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Roger Montgomery, former UC Berkeley dean, professor emeritus and architect, dies

– Roger Montgomery, a former dean of the University of California, Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, an emeritus professor of both the architecture and city and regional planning departments, and a long-time champion of affordable housing, social equity and historic preservation, died Saturday (Oct. 25) at his Berkeley home. He was 78.

An expert in 20th-century architectural history, housing, architecture, urban planning and redevelopment, Montgomery taught thousands of students during the course of his 40-plus years in the classroom and design studio. Montgomery served as dean of the College of Environmental Design from 1988 until his retirement in 1996. In 1994, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, the campus's highest honor.
 Roger Montgomery
Roger Montgomery (Sue Rosoff photo)

He taught his last course, a multi-disciplinary freshman seminar on "The Museum and The City" in the fall of 2000. Although increasingly ill from cancer and multiple sclerosis, he attended the College of Environmental Design's Oct. 10-11 "Wurster Redux" celebration of multiple department anniversaries in the college, including the Architecture Department's centennial.

Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design, said he "could not have asked for a more exemplary predecessor. Fiercely proud of the college, intellectually rigorous and demanding, a champion of the social and environmental responsibilities of planners and designers, a teacher and mentor of students and faculty, Roger was an inspiration. I felt nothing but his encouragement and support, which we all carry with us."

Architect Fumihiko Maki of Tokyo, who met Montgomery when they studied architecture together at Harvard University, recalled their long friendship. He said they shared a common belief "that the world is not perfect and will never be perfect. Roger's commitment to our society, politics, design, planning, indeed to whatever he directed his intellectual interests, always stemmed out of this conviction - that it is always possible to act individually and collectively for the betterment of the world, precisely because it is not perfect."

Born in New York City's Greenwich Village, Montgomery moved with his family to a Long Island suburb when he was four, yet spent much of his spare time as a youngster inside Manhattan's art and history museums. He often said that his season ticket to the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, and its utopian examples of urban design, provided the most life-altering experience of his youth.

During World War II, Montgomery worked in machine shops and assembly plants, becoming in the process a labor organizer and activist. He studied sociology and political science at Oberlin College in Ohio, until joining the U.S. Army in 1945. He served with the Army Security Agency in occupied Germany, listening primarily to Russian communications.

After returning from Europe in 1947, he married Oberlin classmate Mary Hoyt, and the couple settled in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

One day, Montgomery walked into the office of a Yellow Springs architecture firm and demanded to be trained. His son, Peter Montgomery, recalled that, within two years, his father was handling the working drawings, structural calculations, client contact and running entire building jobs for high schools, factories, auto dealerships and single-family homes.

Montgomery was enamored with the designs of Modernist architects Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, and his own designs reflected the same visual language.

From 1954-1956, Montgomery attended Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where he met and became study partners, as well as lifelong friends, with architects Maki and Ben Weese of Chicago.

After accepting a job in 1957 teaching urban design and architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Montgomery went on to form the school's Urban Renewal Design Center and the community-based Landmarks Association of St. Louis. He also was a principal in the St. Louis-based architecture and planning practice of Anselevicius and Montgomery with George Anselevicius and Dolf Schnebli, from 1957-1970.

Montgomery took a leave of absence for three years from Washington University in 1962 to become the first urban designer for the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency, forerunner of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also worked as an urban design officer with the U.S. Urban Renewal Association.

Montgomery was recruited to UC Berkeley and joined the faculty in 1967 with joint appointment in the architecture and city and regional planning departments. His charge was to develop a new degree program that eventually became the College of Environmental Design's Master of Urban Design degree.

In fall 1970, he was a visiting professor at Harvard College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

A backer of the Free Speech Movement, People's Park and other liberal causes of the 1960s and '70s, Montgomery was extremely popular with students. During that era, he grew out his military-style crew cut, continuing to wear a beard and long white hair until his death.

Montgomery was known for mentoring junior faculty and graduate students, particularly those with non-traditional backgrounds or interests. During the budget crisis of the early 1990s, he managed to protect existing programs and create new computer labs, as well as minority and undergraduate initiatives.
Marc Weiss, chair of the Prague Institute for Global Urban Development, said that he dedicated his first book, "The Rise of Community Builders" (Columbia University Press, 1987), to Montgomery, his graduate adviser and chair of his doctoral dissertation committee. He called Montgomery, who was a founding member of the institute's international advisory board, "a wonderful teacher and mentor."

Montgomery established an advisory board that has been key in obtaining additional funding for the Environmental Design Archives and its new space in Wurster Hall.

Montgomery was a regular writer for Progressive Architecture and The Journal of the American Planning Association, as well as a columnist for The Architecture Forum.

His most influential writing came in the form of a chapter in the book, "The Form of Housing," (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1977) on low-rise planned unit housing developments. Montgomery explained why group housing such as apartments and condos became so important in the period 1963-1973. He said they served "both a pent-up demand that had not been met adequately in the 1950s housing boom and the new demand created by singles, old people, unrelated and unmarried couples including homosexuals, single parents, and other nonnuclear households."

Regarding the inherent difficulties of designing social and low income housing, Montgomery wrote in "Bay Area Houses"(Oxford, 1976), "Architectural invention reaches those at the bottom of the social stratification system only when upper-middle class professionals design for them without their participation."

Manuel Castells, a professor at the University of Catalonia, and a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of city and regional planning, said Montgomery "was very cultured and had interests spanning all realms of inquiry. But he was also an action-oriented intellectual who did not hesitate in engaging himself in labor activism or in campus mobilizations to defend human rights and affirm liberty."

Montgomery considered space and society, function and form, to be intimately related, said Castells, and while he never accepted the notion that urban beauty is elitist, he also never accepted that physical form could be judged outside its social context.

Castells, who was introduced to the UC Berkeley campus by Montgomery, said he learned immensely from Montgomery's knowledge of urban history, his ability to bridge spatial analysis with social analysis, and his deep sense of politics.

Montgomery founded the College of Environmental Design Alumni Association in 1989. He was a founding member of the Society of American City and Regional Planning History.

Montgomery served from 1989-2002 on the board of trustees for the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, whose director, Kevin Consey, noted Montgomery's interest in museum programs ranging from architecture and Asian art to film. He was committed to the education role of the museum and film archive, said Consey, and helped inaugurate their academic advisory committee.

After his retirement, Montgomery worked weekly as a peer counselor for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Survivors include his sons, Richard of Santa Cruz, Thomas of Richmond, and Peter of Berkeley, and six grandchildren, all in California. Montgomery's wife, Mary, died in 1980.

A memorial service on the UC Berkeley campus is scheduled for spring 2004.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to UC Berkeley's Consortium for the Arts, which can be reached at (510) 642-4268 or micheler@uclink4.berkeley.edu. The consortium is at 201 Dwinelle Annex, UC Berkeley, MC 1054, Berkeley, CA. 94720-1054. Its Web site is http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/bca/.