Gene Bressler’s Life of Curiosity and Circumstance
“I used to be a very avid trumpet player, and I almost went to music school,” Gene Bressler, professor and retiring department head of Landscape Architecture, tells me as we sit in his Brooks Hall office on a hot, sunny day in June. Bare bookshelves line the office walls, and boxes rim the room, stacked above eye level. After 12 years in the College of Design, Bressler is entering phased retirement and stepping down from his administrative position.
Bressler has always loved the outdoors. “I was born on a mountaintop in Long Island,” he jokingly says. As a kid, he would ride his bike to different neighborhood parks and wonder, “who made the park? Who decides what goes where? How did this trail get here?” At the time though, Bressler didn’t know about landscape architecture as a career. He stumbled upon the idea while in high school working part-time mowing lawns and doing yard work. “I was mowing this one family’s house in a typical subdivision, the homeowner said, ‘you do such a good job, you ought to consider landscape architecture’.”
“Concurrent with my interest in landscape architecture was my interest in music,” Bressler continues, “but my appendix burst while a high school junior and I couldn’t practice the trumpet for several months. It was during my time of recuperation that I went out into and discovered the landscape while walking and riding my bike all over.”
“Most people I believe think landscape architects are about landscaping—equipped with a pickup truck, a lawnmower, and a rake. But the thing that was propelling me was my curiosity about who designed all the trails and parks where I rode my bike,” Bressler says. After researching landscape architecture in the high school library (“we didn’t have internet back in 1962 or ’63,” he reminds me), Bressler learned about Fredrick Law Olmsted, landscape architecture and decided that it was exactly what he wanted to do.
Perhaps it’s his natural curiosity and drive or a certain propensity for chance encounters, but Bressler’s life is full of stories like this. Bressler shares with me how he felt out of date in 1981 after having taught early digital methods of landscape suitability modeling at the University of Oregon for over 10 years. He found other professors at Oregon teaching digital applications in various disciplines who shared the same concerns about falling behind. So, they decided to do something about it by forming an adhoc computer graphics program. In the process, Bressler launched the University’s First Annual Computer Graphics Conference. He brazenly declared himself director of the Computer Graphics Department (that didn’t officially exist) and proceeded to plan and book a conference using his personal credit card in the City of Eugene’s new Conference Center The fact was that the conference was not yet sanctioned by the university. But after having been called in by Oregon President Olum, who applauded the idea and cleared all of these hurdles, the conference ended up being a “smashing success,” bringing in speakers from Boeing, General Motors, and National Geographic, and becoming an annual event. In another story, Bressler tells how he once used early pre-digital GIS overlay mapping technology to analyze environmental conditions to inform the planning and design of a ski resort on Mt Bachelor, on a volcano (yes, a volcano) in Central Oregon. And there’s the time in 1968 while attending Syracuse University and rushing to grab lunch in between classes when he literally ran into Robert F. Kennedy, who stopped Gene and his buddies to talk about the on-going war in Viet Nam.
“Landscape architecture is about creating innovative and resilient landscapes focused on human and ecosystem health, safety, well-being, social equity, and quality of life—and the making of places that are physically and spiritually beautiful.” —Gene Bressler
Bressler’s career has been a rich and exciting mix of teaching, administration, and professional practice jobs. While chairing the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Colorado (1997-2006) Bressler co-taught an annual series of advanced interdisciplinary design studios, “Challenging Suburbia,” with Architecture Professor Keith Loftin that focused on challenging existing residential community design development paradigms. In 2003, he was named Director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and was responsible for producing the 2004 and 2005 “Colorado Tomorrow” public forum that focused on population and urban growth challenges facing the State.
Now, after being in academic leadership positions for over 20 years, Bressler is excited to get back into the classroom. Stepping back from an administrative role will allow him to focus more on landscape architecture, which he says, “has been the real motivating imperative of my life.” He is also excited to spend more time with his family—his wife Karen and his daughter Elle—and on hobbies like biking, writing, reading, and music. Bressler will also confess his particular interests are nice cars and fine stereo equipment.
“For years, all of my spare money went into car payments and stereo equipment,” Bressler says. He had to slow the pace of his purchases, however, because “I’ve had to save money to put Elle through college and pay off medical bills.” But with Bressler’s daughter nearing the end of her time at school and with his new retirement status, Bressler splurged on a new very high-quality DVD player. “You can really tell the difference,” he says, “The detail it reproduces in terms of both audio and visual images is so precise and so clean that it brings a whole new level of excitement to how I perceive and enjoy music and video.”
While Bressler clearly has high standards for audio equipment (he did almost go to music school, after all) the same applies to himself as an educator, his hard-working passionate students, and for the profession of landscape architecture.
Sitting back in his chair, Bressler confesses “It was a hard decision to step down as department head. But, I’m doing so at a good time. The department is going strong. Our faculty and students are doing great work. And, I accept that I am the past and it’s time to turn over the reins to my game-changing faculty colleagues and our students who are taking our profession into the future—the next generation who will be thinking and doing the extraordinary!”
Staci Kleinmaier is a professional writer and photographer in Apex, North Carolina. She uses words and images to tell stories. To see her work, visit www.stacikleinmaier.com.