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A visit with lasting impact

Matt Williams (center, holding wood model) reviews work by graduate landscape architecture students.
2022-23 Trott Distinguished Visiting Professor Matt Williams (center, holding wood model) reviews work by graduate landscape architecture students.

“I think more unites us than divides us, but often the things that divide us get the attention and media coverage,” offered Trott Distinguished Visiting Professor Matt Williams. “One thing I want to highlight is the collaborative process of design—the actual process of community engagement and multidisciplinary teams with diverse individuals.”

The Richard W. Trott Distinguished Visiting Professorship brings acclaimed architects, landscape architects and planners like Williams to The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School each year to teach design studios, conduct seminars and lecture courses, and advance discourse on architecture, landscape architecture and urban design. Established in 1991, it honors the late Richard Trott ’61, a renowned architect and Ohio State graduate.

Thirty years after the visiting professorship was established, Kara J. Trott ’91 made a generous gift to her alma mater to honor her late father and enhance its impact.

This past academic year, Trott’s gift enabled Knowlton School students and faculty to tackle questions of race and place at the scale of the city during a seminar, exhibition and symposium.

“Kara Trott’s gift contributes significantly to the enrichment of the Knowlton School’s educational mission,” said Director Dorothée Imbert. “This gift further elevates the Trott Distinguished Visiting Professorship, bringing distinguished practitioners and academics to carry sustained interactions with Knowlton students and faculty, as well as to strengthen the connection between architecture, landscape architecture, planning and urban design. Kara’s generosity allows us to provide exceptional experiences to our design community, while strengthening Dick Trott’s legacy.”

An urban planner and landscape designer based in Detroit, Michigan, Matt Williams is the senior advisor on neighborhood economic development for the City of Detroit.

“Matt is very plugged into the urban design and urban futures networks in major Midwestern cities. That's an area of growth for Knowlton Landscape and Knowlton as a whole,” said Professor Kristi Cheramie, head of the Landscape Architecture Section. “He’s quickly established his voice as a significant thinker in design and is already playing a leadership role in groups like the Black Landscape Network and Landscape Architecture Foundation.”

Williams led a seminar course each semester last year that focused on vacancy issues in Detroit. Students traveled to the city to meet with community members, including the Mayor’s office and planning commission, and participated in intense two- and three-day workshops on addressing vacancy and urban design revitalization approaches.

The students’ resulting design proposals were featured in the exhibition, What Could We Do Here? Urban Design Strategies for Vacant Land in Detroit. Held in Knowlton Hall’s Banvard Gallery last spring, the exhibition also included real-world projects and highlighted both the history of vacant land in Detroit as well as opportunities for its just, humane and community-focused revitalization.

“The exhibition included significant partnerships with minority-owned design practices in Detroit,” Cheramie explained. “So in addition to producing their own design work and seeing that go up in an exhibition, students got to work with professional offices to lift up their work and give it that extra little bit of polish. Matt really pushed hard for that to make sure the students understood how to collaborate with practices. That was a very positive experience for them and I appreciated seeing that represented on the wall.”

The Trott experience also culminated in the two-day symposium, Race, Space, & The Unifying Power of Design, organized by Williams. Approximately 250 planners, architects, landscape architects and artists gathered in Knowlton Hall to participate in conversations about race in an effort to create more equitable urban environments in the Midwest.

“I want someone to walk away from the symposium feeling more confident to have tough conversations about race,” said Williams.

Knowlton School students were also encouraged to attend, explained Cheramie, and Williams made a special effort to create an environment where students felt comfortable engaging with the presenters.

“I truly appreciate Professor Matt's willingness to put Knowlton on the map as the first to put the Design Justice Movement on a national, academic stage,” said landscape architecture master’s student Ruby White, a symposium attendee and volunteer. “The symposium exposed design spaces I didn't know existed. I saw landscape architects in anthropological spaces—restoring forgotten Black historic sites, for example. That was so powerful to me. I was truly inspired and my original career goals for the MLA program have slightly shifted. An anthropological approach to my work is essential if I want to make an impact.”

The successful Trott experience would not have been possible without donor support, Cheramie said, “It provided a full year of programming. It supported coursework, student travel, student and faculty networking opportunities with all of the speakers, the symposium and the exhibition. It was great.”

The visiting professorship will rotate across sections each year, further extending its impact. The 2023-24 Trott Distinguished Visiting Professor is Germane Barnes, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Miami in Florida.

“The rotation allows us to meet the needs of different sections while supporting the intention of the gift, focusing on design—architecture, landscape, urbanism,” Imbert explained. “This year, architect Germane Barnes will be teaching in the architecture section, but his concerns for the politics of architecture and identity are relevant for the three sections. The Trott Distinguished Professorship allows us to both broaden and deepen our curricular offerings.”

This article originally appeared in Forward 2022-23, the college’s annual philanthropy report. Read the full issue.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,