A student once asked retired College of Architecture, Design and Construction professor Gaines Blackwell if he ever had a bad day. He still laughs recounting this story.
“I was actually having one that day, but was thankful students didn’t know it,” he said. That experience, and so many other student encounters, are a badge of honor for Blackwell.
“You see, I always felt when I walked into the studio, it was no longer about me. It was about them,” he recalls.
That sentiment sums up his 27-year Auburn University teaching career — it was always about the students.
“I would try to induce into students a curiosity about their project. I wanted them to like design; to find it challenging; to find it curious. And I thought that if they liked what they were doing, then they would learn,” he said. “If I could get them to want to do well and do their best, then I was happy.”
This teaching philosophy helped Blackwell forge lifelong friendships with his students, the kind of relationships that prompted architecture alumni and friends to create the Gaines Blackwell Endowment for Interior Architecture in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction at Auburn University. The endowment honors the beloved professor who taught, mentored, inspired, and loved them through their years at Auburn and beyond. It will support student activities including conferences, funds for student trips to study interiors and landscapes, and scholarship support.
According to Kevin Moore, Interior Architecture program chair, the scholarships and field studies supported by the fund will attract and retain students of the highest academic achievement. “The founding of the endowment helps us aspire to the standard set by Gaines for this unique program, all with the help of our alumni,” he said.
Blackwell has been “flabbergasted and amazed” at the response to the endowment. It’s not that he didn’t think people cared, it’s just that “the world goes on and people have other things to think about than a professor who retired 16 years ago,” he said. But for his students, Gaines Blackwell is definitely worth honoring.
Bobby McAlpine, 1981 architecture graduate and founding principal of McAlpine, renowned architectural and design firm, certainly thinks so. He was first in line to honor his mentor for the unique way Blackwell inspired his students.
“He’s kind of puckish; kind of a magical creature in the forest,” McAlpine said. “Gaines has a knowingness and an electricity about him. His wiring is different. There’s carbonation in him and he brings it out in you.”
Blackwell influenced more than his students. As a professor who taught architecture, interior design, and interior architecture, he was instrumental in helping Auburn’s interior design evolve into the renamed and redeveloped interior architecture program. CADC’s bachelor of architecture and bachelor of interior architecture dual-degree is the only undergraduate program of its kind in the United States.
“Gaines guided the evolution of the program to a dual-degree in interior architecture,” Moore said. “This structure, dedicated to interdisciplinary thinking, was, quite frankly, ahead of its time. Twenty years later, it makes more sense than ever. It is also worth noting that Gaines set the highest standard possible for teaching and mentorship. Thanks to his influence, we enjoy the loyalty of his students to this day.”
In fact, Blackwell’s effect on students went far beyond the classroom, according to McAlpine.
“He was always willing to stick his neck out and be extremely creative within the system,” he said. “If he saw students he believed were exemplary or who deserved to have roads paved for them, he was always running ahead with a machete and cutting paths for them. And he did that for me.”
Blackwell misses being in the studio with students, but works to maintain relationships with them. A far cry from the daily studio sessions he shared with students, the 77-year-old now keeps tabs on them primarily through Facebook.
“I think it’s really wonderful,” he said. “Instead of having a family of three or four, it’s like having a family of 600 or 800, but without all the problems.”
He follows his former students’ marriages, children’s births, and other milestones, because in addition to wanting them to have successful careers, he hoped they would have successful lives.
“When a student showed up I probably adopted them in a way, and I wanted them to do well in the world. And that doesn’t mean success in their field only. That means in life,” he explained. “Life is difficult. It naturally has ups and downs, and I just wish the very best for them.”
Blackwell went into full-time design practice in 2001 after retiring from teaching at Auburn. A contextualist when it comes to architectural design, he sees his work as a story that is inseparable from the social and physical context around a home and those who will live in it. This means that no two Gaines Blackwell designs will ever look the same. And that’s the way he likes it.
“I want the things I do or create to last and be good. But not for my sake. I just think that they should,” Blackwell said. “Anything you do you should want to last and succeed.”
This is a philosophy he shared with his students and modeled for them for decades. And, for many of them, it changed the entire course of their lives.
“I knew I was home the minute I got to Auburn and the minute I laid eyes on him with his twinkly eyes and great wit and joyful demeanor. He was familiar to me at once, and I felt bound to him from then on,” McAlpine said. “I hope that everyone has a favorite professor from their education. I think with Gaines, it was the joy and deliciousness of getting to think these thoughts every day, 24/7. He had an infectious way of letting you know that you had made a beautiful choice and that what you were given to think about every day of your life is more wonderful than most. And it has been absolutely the truth for me.”