Esther Hagenlocher sits in the University’s Urban Farm, enjoying a brief, quiet respite from the cacophony of saws and shouting that is the architecture wood shop she just emerged from.
Hagenlocher, an associate professor in the University’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, grew up in Stuttgard, Germany, the oldest of three daughters.
“I grew up in a setting that is rural, advanced but rural,” she says. “There is a lot of technology going on and a lot of new invention going on, but there’s still a lot of farming there.”
Hagenlocher’s father was a certified cabinet maker, her mother a trained chef. Her extended family specialized in many different creative fields.
“In my family we pretty much had every craftsperson, (to the point) where we could build a house without anybody coming in from the outside,” she says.
Hagenlocher and her sisters spent their childhoods on job sites with their father, learning the craft of cabinet-making through observation.
After graduating from high school, Hagenlocher went into cabinet-making herself. She, like many German young adults, postponed attending university so that she could complete an apprenticeship.
“You learn to do something from the very bottom and you build upon that,” she says. “And then a lot of young people start studying when they’re like 24, 25.”
After completing her apprenticeship, Hagenlocher studied interior architecture and furniture design for two and a half years at the State Academy in Stuttgard. After finishing her undergraduate requirements, she began working toward a masters degree at Bartlett School of Architecture, a school at University College London.
The program was extremely challenging, says Hagenlocher, but she had wanted to attend the school to study under one teacher in particular: Professor Peter Cook. Cook, the chair of the UCL Bartlett School from 1991-2005 who was knighted in 2007, was “one of the best-connected teachers in the world,” says Hagenlocher.
The program at Bartlett was unique, because it allowed students to “bring the questions out of yourself.” Hagenlocher says Bartlett made her excel because their learning was “extremely self-driven,” something she would like to see more of at the University.
Hagenlocher’s teaching philosophies shine through in the way she leads her classes. Fifth-year architecture student Jeff Matarrese, a member of Hagenlocher’s color theory class, says that she cares about her students — or “colleagues”, as she sometimes call them — more than many other professors.
“Esther is an excellent teacher,” Matarrese says. “She is incredibly honest but always willing to help. I’ve never had a professor who gets so invested in each student as an individual.”
Hagenlocher sees learning as a mountain — “perhaps 12,000 feet tall” — that each student must learn to climb. She hopes to bring a German sensibility to her teaching in Oregon; she says that in Germany students may start at 2,000 feet on the mountain, but they are guided up to 4,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 8,000 feet, until they can manage the last bit on their own. She says that in America it seems that students are expected to figure out how to tackle the entire 12,000 feet themselves.
“One of her favorite sayings is, ‘would you like an American review or German review?'” Matarrese says. “Esther would always joke that each one of us gets a medal here and how soft and too nice critiques are. I think it’s good, especially in a design field that is so permanent and important to society. Architects have an important job and we must be pushed and challenged.”
Hagenlocher’s research into color theory has had a major impact on the trajectory of her career. During a sabbatical a few years ago she began putting together a “color theory timeline” that tracked the evolution of the color theory field. She noticed that while designers and other creative professionals appeared on the timeline quite a lot, there were very few instances of architects appearing on it.
“What is the most important question to answer about color nowadays,” she says, “(is) why don’t architects make intelligent use of the timeline?”
Her research, beyond simply aesthetics, could have a very real impact on modern architecture, especially sustainable architecture.
“A lot of understanding color is understanding the history behind it and how different people have applied it, and she certainly has that background,” Matarrese says. “She’s also testing reflectivity in order to gain a better understanding of how we can use color in space as a tool for creating more sustainable environments.”
Hagenlocher’s work with color will bring her to environmental conferences in Taipei, Taiwan, Budapest, Hungary, and Lima, Peru in the next year, helping her fulfill her love of travel.
But she’ll return to Oregon, her home of eight years, to continue teaching American students in the German tradition.