Parting Thoughts: A Conversation with Adrian Parr

From DesignIntelligence Quarterly

Adrian Parr is the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Oregon and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. She is a film maker and architectural theorist and has served as a UNESCO water chair for seven years. In this feature designed to connect the DesignIntelligence community we share a recent conversation.

DesignIntelligence (DI): Where are you from, and what influenced you growing up?

I grew up in Sydney, Australia — a gorgeous city perched at the edges of the Pacific Ocean, stretching through a brief area of rural land before arriving at the base of the Blue Mountains. My parents have a weekend house in the Blue Mountains. As a kid I regularly moved between buildings, mountains, open plains, and the sea. Each landscape had a distinctive tempo, materiality, and poetics. All three were formative in my trans-scalar and trans-temporal approach to ecological thinking and practices.

DI: Your travels have taken you to some amazing places. What experiences stand out?

Two come to mind. There is the time a Turkana tribesman tried to buy me off my driver. Apparently, he offered up a lot of goats to the driver. I remember explaining I was married, but that didn’t worry him at all. Lucky for me and my family back in the US, my driver wasn’t interested in acquiring a herd of goats (grin). Then there is the time I, my driver, and the car we were in were hijacked by a militia man with a semi-automatic slung over his shoulder. That was a little more hair-raising. I remember quickly calculating I probably had 10-15 minutes to make friends with him and to convince him to let us go. I don’t know which is more alarming: the prospect of finding myself married to a wealthy old herd owner in the Kenyan desert or ending up captive to a militia group in a remote Kenyan village. Either way, that was then; this is now. I am back home, safe and sound.

DI: You are in the middle of a major life change, moving from the University of Texas Arlington to assume the deanship at the University of Oregon. What are your parting thoughts, and can you share your agenda for your work ahead at U of O?

Serving the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs community as their dean these past few years has been a great experience. I am going to miss all my wonderful colleagues and friends throughout Dallas-Fort Worth and UTA. I was incredibly fortunate to work with so many folks who shared my interest in environmental and social justice. Leaving is bittersweet. That said, moving to the Pacific Northwest where my husband, Michael, and I married, where we have lots of family nearby, to an institution where Michael is an alumnus of the architecture program, feels like coming home. As the incoming Dean of the College of Design at the University of Oregon, I am excited to galvanize the incredible intellectual and creative talents of a stellar group of faculty and students in tackling the gargantuan challenges associated with climate change, urbanization, sustainable development, and environmental policy. The University of Oregon has an amazing, rich history and longstanding commitment to environmental initiatives. This aligns neatly with my own leadership goals and research interests. In this regard, as a UNESCO water chair, I am also eager to contribute to and support the many environmental research initiatives already taking place throughout the College of Design and across campus. I would like to continue exploring the creative, intellectual, and pragmatic potential of watershed urbanism, the ways in which two distinctive systems – watersheds and urban areas
– interact and inform each other, and how planning and design might create scenarios for mutual flourishing.

DI: Do you have a favorite building?

Honestly, I don’t. I am intrigued by the connection buildings form with each other; the socio-environmental parameters of the built environment; the healing potential of public spaces and buildings; the qualities that make a built environment hostile or welcoming; and the ways in which a built environment can tickle the imagination and facilitate unexpected happenings. Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen once described me as a closet landscape architect. I think there is a lot of truth to that.

DI: Who are your architectural heroes?

I am interested in collaborative and collective architectural paradigms that shy away from invoking modernist notions of a singular architectural protagonist viewed as heroically leading the profession. I am thinking of entangled design processes that emerge in concert with local stakeholders and meaningfully integrate social, economic, environmental, and political realities. Practices that come to mind are the Kounkuey Design Initiative, Design Impact, and MASS Design Group

DI: What are you reading?

I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing and am now in the middle of The Overstory: A Novel. Both are brilliant pieces of fiction that grapple with the imbrication of trauma and ecology, turning the environment into a character of its own. I love getting lost in that kind of journey into the unconscious layers of environmental experiences, following the residues our encounters with the environment leave on our humanity, or the lack thereof.

DI: What is your greatest joy?

Body surfing and skiing. There is a real-time navigation of smooth space you enter for each I find particularly exhilarating.

DI: As a leading industry voice, what would you change about the design profession if you could?

For all projects to use the SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental Design) evaluator as part of the design process. It is an incredibly useful interactive software program created by the SEED network ( that provides benchmarks, standards, and an evaluation of the social, economic, and environmental outcomes of a project.

DI: Have you reinvented yourself to remain relevant as a thought leader?

Many times. If something captures my imagination, it saturates me with excitement. That often presents new openings on life I feel compelled to test. It is hard to say whether that is out of curiosity, impatience, or a more conscious undertaking for relevancy. The many directions I have taken in my life never begin with a tabula rasa. They always involve a return to dormant aspects of myself, carrying traces of previous journeys: acting, experimental sound art, spoken word, theorizing, policy, producing documentary movies, curating, and now— leading a college of design.

DI: Having lived in so many wonderful places across the world, what’s your favorite meal, where — and of course — an accompanying beverage?

Oooh, I am going to have fun with this question. Eggplant Maqluba at the Auja Palestinian Ecovillage in the Jordan River Valley… sweet hot tea on a rug in a Bedouin commnnity in the Negev desert… fresh sukuma leaves cooked by Mary in the Dagoretti slum of Nairobi… chocolate crêpes from a street vendor in Paris… a 5 PM spritz overlooking the canals of Venice; enjoying Catalan Pa amb tomàquet with my dear friend Santiago Zabala in Barcelona… a glass of Barolo wine with tajarin al tartufo bianco in Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence… after a day dog sledding in the Arctic Circle, sitting in a cabin, wrapped in a blanket, sipping on a hot toddy warmed by the aromas of cinnamon, honey, lemon juice, and whiskey… and last but not least, Beyond Burgers on a pretzel bun with home-cooked fries in the backyard with my husband Michael and our kids.

DI: What’s the best advice you ever got?

My dad taught me to never give up. It’s 10% talent and 90% hard work. My Hungarian nana taught me love is infinitely generous. You can love many people, but in different ways. Just because you love one person doesn’t mean you love another less.

Adrian Parr is the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Oregon and a DesignIntelligence Senior Fellow. She has served as a UNESCO water chair for seven years conducting fieldwork with indigenous groups and slum communities around the world. She has published extensively on environmental issues and is the producer and co-director (with Sean Hughes) of the award-winning documentary, The Intimate Realities of Water.