“A great building inspires you,” says John Gaunt, dean of the Kansas University School of Architecture, Design and Planning.
Gaunt, along with the other faculty and staff in the school, work to educate the students who will one day be creating those inspiring structures.
Gaunt received his undergraduate degree in Minnesota and his master’s from the University of Pennsylvania. As a student, he worked closely with influential architect Louis Kahn.
“I was fortunate to go to good schools with very strong mentors — people who were inspiring for me,” Gaunt said.
Gaunt then worked briefly in Philadelphia and New York before starting an 18-year career at Ellerbe Becket, an architecture firm in Minneapolis.
“John Gaunt basically single-handedly changed the attitude” that big architecture firms can’t be adventuresome in designs, said Dan Rockhill, J.L. Constant Distinguished Professor of Architecture at KU. “John was the first one to kind of stick his neck out, and that was his legend in practice.”
Gaunt enjoyed working with clients and the simple satisfaction of completing a building.
One of his favorite projects was a children’s hospital at Indiana University. The project was an education-based hospital and took seven years for Gaunt and his team to complete. The challenge was making the building practical and functional but also a place the children wanted to be: fun, playful and welcoming.
“To me, architecture is about that wide realm of artistic, practical, functional and, now, environmental elements,” Gaunt said.
Gaunt said a favorite part of his career was the educational and artistic element of architecture. He enjoyed learning in the classroom, learning from Kahn and learning in the field with each unique project he was assigned.
Many architects teach at universities as adjunct professors, which is something Gaunt was unable to pursue during his 30-year career. However in 1994, that changed. Gaunt came to KU to approach architecture and education in a way he had not done before, as dean of the School of Architecture. He now oversees the 1,000 students in the architecture program and teaches a free-hand drawing course, among other responsibilities.
“I can’t imagine there being many other deans across the country that would be able to make the same contribution to the same size of school,” Rockhill said.
Rockhill has worked with Gaunt since Gaunt first came to KU. He is impressed at Gaunt’s dedication to the students’ educations, whether he is making architectural education more accessible through scholarships, rubbing elbows with freshmen during one of the introductory courses he teaches or just being accessible to students if they need him for any reason.
“I think he brings a level of quality and sophistication to the school that we’ve all reveled in over the years,” Rockhill said.
Despite the commitments that come with being the school’s dean, Gaunt still lives his passion. His office is filled with sketches and designs of buildings and even sculptural knickknacks sitting on the window sill, all created by Gaunt. His sketches and work have been in exhibits including his own show at the Lawrence Arts Center in 2009.
“I draw, think, make,” Gaunt said.