Admirer of Nordic Design to Be Architecture Dean at U. of Arkansas

Russell Cothren, U. of Arkansas

Peter B. MacKeith
June 02, 2014

Among the meaningful things Peter B. MacKeith will leave behind in St. Louis as he moves to Fayetteville, Ark., is the city’s Gateway Arch, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.

What Mr. MacKeith will bring with him when he becomes dean of architecture at the University of Arkansas in July is an enthusiasm for Finnish architecture, one so influential that Finland named him an honorary Finnish consul in St. Louis in 2012 and gave him a high civilian honor this year.

An architecture professor and past associate dean at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, Mr. MacKeith remembers that during his senior year at the University of Virginia, a professor described architecture "as the most tangible expression of our culture."

Examples of Finnish architecture the lecturer gave "hit me very deeply," Mr. MacKeith says. "I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to understand why such images of space and light and material construction were so powerful."

He went on to teach, do research, and practice architecture in the United States and Finland. From 1996 to 1999, he directed an international master’s program in architecture at Helsinki University of Technology. The institution has since been named for the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who has been among Mr. MacKeith’s research and publishing focuses, as has Saarinen.

Mr. MacKeith, who is 55, says he advocates the practice of architecture as a physically, socially, and environmentally responsive craft.

He has interacted often with colleagues at Arkansas’s Fay Jones School of Architecture, so he is confident that he will find there "a high degree of affinity" with "some of the same things of value to me in Finland that have to do with the landscape, with a very place-based understanding of architecture and its role in people’s lives."

That spirit, he says, resonates in the work of the late E. Fay Jones, a prominent Arkansas architect and an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright for whom the school is named. Mr. MacKeith says he also finds that philosophy in the school’s Community Design Center, which works on projects around the state.

He hopes to continue to raise the school’s profile and to share his admiration for Nordic design traditions with faculty and students, through exchanges. "It’s too much a part of who I am and what I’m doing," he says, "to set it aside."

Corrections (6/2/2014, 10:45 a.m. and 1:06 p.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly credited the photo of Peter MacKeith to Washington U. in St. Louis. It was taken by Russell Cothren of the University of Arkansas. It also incorrectly gave Mr. MacKeith's age as 45. He is 55. The errors have been corrected.