Found in Translation

May 26, 2009

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In 1979, a young Harvard graduate named Art Rice stood on the stage of a packed auditorium in a city that was then called Leningrad. The enthusiastic audience was there to hear Rice – billed as a visiting American scholar – lecture on the latest trends in landscape architecture.

“There’s just one problem,” his host explained as Rice surveyed the crowd. “We don’t have an interpreter.”

Rice had taken a brief Russian language course before leaving the United States; sort of like the courses they used to give diplomats during the Cold War so they could negotiate a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty in any language.

“It’s OK,” he declared confidently. “I will lecture in Russian.”

For Rice, now associate dean for graduate studies, research and extension in the College of Design, it was a “Red Means Go” moment, in more ways than one. Armed with only a tray of slides and his rudimentary knowledge of Russian, Rice spoke for an hour, then took two hours of questions.

“Each time I showed a slide, I would keep talking until the people in the audience stopped giving me blank stares,” he said. “Once they began to nod and smile, I would move to the next slide.”

Afterwards, a Russian friend quipped, “You should never lecture in English. You are much funnier in Russian.”

Rice, who was recently named a Fellow in the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, has taught at NC State since 1990 and was head of the landscape architecture department for 10 years. He’s a strong advocate for the university’s many study abroad programs.

“I’ve been involved with international studies programs for 30 years and if there’s anything I know of that has a profound positive impact on people, it’s broadening their perspective of the world,” he said.

In his case, living in the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1980 while working as a visiting faculty member at the Moscow Engineering and Building Institute was life changing.

“It has profoundly affected the way I think about the world,” Rice said. “It helped me begin to understand the complexity out there.

“And I was only arrested once.”

The arrest came at an outdoor black market, where Rice stopped to take photos of vendors selling birds and other pets. Thankfully, the experience of sitting in a Soviet police station for an afternoon was more comedy than tragedy.

“Every hour or so they would send in an official to check my papers and ask me some questions,” he said. “Invariably, the official would throw up his hands and call in the next higher person up the chain.

“In the meantime, I had a great conversation with the cop who had arrested me.”

Rice’s experiences in the Soviet Union and on a summer bicycle trip around Europe led him to encourage his students to make travel a part of their education. Study abroad is required of all students majoring in landscape architecture at NC State.

“The culture within which we are immersed has impacts on the way we approach design projects but we are not even aware of them,” he said.

Rice was one of the founders of the university’s Prague Institute, a facility in the medieval center of the city that offers NC State students the opportunity to study for a summer, semester or year through a variety of design and general education courses. He served as the acting director of the institute in 2004 and 2005.

Today, Rice takes time from his administrative duties and research to teach both undergraduate and graduate classes, including a design studio for all new graduate students in landscape architecture that he co-teaches with Gene Bressler, head of the department.

“A lot of design education is teaching people to be self-aware, to think about how they think about things,” Rice said. “Inspiration is good. But then you’ve got to be able to reflect, to think, ‘What did this get me?’ Inspiration is a tool to move forward. Reflection is a tool to refine and improve.”

Rice says the field of landscape architecture will continue to grow and evolve as new challenges arise, such as climate change and economic uncertainties.

“I don’t have a good crystal ball, but I do know that our graduates will be dealing with issues of how to manage and design land to accommodate human use over the course of their careers,” he said. “That points to the difference between art and design. Art is more often about expressing yourself; design is about addressing a problem.”

When it comes to addressing problems, Rice advises his students that many of the most pressing problems in design don’t have just one definitive answer. In fact, every student working on a design problem may come up with a different answer.

His students – at an age when they tend to think in absolutes – tease him about his teaching philosophy.

“My students say that according to me, if you want to be a designer, you’ll never get anything right, you’ll never get anything done and then you’ll die,” Rice says with a smile. “And I tell them it’s an incredibly optimistic way of thinking.”