HKS’ Cecil Bakalor Is Teaching a New Generation to Appreciate Good Urban Design
HKS urban designer Cecil Bakalor knows the power of a good story.
One of the first assignments he gives students in his urbanism class at Fordham University is to write about a place that makes them feel completely at ease — a hangout spot, a scenic hike, a vacation destination.
Bakalor rejects any vague account that fails to explain why a place resonates in the mind of a student. He thinks back to the times during his four-decade career when he stood before a client to bid for a project, competing with others who also had excellent résumés and portfolios. To stand out, he says, you must tell a story that shows you understand the other person and his or her problems.
“If you can think through that in a personal and creative way, then you’re going to have a skill that’s valuable in a hundred different fields, not only architecture,” said Bakalor, who joined the HKS New York urban design studio in 2011. “What I tell my students is, ‘…if you want to start your own business or you want to be successful in the creative field, the most important quality that you have to have is to be able to communicate the value of your ideas to other people.’”
His students are paying attention. Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University recently chose Bakalor for a 2019 Cura Personalis Award after surveying undergraduate students at the Lincoln Center campus about faculty members who’ve had a positive impact on them. Bakalor’s name was among the most frequently mentioned.
Cura personalis means “care for the whole person” in Latin, a Jesuit principle that Bakalor said he admires. The urban designer, who has taught at Fordham since 2010, works with a total of 70 students in two classes each semester.
“It’s very satisfying to learn I was reaching far more students than I had thought,” he said.
From Johannesburg to New York
Bakalor’s students are not architecture majors. They’re pursuing degrees in business, English and other fields. Some students are still figuring out what they want to do.
“I ask my students in the first class just to say something about themselves, and I often get, ‘professor, at this point, I’m still undecided.’ And I tell them, ‘Don’t worry; I’m a really old guy and I’m still undecided,’” the 71-year-old said with a laugh.
Bakalor’s lectures on the evolution of human settlements touch on philosophy, economics and literature. Television broadcasting was banned in his native South Africa until 1970s, so he spent much of his childhood in Johannesburg with his nose buried in a book.
An art prize that Bakalor won in high school stirred the idea of a career in the arts, but his parents urged him toward medicine, which they viewed as a more pragmatic choice. He enrolled in medical school and got on the dentistry tract.
“I remember the zoology professor saying to me: ‘Your drawings of the bones and the animals are better than anyone else’s in the class, but the rest of your stuff is not very good,’” Bakalor said.
He later dropped out of medical school and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand. After a short stint in Cape Town, he moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia University.
“New York, more than any other city I’ve ever been to, everybody is from somewhere else,” Bakalor said. “That’s why I like it here.”
Choosing Urban Design
Though Bakalor began his career as an architect, he eventually leapt to urban design, which appealed to him because it roped him into the problem-solving process earlier.
“Often when an architect is hired, the client has determined several things about what kind of service he wants and what he expects to see at the end,” he said. “What’s interesting about urban design is that often it’s an institution that’s uncertain about future plans, it’s a developer who owns property and is not sure what to do with it, it’s a city group looking for future amenity that’s going to make the city more attractive.”
Much of Bakalor’s expertise is tied to reviving waterfronts. Before joining HKS, he worked on Battery Park City, a vibrant neighborhood on the southern edge of Manhattan that was once a 92-acre landfill. At HKS, he and others recently helped Toledo reimagine its downtown through a master plan that improves access to the Maumee River, reconnects streets and identifies opportunities for more housing, retail and offices.
The master plan earned HKS and its partners a 2017 planning award from the Ohio chapter of the American Planning Association. It builds on HKS’ overhaul of a historic riverfront brick factory and a Brutalist concrete building as headquarters for health care nonprofit ProMedica.
“What attracted me to HKS is that the size of the firm means they’re in the conversation with really big projects, and many of these very big projects have planning/urban design aspects to them,” Bakalor said.
The shrinking of manufacturing jobs in the United States after the economic boom of the 1950s and ‘60s left many cities and towns in a slump. But places that might look like postcards of urban decline are, for Bakalor, intriguing opportunities to reinvent neighborhoods.
In his classroom, Bakalor peels back layers of history to show students how a series of choices led to certain kinds of environments. He leans on philosophers, economists and historical events to connect the dots between the values that communities hold high and the places those communities build or tear down.
For example, Bakalor walks students through the Enlightenment period so they can understand how dueling beliefs about the main source of human knowledge — the British emphasis on sensory experience versus the appeal to reason dominant in the rest of Europe — shaped London and Paris into distinctly different cities.
Bakalor’s urbanism course is a popular choice for students looking to fulfill their core requirement in the fine arts — a point noted by the Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business when it honored Bakalor this spring.
“You give students a new way of looking at architecture and city planning which complements nicely with various aspects of business such as organization, systems, design, and branding,” wrote Donna Rapaccioli, dean of the business school, in a letter informing Bakalor about his award. “You clearly have earned high esteem among our students.”
But it’s not only his students who benefit from Bakalor’s insight and expertise. Colleagues praise him as well.
“People listen when Cecil talks because he always has something pertinent to say,” said Eric Thomas, director of the HKS New York office. “He has a way of taking a complex problem and articulating it in simple terms that make it easy for everyone to understand.”
For Bakalor, teaching and urban design are expressions of his love of cities — a love he wants to pass down to young people who are not architects. By helping them see the value of good public spaces, Bakalor said he’s giving them a pathway to rethink who they are and the choices they make.
“What it means to be a good person is you have to live with a whole series of choices that are not just about yourself,” he said.