Fox Fellow goes back to the drafting board

Mark Alan Hughes Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Twenty years ago, Mark Alan Hughes received his Ph.D. in regional science from Penn. Since then, he’s racked up awards for his academic work, helped to design and create programs to help working families and was called one of the nation’s five best local columnists for his Daily News writings.

Recently, he’s worked as Senior Fellow at Penn’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, but when he entered the classroom in fall of 2006 it was with a different purpose—as a first-year student in the professional Master of Architecture program. “I kind of always wanted to go to architecture school,” says Hughes from his office in Leadership Hall. “I really really wanted to learn something I couldn’t teach myself.”

Since he had long stressed to his children the importance of learning and intellectual curiosity, he decided to be true to his word. Fortunately, he has a “fabulously generous wife,” who encouraged him to take three years to pursue the program. His kids are keeping an eye on his progress: “My daughter is closely monitoring my GPA,” he says.

So far, Hughes has found the program to be tremendously stimulating and challenging. “The intellectual fervor in the School of Design is equal to any that I’ve ever experienced. It’s an amazing, exciting place.” Hughes has taken classes on construction (how to pour concrete and create a brick wall), structures (about trusses, beams and the like), environmental systems, history and theory, visual studies and the hands-on studio, which is the central experience. Faculty members critique students on their work, and Hughes laughs when recalling a comment from one of his jurors: “You’re going to be really dangerous when you get some design skills.”
School rarely ends at 6 p.m., but instead runs to 8 or 9 in the evening, and some nights he finds himself working until the wee hours. “The thing you can always say to people is, it’s an amazing amount of work,” says Hughes. “My personal goal is to survive.”

When he began the program, Hughes says he thought he’d miss drawing, but has quickly learned computers allow students to design and imagine in 3-D, in incredibly powerful ways. “[I had] the same attitude about the computer and drawing as I remember having 25 years ago about computers and writing,” he says. “It’s just not true.”

Hughes isn’t sure what will come after he finishes the program, but the Midwest native knows Philadelphia is the place for him. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It helps make everything feel a little less trivial to see all of that living accumulate in buildings.”

Hughes, who has put his Daily News column on hold, says the challenge for Philadelphia is to realize that the time is past when the city was powerful and affluent. “We are stewards of that past and survivors of a period where we’ve been in decline. It’s hard to be both a steward and survivor at the same time.”

Originally published on January 18, 2006

Originally published on January 18, 2007