Steven Grant graduated from Ball State University in 1978 with a degree in Architecture. Since then, he has led a rich life as an architect, an Imagineer at Disney, and now the program director of Florida University’s Themed Environments Integration program. In the following interview, learn about his life and how it was propelled by the unique experiences offered at Ball State University.
What experiences or critical lessons from your time at Ball State proved helpful in getting where you are now?
What I got from Ball State is pragmatic problem-solving. The architecture program was very sensible, and I became valuable as an architect because of it. I grew up in a small town in Indiana called Kokomo, and the biggest thing for me was that I got to spend a quarter in London. While there, I learned how much I loved the city. And I found that I also like theatre a lot, so I ended up focusing a lot of my independent studies on theater design. My professor, our guide, was a landscape architect, so we traveled around gardens and new cities a lot. That was very valuable, and I ended up working with the largest firm in the world as my first job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrel in one of the largest cities I had ever been to, Chicago, for four years. From there, I ended up in New York at a firm on 42nd street, where I designed a couple of theaters, and that was very valuable. I ended up moving back to Chicago after I got married in New York for another four years. Then I responded to an ad in the Chicago Tribune for a company I’d never heard of called Walt Disney Imagineering.
At that time, Imagineering wasn’t a company that people knew about, now most people do. I was offered a job and worked at Walt Disney Imagineering for twenty-eight years as a principal architect, design manager, manager of architecture, and several other roles. In total, I did about a hundred and twenty projects. I spent my first four years in Glendale, California, and the next twenty-four years in Orlando. My work consisted of designing restaurants, performance spaces, and stores. During that time, I also went back to school and got a graduate degree in humanities.
This is where architectural education is siloed, which is a problem; they just study architecture and not humanities, which is a tremendous loss. I realized my education lacked philosophy and art history, all the things that the humanities make up. So, when my children went to school and went away to college, so did I in my fifties. I had a successful career at Disney; there were four of us when I started in Florida, and we ended up with a hundred in my group, so we grew tremendously. I am the quintessential introverted architect, but I loved working at Disney because I have always been attracted to theatre and artists and creative people, which some say are difficult to work with, but I loved it. That’s how I survived as an Imagineer for twenty-eight years, and not many people do.
After I retired from Disney, the University of Florida asked me to start a new graduate program based on themed environments. So, I retired three years ago and am now the director of a new graduate program at UF called Themed Environments Integration. My program is not in Gainesville but in Orlando, which is appropriate for my facility at Citylab. Now it’s growing tremendously. I went from being an architect to a professor, the program is very successful, and I have students from around the world because of my experience as an Imagineer. I was able to write a graduate program with things that I find necessary, and what’s also crucial about my program is that it’s interdisciplinary; it’s not just architects. I have engineers, theater artists, political science students, planners, the gamut of students that work in themed environments from parks to restaurants, museums, hotels, shopping centers, and the rest working in teams to create those sorts of environments.
I was not trained as a collaborative architect. I was taught to be a team leader. They teach architects as if they’re designing buildings alone in a corner, but they need to understand working with teams. I evolved from being a traditional architect to a theme park architect, and my program reflects my experiences. My students want to do theme parks, but the reality is that they will go into interdisciplinary fields. My cohorts have grown so much that I have to have two sessions of all my classes this fall because I don’t want them to be huge. I started with fourteen students, the second year with twenty, this year thirty-two. I wrote and taught seven of the ten classes, and now I can hire adjuncts to teach the rest.
That’s an honest synopsis of my career, coming from Kokomo to being the director of a graduate program at the University of Florida. In my wildest dreams as a kid in Kokomo, I never thought I would be designing theme parks and collaborating in vast teams of hundreds of people. I was able to take my pragmatic Ball State education and expand on it, get more education, and now I’m a professor, and that was not the plan. It’s been excellent. You don’t learn what you’re doing in school; you plant the seed, maybe, but the plant grows through life. That’s my problem with architectural education; they need to expand their education as an architect to include the humanities because that’s what made a big difference for me. How can you design for the world without understanding why the world is the way it is? I knew how to understand buildings, then I went back to school and found out why we design what we design. If something is designed just because it looks good, then that’s probably a pretty bad design. There’s much more depth to it.
The architecture program at Ball State taught us how to solve problems and told us about all the different disciplines that go into a good project. Not even the most famous architects were solo practitioners. My program is designed to solve problems with a group of students coming together.
What advice do you have for students at Ball State who may wish to follow in your footsteps?
I get inquiries from students and high school students asking what I look for in applications, and I say I look for diversity. If I see someone apply who is a mechanical engineer that builds show sets, I’m going to pick them any time over just a mechanical engineer. Imagineering does that, too; they look for people with multiple interests because that enriches you as a person and enriches the company. Get out of your professional silo and learn something else—volunteer for theatre and study writing.
Even elementary students ask me what the most important thing is to remember if you want to be an architect, and I tell them you need to know how to write. You may draw for a few years, but you’ll be mainly writing. That’s a problem, too; architects can’t write. I had a heck of a time starting humanities in my fifties because I had to write a lot. I spent a lot of time in the writing center. Now I make sure my students do a lot of writing and present a lot. I use writing as a tool to teach my students how to collaborate and communicate. In short, study humanities, study the arts, and study philosophy.
If you could re-live one day from your Ball State experience, what would it be?
There was one day I can remember, but I’m not going to tell you what that was. I was one hundred percent focused on architecture; it was my whole life.
Can you remember a class or an experience that changed your life?
London, without question. Also, previous to that, the sophomores in the architecture program would go to Chicago, which began my interest in theatre. We went to see a show in the Auditorium Theater, a famous Louis Sullivan design from 1895, with four thousand seats. I sat in that theater and was so moved, and nothing about that feeling has changed. There’s nothing like a live performance. I still get chills when I think about it and see the performance. Movies can’t do that. I said to myself, “This is something special.”
I always take my students to the theater, and so many have never gone before. I spent my whole career with that side interest in theatre. That was a moment through Ball State that I will never forget. We went to the big city for the first time in Chicago and saw a show that blew me away.
What instructor made the most significant impact on you, and why?
It was a guest named Stanley Tigerman. He was a famous architect in Chicago and taught for a quarter and eventually even won an award from the National Convention of Architects for teaching. He was a grumpy and challenging guy and a great teacher. He was the one that brought in more theory from outside disciplines. Another guest was Will Alsop, an architect I met in London, and he came for a quarter to teach. He became a friend of mine and was very influential.
They both saw things very differently. They were avant-garde and extraordinary and much more about ideas even though we never seemed to study enough of them. That’s the value of guests – I invited ninety guest teachers in the first year of my program.
How did Ball State contribute to your success in life?
Ball State gave me a good grounding. It was a good beginning. I had no bigger ambitions than Indiana but Alsop told me while I was applying to firms that I shouldn’t limit myself to Indiana. He offered to give me a letter of reference and encouraged me to apply to places outside of Indiana, so I applied to all the famous firms in the country. They all sent me rejection emails back, but one firm didn’t – Skidmore, Owings & Merrel, the largest firm in the world at that time. I called them and asked why I didn’t get a response, and they said they only hired one Ball State student a year, their intern. After I got off the phone with them five minutes later, I got a call from the dean of the college who said, “I just got off the phone with Skidmore, Owings & Merrel and they said they were very impressed with your initiative and they are offering you a job.”
I never thought I would be good enough to work at a famous firm. That was all because that one professor, not from Indiana, told me not to stay in Indiana. That led me to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, an Imagineer, and now a professor.
Why have you continued to maintain a relationship with your alma mater?
I would like to have a better relationship. I send a little money every year. In some ways, I should reach out to them. I was in a Disney bubble for thirty years, and I don’t know if I have a good enough relationship. I gave an architectural lecture fifteen years ago, but I would like to speak again, especially about the history of theme parks.
What are your passions outside of work?
You already know one. I go to the theater every weekend here in Orlando. There’s lots of theatre here in Orlando. I’m a voracious reader, and I read a book a week. And travel, especially overseas.
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