Richard Bender: an appreciation

Signs of RB at Westbrae’s Roma Café, our last in-person meeting.

At the start of the 1972 academic year, Berkeley architect and U.C. Berkeley Professor Sandy Hirshen introduced me to Richard Bender and we began a 5o-year writing partnership. We went back so far that calling him Richard, not Dick, was never a natural act.

It isn’t easy to sum up his nine lives. When I first met him, he was already well known as a planner of new towns and an expert on mass housing — from self-help in the Bronx to the market experiments that HUD launched under Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney’s father, George. Less well known was his friendship with the sculptor Tino Nivola and other artists in and around Amagansett on Long Island, where Dick and his wife Sue built their summer house — featured in the New York Times decades later as a part of the Hamptons’ modern period.

The Benders’ house in Amagansett, one of four RB designed.

Dick became the Architecture Chair at CED soon after we met. A year or two later, he succeeded William Wheaton as Dean. At CED, he oversaw a substantial research program funded by the National Science Foundation and what was then the National Bureau of Standards. It set the stage for Department of Energy funding, shared with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and led to the creation of CED’s Center for the Built Environment.

RB in 1988, the year he stepped down as CED Dean.

His real monument, though, is the Berkeley Campus, which he saved from being paved over by enlisting then-Chancellor Albert Bowker to explain the campus to itself and help its community preserve its sense of place as it grew. He also added design review by faculty and outside professionals to the process by which new buildings were proposed, sited, and developed. Several of us were part of the Campus Planning Study Group (CPSG), and one of us, Emily Marthinsen, became Berkeley’s Campus Architect — now that’s a long-range plan!

The latest vision (2022) of the U.C. Berkeley Campus’s future, informed by the CPSG’s early work.

Later, tapped by his friend Alan Stein, Dick helped establish and nurture Bridge Housing Corporation, the Bay Area’s largest home-building nonprofit. Word got around, and soon Dick was advising half the planet on how to revive aging new towns and provincial villages; sustain the growth of metropolises like Tokyo; and plan leading universities in California, China, and Singapore for the future.

Dick had a long view — and a “good nose,” as the Zurich architect Peter Steiger, a longtime friend, likes to say. His intuition was like a great physician’s diagnostic sense. Even physicians sometimes speak sharply if their patients are too obstinate, but he was renowned for his bedside manner. Giving advice is much harder than it looks, especially in the company of the grandees of their elevated worlds. You have to convince them that it’s their idea, and he knew how to do that.

Several times, I watched him discuss projects in Tokyo’s Aoyama ward with the late Tokyo developer Minoru Mori. A visionary, Mori was sufficiently impressed by these conversations to ask Dick, along with Sir Peter Hall, to be a founding advisor to the Mori Power City Index, now one of the leading measures of a metropolis’s appeal. Dick saw things that others overlooked, influencing work at different scales and timelines. He was especially good at considering a project’s impact on the surrounding city.

The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills was one topic of RB’s conversations with Minoru Mori.

A profile of Dick written by Bertrand Warnier and Marc Dilet, received from Warnier via Phil Enquist in late October, reminded me that Dick was tapped by John Walsh to help select the architect of the Getty Center. He joined the Getty’s trustees on a grand tour of art museums. As he recounted to me later, when they got to Jim Stirling’s in Stuttgart, someone noted the unusual green stair railings. “Like his socks,” one trustee said testily.

Dick had a favorite analogy, “clocks and clouds.” His friends definitely formed a cloud — a flying circus or motley crew that rose to every occasion in which we found him at the center. Another favorite was “elephants and sled dogs,” extolling the latter’s flexibility and self-sufficiency. Optical illusions that show how our preconceptions blind us to the fuller nature of many things illustrated his talks. “Slow,” in the sense of making time for deliberation if a beloved place was to be altered, was also mentioned.

One of the many optical illusions that found their way into RB’s talks.

A few years ago, Dick and I contributed to a on the Italian architect-planner Giancarlo de Carlo edited by Paolo Ceccarelli, and I learned how many modernists — Gropius, Chermayeff, Moser (with whom he and Steiger worked on CERN), and de Carlo himself, among others — he knew personally through his work in Zurich and later in Italy. But he also knew the young Thomas Gordon Smith and his family from sharing a semester with them at the American Academy in Rome.

Dick was good friends with Fumihiko Maki, Kei Minohara, the late Minoru Takeyama, and others in Japan, including CED alumni Naomichi Kurata, Naomi Maki, and Tetsuya Yaguchi; and Tokyo historians Hidenobu Jinnai and David Stewart. Minohara impressed Dick as an astute observer of the metropolis’s growth, critical of the Corbu-influenced Radiant City-redux ideas Mori put forward. In 2007, Minohara enlisted Dick in an effort by a Buddhist sect to redevelop the site of a redundant Nissan factory in a formerly agrarian area outside Tokyo. Minohara is best known for planning Makuhari, Japan’s only European-style new town, where he now lives in an apartment building designed by Steven Holl. (I toured Makuhari with him n 2017.)

Dick’s friendship with Professor Shigeru Ito led to a Visiting Chair at RCAST in Tokyo, part of Tokyo University, in 1989, sponsored by the GC-5, Japan’s largest contractors. That led in turn to research and study tours those companies funded. In May 1989, at their urging, we set up the Urban Construction Laboratory as a vehicle for this work.

In France, Dick was long associated with the planners of the Cergy-Pontoise new town, including Bertrand Warnier, François Ascher, Philippe Jonathan, and others. He regularly joined its summer/fall institute sessions with SOM’s Phil Enquist. He also was involved in rethinking the Provence town of Apt after it lost the military air base that anchored its local economy.

RB talking with Hidenobu Jinnai after touring an older district of Tokyo, November 2017.

Strada, the café across from Wurster Hall on Bancroft in Berkeley, was one of Dick’s haunts. I often met him there, episodically joined by visitors like Michael Bell. Emily Marthinsen was a regular. I’ve never been partial to Strada’s coffee, so we sometimes met at Guerilla Café near my house. Taichi Goto, a planner now based in Fukuoka, met us there on one visit.

When the pandemic hit, Dick and I spoke weekly over Zoom, along with Emily Marthinsen. He was sending us both notes and links until a week before his death. (After holding cancer at bay nine years ago, he told me, “Well, since I’m not dead I’d better get my car seats recovered.”) We thought he had nine lives, but alas he didn’t. He died peacefully on 8 October 2022, in the company of his wife Sue and his sons Michael and David. Along with his family, he leaves a throng of people east and west who treasured his friendship and benefited from his counsel.

With RB and the Fukuoka-based planner Taichi Goto at Guerilla Café in north Berkeley.

One of them, Tetsuya Yaguchi, wrote to me after CED posted its notice. Tets was Dick’s student at CED, then moved back to Tokyo to become a professor at Waseda University. Dick was his children’s “American grandfather,” he noted, sending me a photo exemplifying a very characteristic relationship.

RB with one of his Tokyo grandchildren.

Note: This appeared initially as a that CED posted along with a more formal notice.

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Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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