shot in the chest, died. Portfolio underarm, I walked past a metal sculpture where architecture student John Cleary fell from gunfire, and where another M1 tore through steel plate, leaving a clean hole.

Inside, at the end of a corridor, was the chairman’s office. I made small talk with a secretary wearing a sleeveless dress, which revealed the most porcelain arms I’d ever seen. Kay personified the room, its whiteness of walls, the pristine collection of ink drawings and sweeping Barcelona chairs. Eventually, the door to a private office opened and a stout man wearing round, black-rimmed glasses motioned me in.

It was immediately clear that this would be an admissions committee of one. Joe offered me a seat and another Mies van der Rohe seat, this one with curved tubular arms. He then ignored me for the next ten minutes. Going through my portfolio at his desk, he occasionally nodded, sometimes shook his head. With a sudden gesture, Joe picked up a manila folder and yanked out my Pitt transcript. Why did I want to design buildings? Without thinking, I told him my uncle was an architect. I aspired to be like him, something I hadn’t realized until after I said it.

Joe grinned and continued reviewing my grades. After a while, he took off his glasses and cracked a smile. “Fortunately for you, you don’t need A’s in math to be a good architect.” He dropped my file on a pile of others behind his desk and said, “Welcome to Kent.”

The chairman wants to shake my hand, I thought to myself when he stood from his chair. Instead, Joe strode to a tall, narrow window and stared. At the far end of a large lawn were two ludicrously tall smokestacks and a small building. In news accounts of the shootings, that field and those chimneys were ever-present. Here comes the question about May 4, I assumed.

“That’s where we began,” Joe said. “Over there in the heating plant.” He described how architecture started as a two-year drafting program in industrial arts and joked that whenever a shipment of coal arrived, students would cover their drafting tables with blankets and run outside. When they returned, soot coated everything.

“And then we moved to the barracks…” He trailed off. When I looked, I saw no building. Later, I would learn the barracks became the ROTC building that burned during the protests.

Papa Joe went on to describe how he grew the school from four students to four hundred, how a two-year certificate became a four-year degree, and then a five-year bachelor. A masters program was recently added, and students now had an opportunity to study in Italy. The chairman looked at me with distant eyes. “We’re in league now with the big schools. And we have this beautiful new building.”

Taylor Hall was only five years old at the time. I wondered how Joe felt about bullet holes in his baby’s side. His expression gave nothing away.

Joe said he chose the highest point on campus to build Taylor Hall and insisted it have classical proportions. Like a Greek temple on an acropolis hill, he said, the building sat on a pedestal. Design studios on the top floor were the entablature. Because students worked 24/7, he noted with pride that the lights never went out in Taylor Hall. The building was a lighthouse, “a beacon on a hill,” he called it, “illuminating the way forward.” Joe studied my face. “That’s what architects do, you know, they lead the way.”

A revolutionary twinge tingled my spine.

We landed in Rome and clustered inside the airport terminal. Splayed across cold terrazzo, propped up against backpacks, a few of my classmates unfolded their maps. Others asked if anyone remembered enough high school Spanish or French to tempt a dozen Fiat taxis to get us to a hotel. Our handouts indicated a block of rooms had been reserved near Termini Train Station, wherever that was, but only for a single night, “sufficient time to get oriented” before taking a train to Florence. Pretty sure some of my class were orienting toward panic.

To our collective relief, exiting Customs walked Papa Joe, his wife—and Kay. “Follow me, boys,” he said and led us to a waiting bus.

That night at dinner, Joe regaled us on the architects he’d arranged to teach us in Florence. Adolfo Natalini and Christiano Toraldo di Francia were founders of the avant-garde Italian firm Superstudio. He called their work unorthodox and innovative, part of the Radical Architecture movement that included Archizoom, Archigram, and Grupo 9999. They were all revolutionaries, he said.

There was that tingling sensation again.

The following morning, Papa Joe bid us farewell. “I want you all to have a great time. Be good. Try not to get arrested. See you in a few months.”

Days later, I sat on grass alongside a bridge in Florence. Ostensibly, it was a structures class. In reality, it was a discussion on society, architecture, and Karl Marx. Adolfo told us most of the world’s buildings were little more than bourgeois models of ownership, that designers had capitulated to wealthy elites. This should be rejected, he said. In fact, all architecture should be dismissed until humanity’s essential needs were met. Do away with the profession until the revolution, Adolfo suggested. We don’t need it.

I went from confused to elated to confused. Someone in my class remembered that Le Corbusier said architects could prevent revolution through design, that the Modern Movement’s addressing society’s problems would prevent uprisings. Adolfo countered that architects had failed in that role and thus, had made the profession irrelevant. For that reason, Superstudio refused to design buildings.

It seemed to me that Adolfo’s rejection of work was not unlike Papa Joe’s rejection of faculty. They were both practicing autonomously, beholden only to themselves, staking the same provocative ground.

Another classmate asked Adolfo how he spent his time since he refused conventional projects. “We do what we want,” Adolfo said. “We enter competitions, write essays, design objects, make films.” What? No paid commissions? Adolfo thought for a moment before answering. The firm had been hired to design a commuter train. Superstudio presented drawings showing the engine’s front painted red, and matching red railcar doors. The point was to make it easier for passengers to see the critical parts of the train from a distance. Unfortunately, the project was shot down because the client thought it was communist inspired. Adolfo was philosophical about it, saying he meant no revolutionary statement.

The author (right) with Adolfo Natalini (center) in Florence, Italy. Copyright Floyd D. Anderson, AIA. Used with permission.

The episode reminded me of my own misunderstood revolutionary experience. On May 4 of my first full quarter at Kent, I unfurled a six-foot-long red Chinese flag on my dorm room wall. I was in love with a Chinese girl and thought it apropos. Days later, I received a curt letter with a university seal summoning me to Kent State’s administration building. At the appointed time, I was ushered into a small room where a mustachioed man with a silly grin bounced a tennis ball on his desk. He quietly closed the door and informed me I’d been reported as a communist sympathizer; what did I have to say about that? I told the guy I bought the flag because I liked the color. He laughed and said, “Good answer.” Then he opened the door. On my way out, he mumbled, “Be smart.”

My second and last conversation with Joe was near the end of my time in Europe, during a class dinner at Adolfo’s family farm. Joe and I chatted for fifteen minutes about architecture and revolution.

A year after that, Papa Joe resigned. The story goes that Joe didn’t want to leave, that he had to be nudged out. The father of the thirty-year-old school he’d nurtured from birth and raised to maturity (thus, the name “Papa”) left Kent State the same year I graduated. Joe didn’t return until Taylor Hall’s architecture library was dedicated in his name ten years later, a muted valediction. A few months after that, at age 80, Papa Joe was dead.

It took another thirty years for the lights to go out in Taylor Hall. Kent State’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design moved to an impressive new structure in 2016, designed by Weiss/Manfredi and named for John Elliot, a 1970 graduate. The library bearing the Morbito name moved to the Elliot Center, but otherwise, Joe’s memory resides in oblivion. The new building is located at the edge of the campus, at street level, far from Taylor Hill. Probably the lights are always on there. Probably the effect isn’t the same. Taylor Hall played a central role in the story of its time. The Elliot Center’s narrative is yet to be told, its meaningfulness to be revealed.

Kafka once remarked, “First impressions are always unreliable.” I was intimidated by Papa Joe at the beginning. By the end, I was in awe. Contemporary deans and chairs rarely last more than five or ten years. Joe reigned for three decades and sustained the program through the most unimaginable trauma imaginable at an architecture school. The best way to think about him, I’ve come to believe, is not as a chair, academician, or designer. Joseph Morbito was a creator, and Taylor Hall embodies the force of his nature. 

Taylor Hall. Photo by the author.

If you’re an architect and ever in Kent, Ohio, I encourage you to tour the May 4 Visitor Center on the ground floor of the old building. Walk through Taylor Hall’s museum documenting the demonstrations and their aftermath. Stroll through the garden memorializing the slain and wounded. Lay roses in the adjacent parking lot at the miniature lighthouses marking where martyrs and passersby died. Afterward, with Taylor Hall as backdrop, your right arm bent and fist closed, whisper “Right on.”

Then go back to your office and lead a revolution.

Featured image: Joseph Morbito, FAIA in Taylor Hall. Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives, accessed May 17, 2019. Used with permission.

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