Architecture professor builds knowledge of past masters

By Kristina Jackson

Mick Charney, an associate professor of architecture at K-State, still has a memento from when he first realized his interest in architecture.

When he was in elementary school, a salesman came to his family’s door peddling encyclopedias. His parents weren’t sure they wanted to buy the set, but the salesman offered to leave the “A” volume while they thought about it, and Charney convinced them to take it. He’d been assigned a report about the state of Arizona, and as he was leafing through the book, he came across the architecture section and saw a photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water for the first time.

“I wished I could do something like that,” Charney said.

After almost three decades at K-State in the architecture department, he still has that set of encyclopedias and keeps the first volume in his office.

“It’s a reminder of how I got started,” Charney said. “It’s always been there.”

Charney, a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar, has spent his career teaching students and fostering their interests related to architecture and architectural history, but also pursuing his own, particularly the work of Wright and Walt Disney.

Charney said his Midwestern sensibilities have influenced his interest in Wright and Disney, two men who grew up in the Midwest and who Charney calls geniuses in their respective fields.

“They didn’t feel constrained,” Charney said. “Everyone else said that these things were impossible but these two guys said no, it’s possible. I admire their risk-taking on both parts and how they contributed to American culture.” Charney grew up in the Chicago area and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his doctorate from Northwestern University. He has been teaching for almost 40 years, arriving at K-State in 1987. His areas of research and teaching have primarily been in architectural history, which came about somewhat by chance, Charney said. He had applied to be a graduate teaching assistant, listing structural analysis and history as two areas of interest. He found out later that a professor in each area was interested in hiring him. He ended up working for the historian.

“That determined my future career,” Charney said. “Things that happen behind the scenes can affect your whole life.”

Dating back as far as the first time he saw the photo of Falling Water, he was fascinated by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Charney has taught courses at K-State about Wright, including an upper level seminar about Wright and the American house and how he developed design styles in homes. He also recently taught a course called “Finding Mr. Wright,” in which students each created a Facebook page for someone in Wright’s life and all the profiles interacted.

“It was a neat experience,” Charney said. “It added to the understanding of who he was as a person.” Charney said he is fascinated by both the man and his work. The architect lived to be 92 years old, was married three times and had a mistress. He described Wright’s buildings as organic, seeming to fit perfectly into the site.

“You can’t imagine the site with any other building,” he said. “Each design is unique. They’re not cookie-cutter.”

Charney even contributed to Wright history when he wrote a paper identifying the W. Irving Clark house in LaGrange, Illinois, as a Wright design. The house had not previously been included in catalogs of Wright’s works, but Charney was able to find enough evidence to have it considered one of his designs.

“That’s one of the things I’m proudest of,” he said. “It was very gratifying to see that it was accepted.”

In his years of research on the architect, Charney developed a friendship with Edgar Tafel, an apprentice of Wright’s who helped supervise the construction of Falling Water. The two corresponded over several years, including talking about Manhattan, where Tafel’s wife grew up.

Aside from Wright, Charney’s other main area of interest has been related to all things Disney. When Disneyland opened in the 1960s, Charney built a scale model of the park in the basement of his home, spending hours studying photos to recreate the park.

Over the years, some of Charney’s students have gone to work at Disney parks and resorts, including one who directs much of the ride construction at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. With those connections, Charney gets a chance to see behind the scenes, which is actually his favorite part. While a new “Frozen”-themed boat ride was being constructed in the Norway section of Epcot, Charney got the opportunity to walk through the empty troughs.

“It’s fascinating to see what’s the secret behind the magic,” he said. Charney invited the same former student who directed that project to speak at K-State a few years ago, and Charney still gets choked up when he recalls a gesture the student made that day. “He invited me to the stage and he pulled this out of his bag and said, ‘This is for you,’” he said.

“This” was a hard hat that said “Honorary Imagineer” on the back and “Mick” on the front and had an image of Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the side. Charney said he was very touched to receive the special token. Another former student, Chris Sanford, who now works at an architecture firm in the Chicago area, said Charney was able to elevate the old-fashioned lecture format and calibrate it to the needs of each student in the class.

“In the hands of so thoughtful and dedicated a teacher as Mick, it’s a powerful and engaging way to learn,” Sanford said. Sanford also said Charney set an example for how scholars can relate to their students.

“Mick was also one of the first professors to demonstrate to me that behind the ‘professor’ curtain need not be a stuffy academic, but an accessible and caring person who could just as easily be your friend and mentor,” Sanford said.

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