Richard Sommer is a professor of architecture and urbanism and director of the Global Cities Institute at the Daniels Faculty. From 2009-20, he was the dean of the Daniels Faculty. Under his leadership, the Daniels Faculty grew from a school exclusively focused on professional, masters’ education in architecture, landscape, and urban design, to a full-fledged division, incorporating an innovative foundation in undergraduate education, a Ph.D. program dedicated to elevating design research, and new disciplines, including art/visual studios and forestry. In the process, the Daniels Faculty quadrupled in size and scope, making it one of the most broad-based schools of its kind in North America. To accommodate the Daniels Faculty’s newfound breadth and prominence, Sommer led the revitalization of One Spadina Crescent to serve as the school’s new home and public platform.
Prior to his appointment at the Daniels Faculty, Sommer was a member of the professoriate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for 11 years, and served as director of the school's urban design programs. He has held several other academic appointments including the Scholar-in-Residence at the California College of the Arts, as well as visiting professorships at K.U. Leuven, University of Ulster, Washington University, Columbia, and Iowa State University.
He received a Bachelor of Architecture and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design, and a Master of Architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Sommer founded a design practice, borfax/B.L.U. with collaborators in 1995. He has lectured and served as a visiting critic internationally.
Research and Design Foci
Sommer’s research, design work, and teaching focuses on the nexus of politics and architecture along two overlapping lines. The first examines monument-making as an exemplar of architecture's political function, tracing the transformation of the monument’s form as it intertwines and incorporates landscape, infrastructure, urbanization, and new media. He has concentrated on how historical forms of monument have been dislocated within various colonial topographies in the United States, especially looking at how claims of American exceptionalism affected conceptions of history and heritage, changed concepts of nationhood and citizenship, and presaged the development of new, more representative, democratic, and prospective modes of monument-making.
The second line, more based in practice, looks at the changing role of architecture, planning and urban design in socio-political contexts where, on the one hand, capital markets and real-estate forces hold sway and create an increasingly stratified and private city, and on the other, increasing expectations of community representation and equity, and grassroots activism creates demand new forms of engagement and shared urbanity. Sommer’s work examines how the political contention and democratic struggles that these two poles create might change what it means to design, or plan the environment, whose interests we serve when we do so, and exposes why planning and design have such difficulty effectively addressing interrelated epiphenomena such as climate change and socioeconomic inequity. Sommer argues that to imagine, plan and build better, and more democratic cities and communities, we must go beyond identifying problems and deficiencies – or what is ‘missing’ – and build more, and better pictures of the world we are hoping for.
Recent projects such as New Circadia and Toronto Housing Works build on these themes, in that New Circadia fulfills certain functions of the monument by marking and changing time, and Toronto Housing Works addresses the future of the contested, democratic city by creating a complex set of pictures and maps using various media, modelling how we might remake existing urban/suburban territories to serve more collective economic, social, and ecological interests.
Sommer is an executive board leader of PLACES Journal. His writings and projects have been published in Perspecta, JAE, The Harvard Design Magazine, Canadian Architect, Cabinet Magazine, and the books Shaping the City, Urban Design, Fast-Forward Urbanism, The Democratic Monument in America: A Twentieth Century Topography, Supernatural Urbanism: The Los Angeles River Studio, The Blackwell Companion to Modern Architecture, Twentieth Century, and Commemoration and the American City: Monuments, Memorialization and Meaning, among many others.
Fellowships and Awards
Support for Sommer’s research has included grants from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, The LEF Foundation, The Tozier Fund, SSHRC Canada, and The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Sommer’s key academic awards and fellowships include the Distinguished Professor Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 2020; O’Hare Chair/Visiting American Scholar at the University of Ulster, 2005-10; Harvard's Arthur W. Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship (now called the Wheelwright Prize) 1994-5; and the Legislative Award for Teaching Excellence, Iowa State University, 1991.