July 13, 2007
  Terrance J. Brown, FAIA

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Terrance (Terry) J. Brown, FAIA, is the 2004 recipient of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, given to honor an architect or organization that exemplifies the profession’s responsibility to society. Raised in Montana near the Crow and Cheyenne Indian reservations and currently employed by the largest American Indian-owned architecture firm in the U.S., Brown has spent his life working with indigenous cultures and American Indians. He also has served the AIA at the local, state, and national levels throughout his career. Last year, he completed two three-year terms as the AIA liaison to the Pan-American Federation of Architects Associations. Brown currently is the chair of the AIA National Disaster Assistance Committee.

Education: I grew up in Montana and went to Montana State my first year in architecture and then transferred to Texas Tech University in Lubbock. That’s where I graduated with a BArch.

Becoming a student of architecture: I have an identical twin brother, Morris, who also is an architect. When we went to the orientation at Montana State, we had no idea what we were going to study. We were asked in an orientation session what we were interested in and we said mechanical drawing and art. They said, “Let’s get the deans of the schools of architecture and fine arts together and talk about it.” What they said was that if you start in fine arts and decide to switch into architecture, you lose more credits than if you start in architecture and switch into fine arts. So, the decision was pretty easy to go into architecture. The first two years of [studying architecture], it’s a tremendous opening up of creativity and learning how to be creative with materials and shapes and building forms. It was a great learning experience.

Downtime activity: I have three horses, and my wife and I ride together every Sunday morning. We ride two and I lead one along. We take the dogs with us and the neighbor dogs and ride along the Rio Grande in forest—the bosque—along the Rio Grande. I like trail riding. Every summer I go on a trail ride with my twin brother in the mountains with the horses. We just came back about two weeks ago from one. It’s a tremendous way to decelerate and get back to nature.

Current read: I am reading a book called The Life and Times of Andrew Jackson. I find this man extremely interesting. We all know about him being a hero as a young child in the Revolutionary War where he was hit in the head with a sword by a British officer who wanted him to shine his shoes, but Andrew Jackson was best noted for [changing] the way the Americans look at the presidency. He was a people’s president. He wasn’t one of the rich Virginians—he was elected by the people. The people of the U.S. at the time loved him. He was a leader, a general in the army, and had done so much to protect the people of the frontiers. They respected him greatly and admired his courage and elected him as one of them instead of electing one of the oligarchy.

AIA liaison to FPAA: The Pan-American Federation of Architects Associations (FPAA) is an organization that the AIA helped found about 90 years ago to create communication among all architect associations in the American hemisphere, including the Caribbean. I had lived in Guatemala for eight years and traveled all over Central and South America for a year and a half before that. I [trained] American Peace Corps volunteers; Japanese, Canadian, and United Nations volunteers; and others to work in Latin America. Because of these experiences, the AIA felt that I would be a good representative on the Pan American Federation. I’ve been to about 15 different countries and represented the AIA in all these countries and in different venues and meetings. It’s important that the AIA continue its communication with other countries. I think we’re doing a good job at it. There are times when we’ve been silent in our recognition and understanding of other countries, but I think now we’re on a very open and strong communication loop with these countries, especially in Latin America.

Greatest challenge for Latin and Central American architecture organizations: They have many issues. It’s amazing how these people really gravitate towards the AIA. They see us as an incredibly powerful body of architects who have pulled together in a short time and formulated a very strong and knowledgeable organization with great leadership and education. Countries like Costa Rica, for example, are doing very well to learn from us and have even set up educational requirements much like NAAB. And other countries are following in stead. When I was on the FPAA Executive Committee, at virtually every meeting we talked about how to improve educational requirements in different countries in Latin America. Some of these small countries are the size of postage stamps. They have up to 12 schools of architecture in a tiny country that’s smaller than most of our states. You can imagine the complexity of this if these schools are private for-hire schools that have no accreditation and all they’re after is to turn the buck over. They understand how important it is to have these criteria set, and many of them are looking to the AIA and UIA to help.

If they want to have free-flowing work abilities and the possibility to work in other countries, they need to have transparency among countries, much like NCARB now does with Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. They’re also looking at NCARB’s agreements to help better their own agreements and educational practices. Education is very important as well as is professional practice. Those are the two biggies that they struggle with and that we worked on for six years to improve greatly, country by country.

Getting involved in disaster preparedness and assistance: When I was living in Guatemala in the ’70s, I got tossed out of my bed onto my back and shoulders in a massive earthquake that killed about 60,000 people and left a million people homeless. I worked very diligently and strongly in helping to rebuild a hospital. At first, I was in charge of helping the survivors of the first quake be safe in the aftershock events. I helped them move the hospital in this old Spanish Colonial town to a soccer field. People saw me and wanted me to help them and lead them towards setting up this field hospital. I am very proud of being able to do that and being able to help save all those lives.

Virtually everybody in town was in shock. I, of course, didn’t own any property and was fortunate enough not to have been hurt. I learned a lot from that quake and subsequent rebuilding. I was involved in creating a small booklet in comic book form that showed the Mayan Indians how to rebuild their homes safely using native materials that they were accustomed to working with—adobe with wire reinforcing corner posts, straw roofs, and things like that that would give them a safe home to live in. These are the same types of houses that they normally live in, but we showed them how to build these homes with more earthquake-resistant benefits.

The AIA National Disaster Assistance Committee: Charlie Harper, FAIA, really was the founder of the AIA Disaster Assistance Committee. He basically was a one-man committee for 20-some, maybe 30 years. I worked with Charlie for several years and then he asked me to co-chair the committee with him because he wanted to transition out of the position and retire from architecture and the business of disaster assistance. I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to leave that. He’s still being called on, but he’s a dear friend of mine and a colleague and my mentor in the AIA disaster assistance.

In 2004, when we had the Christmas tsunami, in February at Grassroots, David Downey, managing director, Center for Communities by Design, asked if I would serve as a member of the AIA committee going to investigate the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka. We had a well rounded group of people from the AIA and APA, a civil engineer, and a landscape architect, which the AIA led to Sri Lanka. We toured for five days around that tattered country and learned about tsunamis. After we came back, we wrote a book on the causes and effects of the tsunami on Sri Lanka primarily, then recommended mitigating factors to make the situation safer for a tsunami event.

The difficulty of places like Sri Lanka is that so many people live on the coast because that’s where their livelihood is. This makes things a lot more difficult to control. There generally isn’t any high ground, and the buildings are linearly parallel with the ocean edge or the beach, and it’s very difficult for people to escape the ocean, even if they were warned. Planning is very important. The minister for housing in Sri Lanka showed us some plans they were working on to create a more livable community with some simple security ideas we recommended as well: open lanes perpendicular and away from the beach and building hills where people could get up and away from the rising tides.

Final thoughts: The work [that I did] in Latin America is so different from mainstream architecture. There were times in my life, especially early on, when I questioned whether anybody would ever hire me and how this would benefit anybody other than me. I look back now and I can see that architecture and architects can lead many different lives and be very valuable members of their communities. I see this as a constant giving back to the community. I’ve worked very strongly in the civic arena. I’m vice chair of our local planning and zoning commission and have been involved in numerous organizations in my community, so there’s a constant giving back and a constant growth. I hope that young people can see this as a way of looking at the profession of architecture—being involved in helping people and doing something that is meaningful. This is something that I feel very good about.

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The AIA Disaster Assistance Program is administered through AIA Communities by Design. For more information on that program, visit these links on AIA.org:
AIA Communities by Design: Disaster Assistance Program
AIA Communities by Design Pod Cast—Shelter after the Disaster: Alternative Housing Program for the Gulf Coast
AIA Handbook for Disaster Assistance Programs.