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Joseph Passonneau obituary: Architect, engineer designed part of interstate highway system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2011 - Joseph Passonneau designed one of the last pieces of the interstate highway system, which has been hailed as "public art," and he pioneered an innovative architectural curriculum at Washington University that has been emulated across the nation. Mr. Passonneau, a renowned architect, civil engineer, author and university professor, died Monday, August 22, in Washington, D.C., of end stage dementia. He was 90.

Glenwood Canyon in Colorado has been the primary route through the Rocky Mountains since before wagon trains gave way to the iron horse. But a 30-year controversy over environmental concerns, aesthetics and economics kept the canyon outside of the interstate highway system until 1992. Finally, a long-planned engineering feat by Passonneau and fellow architect Edgardo Contin transformed the 2000-foot-deep I-70 passageway into a transportation work of art.

"It's a monumental accomplishment of great beauty and engineering skill," said Eugene Mackey III, an architect and former student of Mr. Passonneau. "His negotiation with the public was also an extraordinary accomplishment."

The canyon highway's final design included 40 bridges and viaducts, five tunnel bores (traffic openings) and 15 miles of retaining walls for a stretch of freeway 12 miles long.

In 2000, Mr. Passonneau received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence from President Bill Clinton for the canyon work.

Mr. Passonneau's daughter said the beauty of the Glenwood Canyon project epitomized her father's philosophy of his work.

"He wanted to ensure that the ecological impact was minimal," Polly Passonneau said. "His maximum focus was on the human."

When Mr. Passonneau began working on the project, he had recently stepped down from post as dean of the Washington University School of Architecture, leaving a legacy for future generations.

Right Person, Right Time

"Joe was both architect and educator," said Constantine E. Michaelides, dean and professor emeritus at Washington University. "He was an indefatigable academic citizen."

Mr. Passonneau came to St. Louis in 1955 and began teaching part-time. By 1956, he was named acting dean of Washington University's School of Architecture and was appointed to the position permanently a year later. He immediately set about making enduring changes.

"He set the school's course for the next four decades and more," Michaelides said. "He was the right person at the right time at the right place.

"He helped make the school a leader in American architecture and set the stage for future deans, faculty and students to add to the school's national prominence."

Mr. Passonneau presided over what were perceived as radical changes.

He launched new programs, including urban planning and design that would win worldwide acclaim for the School of Architecture, now part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

He also laid the groundwork for the school to become the first institute in the country to offer a six-year joint degree program that is comprised of a four-year Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree, followed by two years of graduate study for the accredited professional Master of Architecture degree.

It's based on the idea that designers benefit from a liberal arts foundation in addition to concentrated design studies.

"He developed what has become a common structure known as the 4+2 program," said Bruce Lindsey, dean and E. Desmond Lee professor for community collaboration at Washington University. "It remains the focus of the program today and many schools nationwide have adopted it."

Mr. Passonneau brought many distinguished visiting architects and designers to the school, including renowned inventor R. Buckminster Fuller and Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. Many of his students would go on to lead schools of architecture.

"He was a person of vision who knew how to get things done and he was a person also of great passion; he really tried to do something wonderful," said former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth. "He recruited great people."

Those people included Austrian architect Hans Hollein ,who designed the Museum Abteiberg in Germany, and Fumihiko Maki, a Japanese architect who is currently working on Tower 4 at the former World Trade Center site.

An Accidental Academic

Joseph Russell Passonneau was born January 19, 1921, in Pullman, Wash., the oldest of Amy Anderson Passonneau and Joseph Passonneau Sr.'s three children.

Mr. Passonneau attended Harvard University on scholarship, graduating magna cum laude from the School of Design with a degree in architecture. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, serving in naval intelligence in the South Pacific. He achieved the rank of lieutenant. Upon discharge, he made good use of the G.I. bill and entered graduate school, where he earned simultaneous degrees: a Master of Art in Architecture from Harvard and a Master of Science in Engineering from MIT.

He began his career at Holabird and Root in Chicago. He later joined the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville, Tenn., where he designed industrial buildings.

In 1955, Mr. Passonneau and his wife, Janet, a scientist who would work at Washington University's Medical School, and their son and daughter arrived in St. Louis, where they would remain for the next 11 years. The couple would add two more daughters to the family.

In 1962, Mr. Passonneau was tempted by an offer to become chairman of Harvard's Department of Architecture, but he elected to stay in St. Louis.

Soon, Michaelides said, Mr. Passonneau's name was being mentioned frequently for the chancellorship. He decided against that, too.

"Joe wanted to work as an architect, more than an academic," Michaelides said. "His service as a dean was somewhat of an accident, but he served well."

Even while teaching full-time, Mr. Passonneau had remained an active architect. He consulted on the design of Washington University buildings, including the Hugo and Ina Champ Urbauer Hall, which was completed in 1959.

Maps and honors

In 1967, Mr. Passonneau returned to Chicago and went to work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1970, he and his family made their final move, to Washington, D.C., where he set up a nationally acclaimed practice.

In addition to Glenwood Canyon and TVA housing, his work away from academia included designing a summer auditorium for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first private redevelopment project in Chicago, a new downtown for Oak Ridge, Tenn., a major shopping center, as well as residences.

For his efforts in transportation engineering, urbanism and teaching, Mr. Passonneau's awards were numerous and prestigious.

He was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1964 at the national convention in St. Louis, which primarily acknowledged his accomplishments as an educator. He received the Washington University Dean's Medal for Distinguished Alumni in 1997. In 2000, the Presidential Award for Design Excellence was bestowed on him by President Bill Clinton. Two years later, the Washington chapter of AIA conferred on him the Centennial Medal, the chapter's highest honor.

He was the creator of maps that show how Washington has evolved over the years. The 25-year project won a national award in 2000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation and was published in 2003 in his book Washington through Two Centuries in Maps and Images.

He also added his voice to the landmark study of architectural history, "Modern Architecture, in St. Louis: Washington University and Postwar American," by Eric Mumford.

Throughout his career, Mr. Passonneau remained connected to the academic world, lecturing frequently at Harvard, Princeton University, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Southern California. He also stayed connected to St. Louis.

A Founder Of The Landmarks Association

Mr. Passonneau was instrumental in the formation of the Landmarks Association, a foundation to preserve historic buildings.

"Even after leaving, he kept an interest in St. Louis and had ideas for us," said Danforth, chuckling as he recalled how Mr. Passonneau expressed his ideas while waving his hands wildly.

"He was," Mackey said, "a friend to everyone. "He was a very warm and gregarious person who was very much interested in people and their potential. Joe embraced the entire community in the region; he reached out as a visionary, as a community leader. He was a man who only made friends and those relationships endured."

Mr. Passonneau was preceded in death by his parents and two sisters.

In addition to Janet Passonneau, his wife of 63 years, he is survived by his children, Christopher Neal Passonneau, Rochester, N.Y., Rebecca Jane Passonneau and Polly Nicole Passonneau, both of New York City, Sarah Michelle (Stanley Harpole) Passonneau, Ames, Iowa, and two grandchildren, Vivian Passonneau and Ada Tea Harpole.

Memorial services in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis are being planned for a later date.

If desired, memorials in honor of Mr. Passonneau may be sent to the Joseph R. Passonneau Scholarship, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1210, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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