Editorial: Remembering Andrew Levitt

Andrew Levitt’s legacy of designing with empathy.

Andrew Levitt

This winter, the community at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, where I studied in the 1990s, is mourning influential Professor Emeritus Andrew Levitt, who passed away on November 7.

Levitt was a beloved design studio leader, but also worked as a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist. The meeting of these seemingly disparate realms is highlighted in his two books, The Inner Studio (2008) and Listening to Design (2018). The former asks what the modern understanding of the psyche can teach designers, while the latter considers design as a kind of therapeutic process in itself. Both books encourage designers to explore, validate, and investigate their inner worlds as an essential aspect to their work in shaping the outer world.

“It may seem odd to suggest that self-knowledge needs to become an integral part of a designer’s education,“ Levitt writes. “Schools make every investment in the outer world […] but they do not begin to address the deeper strata of conscious and unconscious longings, needs, emotions, and desires that influence decision-makers and affect decision making. I have come to believe that the idea of declaring the role played by the psyche in the creation of the built world is the best way to guide architectural know-how and heal the environment.”

For Levitt, learning how to face design problems—rather than how to solve them—was essential. He urged students to cultivate awareness of both the inner and outer forces that shape their designs, encouraging them to be open to their physical observations of a new project site, but also to their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions. He believed this would allow them to make a personal connection to their work, and to be moved in a way that drew on their deep creative instincts and made their designs alive.

Connecting with kinaesthetic intuition—our energy levels, our physical ailments, our ‘gut’ feelings, even our need for rest—is also a skill that Levitt encouraged students to cultivate. “As designers we typically associate creativity, intuition, and imagination exclusively with the mind, yet architecture has traditionally been built largely by hand,” writes Levitt. “It seems natural to bring our bodies’ innate capacity to create and express to the design process because it is the body, with its extraordinary sense and range of touch, that we are actually seeking to contact and satisfy.” Listening to the body’s reactions, rather than suppressing them, is important to the physical acts of drawing and crafting models and prototypes. But it can also help designers to understand their personal responses to designing, and open the door to choosing a path through the design process that comes from a place of wisdom.

In Jungian psychology, we all have positive and negative traits and experiences, strengths and weaknesses, talents and difficulties, light and shadow. Observing these dynamics in our inner world, wrote Levitt, helps us to understand how to act with greater empathy in designing the outer world for real people and complex problems—not just for an imagined ideal.

“Design can no longer mean ‘my design’, it must now mean ‘our design’,” he wrote. “Our design includes awareness of and respect for climate change, the extinction of species and habitats, the management of energy and resource use, and the legitimate needs of every user. Our design includes children and the elderly, as well as people with specialized accessibility needs. Looking into the future, perhaps our designs will also include the alienated, homeless and displaced populations, with room for those who protest and those who prefer to live online.”

Levitt’s ideas were hard-won through years of teaching grounded in deep empathy and compassion. He was known for crafting design exercises that helped students access their inner resources, and mounting charrettes where they contributed to each other’s success. Early in the pandemic, Levitt held an online talk on the loss of studio, focusing on the mental health and well-being of the students forced to study remotely. The talk was one of the many ways Levitt brought meaning to the emotional experiences of individuals in an institutional setting. It was followed by nearly an hour of conversation—a microcosm of the active listening and encouragement that Levitt offered as a teacher over more than two decades. He was a therapist to some, a mentor to many, and an inspiration to students and fellow faculty members alike.

This fall, the School launched a four-semester-long lecture series devoted to dialogues on the theme of care, dedicated to Andrew Levitt. Levitt’s own empathy and care for architecture students—and the work of architects—was deeply rooted. One hopes that its influence will continue to grow and flourish.