USC’s James Steele ’65 has authored 27 books and developed unique study program in Asia
By Dan Edelen
While teaching his own students from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture during its annual semester in Asia, Professor James Steele ’65 glimpsed opportunity in the faces of Cambodian students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Those young Khmer learned their lessons without the benefit of a school building, instead gathering on the ground in the relentless sun.
“It broke my heart,” he says. “Students come from miles around to sit under a tree.”
In that moment, he knew how he could improve their lives.
With a surgeon for a father and his brother a physician, Steele’s goal in life was to follow in that healing tradition–until a family tragedy altered his dreams. When he arrived at Lafayette, he focused on journalism, instead. There, he’d face another course correction.
Steele encountered faculty who were “strong individuals, all very talented.” After one professor advised him against a writing career, the English major encountered two art professors, Clarence Carter and Johannes Gaertner, who recognized his talent for architecture. Though no formal architecture program existed at Lafayette, the two teachers bolstered Steele’s fine arts minor to the point where the University of Pennsylvania accepted him into its prestigious architecture program. Beyond pursuing a master’s in architecture, his choice to attend Penn would prove fortuitous later in life.
At Penn, Steele studied under Louis Kahn, working for the noted architect’s studio. Later, he launched his own firm in Philadelphia specializing in designing single-family homes. But, once again, a different direction loomed, this time in the form of a recession.
“It forced a lot of architects out of business,” he says. “I looked for work in the Middle East.”
Following a trade ad, Steele arrived in Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal University to teach architecture. Relegated to teaching only due to school restrictions, he sought other outlets for his skills. Writing seemed the natural option.
“I heard about an architect in Egypt who was the regional equivalent of Le Corbusier,” he recalls, citing the Swiss-born architect and writer famous for his contributions to modern architecture.
Following journalistic instincts, he tracked down Hassan Fathy. Virtually unknown in the West, Fathy, a champion of sustainable building methods and community-based, traditional design, challenged Steele’s notions of architecture.
“He was the antithesis of what I learned at Penn from Kahn,” Steele says.
Getting Fathy to cooperate with research for the monograph proved difficult. Steele found himself in competition with another organization, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which was also writing a book on Fathy—and paying the Egyptian architect the exclusive rights to do so. This forced Steele to delve into outside sources for his information. Despite this, when Steele’s book Hassan Fathy came out in 1983, it garnered worldwide recognition.
“That book changed my life,” he says. That seminal work impacted Fathy, as well.
Steele notes, “I gave him the book and he cried.”
The Aga Khan Trust also recognized the excellence of Steele’s work. It later named him curator of its collection of Fathy’s drawings, a rare honor for a Westerner.
The Fathy monograph “opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Steele says. He left the Middle East in 1988 for The Prince of Wales Institute in London, and from there to teach at Texas Tech. Based on the excellence of the Fathy book, USC called him in 1991.
Determined to keep teaching, but confronted with the need for a doctoral-level degree, Steele faced an unusual dilemma: a lack of Ph.D. programs in architecture.
“It’s a guild-based apprenticeship, a medieval kind of profession,” he explains.
Recalling that Penn’s program had a strong sociological emphasis in urban planning, he incorporated his previous work there into a doctorate in policy planning and development from USC.
“Our world is urbanizing,” he says. “The architect’s arena today is the city.”
With that focus, Steele turned his attention to the source of the greatest urban growth in history: today’s Asia. As part of his role with the USC President’s Committee on International Affairs, he developed a program in 1998 to take architecture students from USC to examine in-country the building and urban planning issues facing Asian nations. Steele’s experience in Islamic countries made Malaysia a natural choice for the first series of classes. He’s since added China, Vietnam, and Cambodia to his student’s regimen.
“It’s the most popular program in the school of architecture,” he says.
This brings his life full circle.
The English major who was told to forgo a career in writing has now penned 27 books. These include the American Institute of Architects award winners The Queen Mary and The Eames House, plus the winner of the Phi Kappa Phi Award, Los Angeles: The Contemporary Condition.
And in a fitting end, a book gave Steele an idea as he watched those Cambodian students languishing without a school building. He asked himself and his architecture students, “Why couldn’t we do a project as a summer studio of designing a school, raising funds to build it?” With help from a grant, Steele is working on a book on Chinese urbanism whose sales will fund the $30,000 needed to build that Cambodian school.
For Steele, what started as a desire to help others as a medical doctor became the means to change the world through writing and teaching about architecture. It’s a winding career path he’s never regretted taking.