College of Architecture Interim Dean, Upe Flueckiger, has built a career designing small houses under big skies.
In 1998, Flueckiger left his job in New York City working for renowned architect David Rockwell, to teach at Texas Tech.
“A friend showed me an advertisement for a job at Texas Tech,” Flueckiger said. “I had always wanted to teach, but even more so, I was mesmerized by the work of Donald Judd and was looking for an opportunity to move closer to Marfa.
“Perhaps the idea was naïve, but it was sincere.”
Sincere indeed because, 24 years later, Flueckiger still calls Texas Tech home.
Flueckiger's story did not begin in New York City, however. He was born in Herzogenbuchsee and grew up in the rural farming community of Ochlenberg in Bern, Switzerland. The second of four children, Flueckiger had plenty to keep him busy.
“My parents were some of the only people who didn't farm,” Flueckiger said. “My father was a teacher and my mother was a nurse. But I still helped with farming. That's how most kids earned their first dollar. School would let out during harvest, and we would help collect potatoes, wheat or barley.”
Flueckiger and his siblings would spend their winters sledding and skiing and spent their summers hiking.
But Flueckiger's favorite pastime was drawing.
“I lived in a pre-alpine landscape with rolling hills and farms scattered throughout,” Flueckiger said. “I often would go outside and sketch. I loved to draw houses. There was something very idyllic about them.”
However, without a family farm to inherit, Flueckiger knew he would have to create an idyllic future of his own. After graduating high school, he left to study in Kleindietwil and Langenthal, and later in Basel.
“I was very torn between studying art or architecture,” Flueckiger said. “I felt too artistic with the architects and not artistic enough with the artists. I was interested in both crafts. Ultimately, I turned out to be no good with painting or colors but good at drawing, so I went with architecture.”
Developing his gifts
The combination of engineering and art was the ideal synthesis for his gifts to blossom.
During this time, Flueckiger made a point to travel. The plan was to make it all the way around the globe, but a more realistic plan formed in the shape of driving a Volkswagen van across the U.S.
Enthralled with the experience, Flueckiger returned to the U.S. in 1995 as a graduate student. He earned a scholarship to study at Virginia Tech University, where his master's thesis focused on mobile homes and minimalistic design.
“I was fascinated with the life of Henry David Thoreau,” Flueckiger said. “His book ‘Walden' reflected his experience living in a small cabin he built himself in the woods of Massachusetts.
“Perhaps it also was the simplicity of my childhood that influenced me too,” Flueckiger said. “I grew up in a rural community during the energy crisis of 1973. In Switzerland, we had ‘car-free' Sundays to help conserve gas. So, I think even from a young age, I was very aware that resources were not unlimited.”
All of this would later lead to Flueckiger's book, “How Much House?” in which he posed the question “How much house does a man really need?”
After finishing his master's degree, Flueckiger decided it was time to take on the Big Apple.
“Moving to New York was shocking,” Flueckiger said. “You know, there aren't a lot of skyscrapers in Switzerland.
“As much of an adjustment as it was, I believe every architect should live in New York City at least once,” Flueckiger said. “It is a dense social space. You must collaborate and be with other people in a way I had never experienced before. I think that sort of experience shapes a young architect for the rest of their career.”
Flueckiger's time with David Rockwell included working on some of the top 10 restaurants in Manhattan, including “Windows of the World” which was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most notably, Flueckiger worked on designing the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, where the Academy Awards are hosted.
Sharing his craft
As much as Flueckiger enjoyed the challenge of working for Rockwell and living in Manhattan, there was a part of him that was yearning to teach and was, perhaps, craving open space and sky, similar to that of his childhood.
“Maybe it was because my father was a teacher, but I had always known that at some point in my career I wanted to teach,” Flueckiger said.
In 1998, he accepted a position with Texas Tech and packed up his small Manhattan apartment to move to the South Plains. What began as an idea to establish an architectural design studio that would focus on Donald Judd's work in Marfa, grew into something much larger.
Almost 24 years later, Flueckiger is now the interim dean of the college, has published multiple works and, most importantly, has built his own family.
“I found love in Lubbock,” Flueckiger said.
His wife was working in the School of Art at Texas Tech when they met, so perhaps Flueckiger finally married art and architecture after all.
“The project I am most proud of is the home I built with my wife,” Flueckiger said of their unique house near campus. “Living in your own design sure has a way of turning into a never-ending project.”
The family home is one of many projects that Flueckiger has taken on since coming to West Texas. He designed the well-known studios for the Charles Adams Studio Project (CASP), providing a place for artists to live during their residency programs.
The boxcar-style studios merge Flueckiger's mastery of minimalist space with a tip-of-the-hat to the railroads just east of the studio.
Flueckiger also is well known for his creation of the “Sustainable Cabin” that sits in Crowell, Texas. Completed in 2010, the cabin represented a problem that Flueckiger invited his students to solve.
“The challenge was to build a structure that was more than just sustainable,” Flueckiger said. “It had to operate entirely off the conventional power grid, utilizing rainwater harvesting, waste composting, photovoltaic solar-power and passive solar design.”
The cabin also had to be built under significant budgetary constraints due to its remote location. Rather than selling it as a residence, the cabin serves as a not-for-profit experimental research station for students studying sustainable design.
Flueckiger's latest challenge has been transitioning into the role of interim dean. Stepping into leadership during the summer of 2021, Flueckiger is leading the college during a pivotal time in its history.
“We saw a 9% increase in new students this academic year,” Flueckiger said. “There has never been a year where the college grew that much before.”
Flueckiger attributes some of that to pandemic restrictions finally lessening, but another reason for the surge in enrollment is the times we're living in. With environmental challenges at an all-time high, dwindling resources, accessibility demands and emerging technology, the world needs visionary architects more than ever.
“We must be witnesses to our times,” Flueckiger said. “Buildings will tell the stories of their times. We want our students to go on and build things that tell the story of what's happening right now and solve the problems we're facing.”
To achieve this, architecture is headed in a more cross-disciplinary direction than ever.
One example of this is the college's health care facilities design program. Led by Saif Haq, a professor in the College of Architecture, the program offers a post-professional certificate that can be used to design spaces that positively affect patient outcomes.
Haq is especially equipped to lead this program due to his background in public health and nursing. But there are endless examples of individuals using architectural design to solve problems throughout the world.
It is this kind of growth and collaboration that Flueckiger hopes to see more of in the years to come.
While Flueckiger's own research often demonstrates that bigger is not always better when it comes to housing, he would tell you that is not true at Texas Tech.
“This 360-degree horizon we have on the South Plains defines us as people and as architects,” Flueckiger said. “Every architect's design is influenced by where they reside. My hope is that our students' ideas are as expansive as the West Texas horizon.”