Celebrated University of Miami architecture dean, champion of traditional design, to step down

 

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the prominent planner and architect under whose leadership the University of Miami’s fledgling architecture school gained a national reputation as an iconoclastically un-voguish center for traditional design and community engagement, is stepping down as dean after an unusually long tenure of 18 years.

UM President Donna Shalala, in a statement Wednesday, called Plater-Zyberk “a brilliant leader.’’

Plater-Zyberk, 62, will leave the post July 1 but continue to teach at the university, whose faculty she joined in 1979. Plater-Zyberk, who has also had an influential parallel career in private practice with her husband, planner and architect Andres Duany, said she intends to focus her teaching on an emerging area of practice and research: how cities and towns can cope with rising seas and other effects of climate change.

UM’s architecture school, formerly a program within the engineering school, was just 12 years old when Plater-Zyberk became dean in 1995. By then, she and Duany had already achieved some fame in the profession as co-founders of Arquitectonica, the Miami architecture powerhouse, and, after breaking away from that firm, as planners of Seaside, the Florida panhandle town whose compact, pedestrians-first layout revived traditional, pre-automobile principles of urban design.

During her tenure, UM’s architecture school became closely associated with traditional and Classical design as well as the New Urbanism that Plater-Zyberk championed, instead of the often-doctrinaire Modernism that dominated other schools. It was “an identity that ran counter to all trends in architectural education at that time,’’ the university noted in a statement Wednesday.

The UM school still places strong emphasis on drawing by hand, for instance, as well as on the computer-aided design skills that are required in the profession today. But the school also embraced innovation and faculty members whose own style runs to contemporary design, such as well-known Miami architect Allan Shulman.

“Architecture schools can be ideologically focused, but I do think the real hallmark of our faculty is that we were open to all approaches to architecture, which is somewhat unusual,’’ Plater-Zyberk said in an interview. “We’re the only school of architecture that doesn’t forbid anything.’’

Plater-Zyberk also embraced community service and pragmatic approaches to enable the school’s planning and design ideals to come to fruition. The school established the Master in Real Estate Development + Urbanism program, an interdisciplinary initiative of the schools of architecture, business administration and law that “blends the fundamentals of real estate development with livable community planning and design,’’ the university said.

Before becoming dean, Plater-Zyberk helped lead the school’s efforts in planning the rebuilding of South Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. She also guided the school to hands-on involvement in improving Greater Miami through its Center for Urban and Community Design and ambitious projects by students and faculty which, in contrast to many an academic exercise, often got things done.

Among those: a plan for West Coconut Grove that led to the reconstruction of Grand Avenue as a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly street with benches and a landscaped median; and a planning “charrette’’ in Coral Gables that came up with downtown streetscape improvements that helped liven up downtown.

Also, a proposal for the revival of the Miami Marine Stadium that became the city of Miami’s official plan; and, most recently, a one-year project in which the entire school focused on projects for Miami’s waterfronts — producing a book now serving as a guide to completing long-planned greenways along the Miami River and Biscayne Bay.

“She loves this town. She has always been very interested in the notion of architecture as both a civic art and as something useful,’’ said longtime UM faculty member and Coral Gables architect and preservationist Jorge Hernandez.

Plater-Zyberk also spearheaded the construction of the school’s traditionally inspired new building, designed by a mentor, the unorthodox European architect Leon Krier, with an assist from UM alumna Natividad “Nati” Soto. The university will appoint a committee to search for Plater-Zyberk’s successor. Associate Dean Denis Hector will serve as acting dean in the meantime.

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