Diana Balmori. Master Teacher

The celebration of Diana Balmori’s contributions to our civic life has rightfully concentrated on professional accomplishments in landscape architecture projects and academic services. I would like to complement these observations with celebrating Diana’s more fine grained educational legacy by reporting on some of the teaching and learning experiences we shared.

In the 1970’s Don Rainey, a second year Yale School of Architecture student, a couple of other students, Judith Burch and myself designed and built a house near Linsley Pond in Branford, Connecticut. This pond was famous for the ecological studies done by G. H. Hutchinson and his students that considered a full range of variables affecting the patterns and processes of the pond’s ecology.

The house was built to follow that inspiration. The design of the house was to emphasize a goodness of fit between the building and its habitat and to flow with the evolving life styles of the occupants. The house was part of the wider ecosystem which it shared as a member of that system.

Diana attended the open house along with a number of folk from Yale architecture and ecology programs. She was intrigued with the conceptual and actual outcome of our efforts. We had a good conversation about the natural , indeed necessary, relations between the work of architects, artists and ecologists. She suggested we should make that larger pioneering vision into a course for students who had similar interests but specializing in these three disciplines. This was a very radical vision for those times. It was particularly so as professionals in these three disciplines seldom considered they shared some common opportunities for learning and improving and expanding the value and utility of their very specialized practices.

At her initiative we had many long and detailed discussions on the design and content of the course, our planned operation and service to students. We decided to have three students from each discipline. There were to be three projects where each discipline had management responsibility. The implementation meant a mutual learning of the strange languages and visions of the other two disciplines, The readings and class discussions concentrated upon readings by the directing discipline group and the readings suggested by the other two groups that were to enhance the ideas and practices of the lead discipline.

Diana and I would meet for an hour before the class meeting and thrash out our planned approach. It was hard and emotional and rich creativity as we walked these very unfamiliar pathways. It was the most exciting educational experience I ever had in my forty plus years as a professor.  It was so demanding that we could only do it for a couple of years. Diana had this magical ability to critique ideas and practices of the students or the group such that they internalized the critique and made it their own. I am unaware of any similar programs then or after. I do know that 18 or more students had their professional lives transformed into richer and more effective practices. In short, Diana was a creative and master teacher. Unwilling to accept ideas or practices or performances that did not meet the highest levels of craftsmanship even when we became somewhat lost as our journey was on unfamiliar trails. Most importantly she was always willing to choose the road less taken.

The other course that we jointly taught was a two term seminar on finishing the closing 2.2 miles of the Farmington Canal trail that ran from Hamden to New Haven. Again this was an interdisciplinary effort but with a single focus. The focus was how to serve local communities along the way, to gain access from Yale University, the New Haven Parks authority, and to create a web of interconnecting trails that served educational and community development opportunities. Again the task was demanding and way beyond the conventional forms of university education. Diana inspired, comforted and demanded high performance. All of the student participants in this effort have sustained the lessons Diana instilled in them. Indeed her teaching is a legacy that those students continue in their daily work that binds nature and community as logical partners. Diana expanded a link seldom considered that is now spreading out as an expected norm in creating civic order.  On December 31, 1993 we both received a plaque from the Trust for Public Lands noting this ‘creative and successful partnership.’ However, as I noted above the partnership was multilayered and very inter-generational. It’s consequences are the ultimate mark of lessons from a master teacher.

Thank you Diana.  

William Burch. Emeritus Hixon Professor of Natural Resource Management, FES Yale University. 29 November, 2016

Posted with permission of William Burch, December 2016.