Robert McKinney is Department Head for UL's Architecture & Design program, widely regarded as one of the best programs in the country. spoke with him recently.

Tell us about yourself.

I've been in Louisiana longer than anywhere else, but I'm originally from Wisconsin. My dad was in the oil industry, with Waukesha Engines. Then one of the distributors recruited him to come down here to New Orleans. I went to Archbishop Shaw and Covington High. My parents moved a lot.

When I was in school the teachers said, "If he could only find something where all he did was projects." Well, that's architecture. So I knew since I was about 12 that architecture was what I wanted.

I was involved in 4H and had done summer programs at LSU, and knew it was a larger school than I wanted to go to. And I knew that USL had an architecture program, so my undergraduate degree was from here at UL.

I finished school in the late '80s, and at that time, there weren't a lot of opportunities to practice because of the economy. So I went to graduate school at Virginia Tech. I got my master's there. As I was finishing up one of the UL faculty, Alan Hines, was passing through and asked me if I wanted to come back. So I did.

And I'm glad I did, UL's architecture program is very strong, with a lot of vision.

How so?

We have a couple of faculty who have long histories with UL. Eddie Cazayoux was an undergraduate here, and retired as Director of the program after 31 or 32 years. Hector Lasala was an undergraduate here, he's been here over 30 years. Total, I've been here a total of 26 years, as both student and faculty.

When I was a student was right when Hector was emerging as a teacher, and Eddie had just become Department Head. That's when the Department really started to grow and define itself in terms of pedagogy. UL was developing a way of teaching architecture that was particular to Lafayette and the Cajun Culture, an extension of the hands-on craftsmanship: the art of making the pirogue, the crawfish nets, the accordions.

All of that is part of the culture, so I think part of it was just recognizing what was going on around us. We had kids who knew how to weld, so we said, "Let's get them to weld." We had kids who were doing carpentry, so we said, "Let's bring that into the studio."

That happened when I was a student, and I can literally define the year it happened. The class ahead of us went through school one way, and my class was the first to experience design as being more student-centered, focusing on how you learn, how you approach architecture, and how you teach, using the local culture.

Is that innovative?

Yeah. I think it's the work they were doing 25 years ago, that led to our most recent accreditation visit in March. The review team said that UL wasn't just meeting the criteria, there were citing us as excellent, as models of best practices in so many areas. Most schools struggle to meet the criteria, and we were excelling, because of things like the Community Design Workshop, and the Building Institute. And a lot of that is tied to how we get the students into the community.

What makes UL and Acadiana so different?

I think it's a combination of things. It's looking at the region and the area, and finding the way of teaching architecture that fits and draws from that area.

I think it's also the fact that, as a faculty we really do work together well, we come together around a common goal: How do we move the program forward? How do we find how each person excels, How they can contribute, and How does that help move things forward?

If your wildest dreams came true, what would Architecture & Design look like in 20 or 50 years?

The architecture program would be in a new building, one that had the facilities to really keep pace with what we're doing.

I think we have the pedagogy, I think we have a good core of faculty. Part of that is continuing to recruit faculty.

The students we get are a dedicated, hard-working group. It takes a lot to spend as much time in Fletcher as they do.

I think that if we look at where the practice is going, and where the interests of our faculty are, there is a growing movement to look at a hybrid, with a practice academy, or academy practice. Part of that deals with licensure, because to become a licensed architecture involves three steps. You need a degree, then an internship for three or four years, and then a licensing exam. A lot of the current discussion looks at that middle phase; the internship is really the transition.

So there is a growing discussion about Where should that internship occur?  Should it be that we develop university-based practice academies, that go beyond hypothetical projects, to doing real projects?

Or is it that private architecture offices should become more teaching-based, and become qualified to have interns come in and train?

Projects like the Beausoleil Project, and work that Hector and Geoff Gjertson did with the Acadiana Outreach Center tend toward university-based practice academies. And again, that's getting the students engaged in the community, giving them a hands-on approach to becoming involved in the community.

That lays the groundwork for the next 25 years, just as Eddie and Hector laid the pedagogical groundwork 25 years ago.

Pictures portray work by UL Architecture students.  More sampes are available from the SOAD Album.