Mills comes to Aggieland from South Africa
to head Texas A&M architecture department


Glen Mills, a South African architect and former dean with an extensive academic and professional background, took the reins July 1 as head of the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University.

Prior to joining the Texas A&M faculty, Mills was principal and sole proprietor of an architecture firm in Johannesburg, South Africa. He also served as executive dean for the Faculty of the Arts and as professor of architecture at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

“As a former dean and practicing architect who holds a Ph.D., Glen Mills is a rare commodity in architectural education,” said Tom Regan, dean of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture. “Our Department of Architecture is unique among our peers in equally valuing the practice of architecture and serious research that contributes to the field. Dr. Mills is accomplished in both realms, and he also brings valuable administrative experience to this position. His international experience underlines the global reach of the department and college.”

Mills earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa in 1978 and a master’s and Ph.D. in architecture from the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa in 1984 and 1986, respectively.

His academic career evolved almost naturally, as he was “exposed to the world of teaching and scholarship at a very early age” through his father, who taught engineering at Northern Cape Technical College in Kimberley, South Africa.

“I thought that architecture was a good blend of arts and science and I was quite comfortable with it,” said Mills, who knew from the start he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and teach college. “I had a very keen interest in drawing things — boats, planes and cars — so that’s what got me into architecture, trying to understand the things that we make as human beings.”

Though he didn’t necessarily set out to become dean of a major university with the same unwavering commitment that drove his scholarship, in the course of his academic career, he said, the opportunity arose and he seized it.

As dean at Tshwane Tech, Mills worked with students from extremely diverse cultural and economic backgrounds who also contributed significantly to the university’s culture and intellectual climate. Dealing with issues related to this cultural mélange was part of his administrative routine.

The key to being a good administrator, he said, is being a good listener.

“Students, alumni, donors, faculty, senior administrators — there are lots of voices that play a role in how we manage and develop our campus units,” he said.

As an architectural consultant and scholar, Mills developed a particular interest in low-income communities, which, given how wealth is distributed in the world, makes him a student of most of the world’s built environment. In fact, he finds inspiration in the ramshackle housing of the so-called “shack dwellers” — the impoverished and marginalized do-it-yourself constructors of the world’s urban slums — and his work has focused on finding ways of regarding and improving that often-discounted environment.

“A lot of innovation is developed by people who live in shacks, or shanties, or whatever you want to call them. They are not recognized as makers of the environment, and I think they ought to be. After all,” he said, “they are producing the bulk of the buildings on the planet. These settlements are not going to go away.”

Mills said growing up in South Africa made him “acutely aware of the need for a more quality-driven, mass living environment.”

“We need to understand the architecture of squalor; we need to understand informal settlements,” he said. “We need to empathize with slum dwellers, the people that make these informal settlements. I believe they have lessons to offer us as sophisticated designers, planners, and thinkers.”

Mills’ scholarship has focused on the debilitating poverty across the third world — “the pools of have-nots” in Africa, Asia and Latin America — researching ways of making better human settlements.

“It’s a case of not making better houses, per se.” he said, “but rather of looking at how housing, as a total, holistic environment, can be made by us as practitioners, as people who think about these things, and then communicating these thoughts to designers, engineers and architects, as well as to the policy makers and people who govern cities.”

To this end, Mills looks uniquely at the built environment from a users’ perspective.

“We’ve got to learn, as practitioners, where to let go from a design perspective,” he said. “People are, and have always been, quite innovative throughout history in making their own living environments. Be it medieval living settlements in Europe or modern shantytowns, people have a way of getting around the obstacles they confront in producing houses as shelter.”

In his practice, Mills worked as a consultant with other architects, engineers and planners, designing integrated housing for the low- and middle-income residents of South Africa’s urban areas.

“The South African government is attempting to develop communities that reflect the composition of society,” Mills said. “There is an attempt to avoid socio-economic zoning, in which the poor are separated from the not-so-poor and the not-so-rich from the rich. Our job,” he added, “is to remove the guesswork from planning and design.”

Getting the right spatial design in these projects is vital to their success, he said, because in the built environment, the social and the spatial — the public movement areas such as roads, town squares, and parks — are interconnected.

“How we make built environments depends on how we understand them,” Mills said, referring to a lesson learned from his mentor, Bill Hillier, professor of architectural and urban morphology at University College in London.

With that in mind, Mills expressed interest in furthering his research on informal settlements by working with the college’s Center for Housing and Urban Development and studying Texas colonias.

“I would like to understand the spatial layouts of these settlements, and how they’re actually used,” he said, “for the benefit of these communities and also in the interest of advancing knowledge about informal settlements globally.”

Although it’s Mills’ first time as a resident in the Western Hemisphere, he said this particular part of the globe reminds him in many ways of South Africa.

“Texas is a fantastic place,” he said. “It’s very close to South Africa in terms of climate and culture. There are some overlaps; the outdoor living style, the value systems, the overall ambience is close.”

From an economic perspective, he said, the similarities continue. For instance, South Africa, like Texas, has a migrant labor system. Many people from South Africa’s neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Namibia and Mozambique, as well as those fleeing unstable Zimbabwe, come to South Africa looking for work and a better life.

“Texas has a similar feel,” he said. “It has the Texas/Mexico border and the colonias settlements along that border, which present the kinds of issues that we experience in the periphery of South African cities.”

Just as Mexican immigrants might initially settle into colonias, in South Africa “a migrant worker’s first stop is to find an informal settlement and connect with that community because that’s their first home. These informal settlements are where people get assimilated into urban life.”

In addition to his extensive scholarly writing, for several years Mills has shared his academic and professional insights through a series of opinion articles he’s penned for Business Day, South Africa’s leading business newspaper.

“I think it’s important for us built environment people to share our understandings with the wider public in an accessible way,” he said of the columns he now writes habitually.

Mills’ newspaper columns have examined the challenges facing South Africa’s universities and their need to train students to “define problems, think critically, weigh up options and achieve innovation.” He’s also written about the dismal state of South Africa’s minimum-cost housing, which he characterizes as “a disaster.”

He hopes to continue writing on the built environment for a lay U.S. audience once he settles into his new post at Texas A&M and finds the appropriate venue. This fall, he’ll also be teaching a course called Social and Ethical Issues for Global Practice.

“That’ll get me into the classroom, which is what I want, initially,” he said, “whilst I settle into this new administrative job.”

Mills’ wife, Robyn, and 18-year old daughter, Sarah, who recently graduated from high school in South Africa, will be joining him in Texas at the end of the year. His son, Justin, 25, works as an aeronautical engineer in the United Kingdom.

- the end -


South African native Glen Mills has come to Texas A&M University to head its Department of Architecture.

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