Goodbye Norman Millar: A Beautiful Soul at Woodbury

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Norman official photo
Norman Millar, in a recent photo; courtesy Woodbury University School of Architecture (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Back in 1987 I made a magical first visit to Los Angeles, on behalf of the Architectural Review magazine, and had my first encounters with the then-outsider architects, several of whom would go on to become the establishment. Those names included Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Mike Rotondi and Eric Owen Moss, also Fred Fisher, Brian Murphy, Barton Phelps, and Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung.

To a visitor from London, then beset by stylistic battles over modernism, postmodernism, high tech, deconstructivism and neoclassicism, the fun the Californians were having with form and materials was utterly refreshing and infectious. It felt like a byproduct of its cheap, sunny, banal/beautiful environment in which its physical openness was manifested in a creative openness.

One day I met a young designer who showed me his work, in a way that was so chill and quietly amused that it wasn’t clear if he really cared for publicity. But we talked about Los Angeles and what a stimulating time it was for artists and architects and he said cheerfully, “Yes, LA is a happening place.”

The Ark House, Norman Millar’s home in Echo Park that he designed. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

That phrase — I’d never heard “happening” used as an adjective before — stayed in my mind as did the person who said it: Norman Millar, architect and Dean of Woodbury School of Architecture who passed on April 14 due to complications from surgery, following a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

At that first meeting Norman was a gorgeous-looking and sweet man (not available to women, sadly) with a fledging office and projects that he was working on with public artists Sheila Klein and Ries Niemi (who left LA but became parents to two boys with only-in-LA-art-scene names, Rebar and Torque).

Next time I saw Norman Millar, I was living in LA and he himself had become part of the establishment, albeit in a way that felt like he hadn’t lost his essential soulfulness.

Starting in 1999 he became head of the architecture program at Woodbury University, a school that was barely known at that time because it was completely overshadowed by UCLA, USC and SCI-Arc.

Norman Millar, far left on back row, at a student award ceremony Spring, 2015.
Norman Millar, far left on back row, at a student award ceremony Spring, 2015. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But through steadfast, quiet commitment, Norman built up Woodbury into a school that felt strong while very different from the others.

He grew a body of students that was far more diverse than usual as well as a heavily female faculty, both full-time and visiting, including Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter (Associate Dean), Paulette Singely, Jeanine Centuori, Catherine Herbst, Annie Chu, Linda Taalman, Vic Liptak, Deborah Richmond, Jennifer Bonner and Barbara Bestor, executive director of the University’s Julius Shulman Institute.

He also worked in partnership with Judith Scheine, Architecture Department Head at the University of Oregon, co-designing with her the Ramirez residence at the storied Sea Ranch community in northern California.

During his tenure Julius Shulman endowed the school with the Julius Shulman Institute, establishing Woodbury as a force in architectural photography. That extended into the founding of a gallery in Hollywood, WUHO (Woodbury University Hollywood Outpost), a tiny space that’s showcased some big ideas, among them surveys of Gregory Ain, Deborah Sussman, Helene Binet and most recently, the photography of James Welling.

Ramirez Residence at Sea Ranch, designed by Norman Millar and Judith Sheine; photograph: courtesy, Mark Mahaney (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

He got the school involved with the Solar Decathlon, and under his watch Hadley and Peter Arnold established the Arid Lands Institute, an innovative and influential think-tank.

According to the school, under his leadership, “enrollment nearly tripled in a program that provided undergraduate and graduate students important technical, theoretical, and communications skills while realizing their unique personal design voice.”

He maintained his own personal design voice, building a home in Echo Park, called the “Ark House” — a structure of concrete block, sliding glass walls, removable corrugated metal screens and exposed steel framing that he filled with artisanal and quirky artifacts and furnishings and resplendent landscaping, in a way that seemed to connect back to those “happening” days when LA architecture was about artfully mixing affordable industrial materials with sensual colors, plants and objects.

He also thought and wrote on topics including critical practice, alternative practice, and urban forestry.

He was constantly concerned with issues of diversity and equity, and addressed the ownership of LA’s streets in “Street Survival: Plight of the Los Angeles Street Vendors,” an essay in the 2008 book Everyday Urbanism, edited by Margaret Crawford, John Kaliski, and the late John Chase, also a beloved Angeleno (former Urban Designer for the City of West Hollywood) who I think was the person who initially connected me to Norman, back in 1987.

Norman Millar, in the early 90s; courtesy Woodbury University School of Architecture
Norman Millar, in the early 1990s; courtesy Woodbury University School of Architecture (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Norman’s death has come as a great shock to his team at the school that he shepherded with such gentle, firm leadership.

The school’s associate dean, Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, described him as “wise, mischievous, compassionate, spiritual.  His great passion was teaching and transforming Woodbury students into what he liked to call, ‘architect citizens’.  He was far ahead of his time in quietly, but with unshakable conviction, believing that architecture has the power to engender social justice.  Not surprisingly, he had a remarkably close relationship to his mother, Norma.  He spoke of her often with tremendous affection and pride.”

And Barbara Bestor wrote, “It is very hard to accept the idea that the amazing Norman Millar died this week. He was a wonderful friend and mentor and inspiration not only to me but also hundreds (thousands probably) of other architects, friends and students.

“Norman was like the hero in a vintage western, the good sheriff or sometimes the Lone Ranger. Throughout his life he worked to keep Architecture as a profession more inclusive and actively engaged with all people and in all parts of the city. He loved the west coast and in the last decade found a second spiritual home at Sea Ranch where [Lawrence] Halprin’s utopia touched a chord. I don’t know where he got his tireless drive and energy, or his endless compassion and empathy and super funny sides… But he had them all in spades and was very loved and is very dearly missed.”

For his family members the loss brings memories going back decades. Norman’s younger brother Mitchell reminded DnA that his youthful skills included rowing, and while studying architecture at the University of Washington, he was a champion oarsman.

Norman is survived by Mitchell, another brother Joseph, his sisters Linda, Susan and Leslie, and his life partner Tam van Tran.

The public is invited to honor Norman at a Celebration of Life event on the Woodbury Los Angeles campus on Friday, May 27, at 6:00 pm (RSVP to by May 16). In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Norman R. Millar Endowment for the School of Architecture at Woodbury University.