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Dean Bruno Leon was born in 1924 in Van Houten, New Mexico. In 1928 his family moved to Detroit. In 1941 Bruno graduated from Henry Ford Trade School as a tool and die maker. The following year he graduated from Southwestern High School and entered Wayne State University and Ford Apprentice School. Dean Leon attended the University of Detroit from 1946 to 1949. In 1949 he entered the School of Design of North Carolina State College and graduated from that institution in 1953, with a degree in architecture, summa cum laude.
Dean Leon spent a year with the Buckminster Fuller Research Foundation, Raleigh, N.C., and from 1955 to 1959 was engaged in the offices of I.M. Pei and Associates, New York, and in the offices of Pietro Beluschi and Eduard Catalano, Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1956 to 1959 he taught in the department of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T). While there, Dean Leon conducted a three-month seminar research project with ten graduate students in cooperation with the Reynolds Metal Company. In 1959 he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Illinois where he remained until coming to the University of Detroit in 1961.
Bruno Leon was appointed head of the department of architecture at the University of Detroit in July 1961 when it was still part of the College of Engineering. He remained as department chairman until 1964 when the architecture department became a separate school. He was then appointed as the first dean of the school.
Dean Leon transformed what used to be an architectural engineering program into a School of Architecture which believes that the student who learns architecture as a broad set of principles will be better equipped for success, and truer to the purpose of architecture, than will one who gets bogged down in detail. “The only reason for architecture,” Leon has stated, “is to elevate the quality of life. We emphasize to our students that they have a social responsibility to design structures that symbolize human value, that uplift the spirit and have a positive impact on the quality of life.”
“I call this a person-centered philosophy,” Dean Leon explained, “because understanding human beings, their aspirations and their drives is critical to how you design something. You don’t design an object in isolation from its environment and just plunk it down somewhere. That unfortunately is the prevailing mode.”
Dean Leon believed architecture should be taught as a social art form rather than merely a collection of technical skills. While recognizing that the technical skills, such as the sciences and engineering, are essential tools of the trade, he wanted students to be more aware of the “big picture,” namely how a structure relates to its surroundings and to the people who will use it.
Dean Leon hoped graduating students would take with them the idea that architecture should not be boring and unimaginative. “Our purpose is to create leaders in design, not fodder for drafting machines. Monotony tends to stifle the spirit. Too many buildings today are like glass boxes. They are one set of windows repeated ad infinitum. There’s no relief.” Buildings should have “layers of meaning,” Dean Leon said “human beings need variety in their lives to survive, and architecture should provide this variety or it is failing its human responsibility.”
As a practicing architect himself, Dean Leon encouraged students to seek positions with smaller firms. He believed the new architect would get a greater variety of experiences that way. And since smaller firms are not so dependent on generating massive volumes of work, they often can afford to be less compromising in their design ideas.
After 30 years of distinguished leadership at the University of Detroit and the University of Detroit Mercy, Bruno Leon retired in August 1992. He returned to his native New Mexico where he designed his own home and worked as a consultant. Dean Leon was named Dean Emeritus by Maureen A. Fay, O.P. President of the University of Detroit Mercy in 1992.
In 2013, Bruno Leon returned to the University of Detroit Mercy to be interviewed in preparation for the 50th anniversary year, 2013-2014, of the School of Architecture.
In the interview Bruno looked back on when he started up the school and rewrote the entire curriculum around several criteria. These criteria included: “teach architectural design as a humane activity and not a style; introduce the students to varying points of views, not one; let’s introduce them to different cultures so that the American student realizes that there are different ways of viewing exactly the same event and they can all be valid; emphasize that faculty of the School of Architecture are servants to students, not masters.” (2013 Anniversary Celebration Video). Unfortunately, Bruno Leon passed away in Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 4, 2013 before the School of Architecture anniversary celebrations began.
With the exception of the interview statement, background information was taken from UDM Marketing and Public Affairs write-ups and personnel documents in University archive files.