CED Dean Richard Bender at his stepping-down party in 1988. Courtesy: UC Berkeley CED

The architect and planner Richard Bender, Dean Emeritus at UC Berkeley and a longtime resident of Berkeley, died of old age in Oakland on Oct. 8, 2022, at the age of 92.

When I first met him, he was already well known as a planner of new towns, an advisor on affordable mass housing experiments underway in New York City, and a professor at Cooper Union. Bender moved to Berkeley in 1969 to join the faculty at the College of Environmental Design (CED) and launch research programs funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Bureau of Standards. They led to U.S. Department of Energy-funded research, shared with Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and the creation of CED’s Center for the Built Environment.

Bender served as CED Dean from 1976 to 1988. He added Donald Terner, an innovator in urban low-income housing in New York City, to the faculty. Tapped by Alan Stein, California’s housing czar during Jerry Brown’s first term, Bender helped Stein set up and nurture Bridge Housing Corporation, the Bay Area’s largest nonprofit developer, with Terner as its first director.

Bender’s real monument at UC Berkeley is its campus, endangered by unmanaged growth. Enlisting Chancellor Albert Bowker, he explained the campus to itself and helped its community plan it to preserve its sense of place. He added design review to the process by which new buildings were proposed, sited, and developed. His Campus Planning Study Group studied existing buildings and outdoor settings, developing plans and guidelines for each precinct. Among its staff was Emily Marthinsen, FAIA. As campus architect, she extended this work.

Born in Brooklyn in 1930, Bender studied civil engineering at the City University of New York; building construction engineering at MIT; and architecture and planning at Harvard, where his studio leaders included the mid-century modernists Walter Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, and José Luis Sert. Bender and his wife, the former Sue Rosenfeld, then moved to Zurich to help plan CERN, the European nuclear research campus, with his lifelong friend Peter Steiger, a sustainable architecture pioneer who later taught at CED and at TU Darmstadt in Germany. Returning to New York, he joined Sert and Paul Lester Wiener to plan new towns in Latin America and teach at Cooper Union. 

Bender’s friendship with Professor Shigeru Ito led to a Visiting Chair at RCAST in Tokyo, part of Tokyo University, in 1989, sponsored by Japan’s five largest contractors. That led in turn to research and study tours those companies funded. At their urging, he set up the Urban Construction Laboratory, a think tank focused on urban issues, as a vehicle for this work.

Bender with Patrick Wheare in a community center designed by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA in Tokyo’s Shibaura District, 2018. Credit: John Parman

Bender was tapped by the Getty Trust’s John Walsh to help select the architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles — a process that involved a world tour of art museums with the Getty’s trustees. At the James Stirling-designed Stuttgart Museum, he recounted later, one of the trustees noted its unusual green stair railings. “Just like his socks,” another trustee said testily.

From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, Bender consulted or advised on master plans and area plans for five UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Merced, San Diego, and Santa Cruz. The UC San Diego Campus Master Plan, done with SOM’s John Kriken and his studio, built on his work at Berkeley. It looked at the adjoining, fast-growing city, and set out a higher-density framework for campus growth that preserved valued open space.

The Benders were world travelers, staying at the American Academy of Rome, where they met the postmodernist and CED alumnus Thomas Gordon Smith, who later revived Notre Dame’s architecture school as a training ground for budding neoclassicists. Planning the expansion of Nanyang Technological University took him to Singapore. He became an advisor to the Tokyo developer Minoru Mori, helping him establish the Global City Power Index, a measure of urban competitiveness. He and the planner Kei Minohara worked with a Buddhist sect in Japan to remake a Nissan Factory on former agricultural land outside Tokyo as a sustainable campus.

In France, Bender was long associated with the planners of the Cergy-Pontoise new town, including Bertrand Warnier, François Ascher, Philippe Jonathan, and others. He regularly joined their summer/fall institute sessions, often with the SOM planner Philip Enquist. He also helped revive the town of Apt after the military air base that anchored its local economy shut down.

The Slow Movement, championed here by Alice Waters, informed his thinking about towns and cities. A paper on Slow Urbanism, given at a conference in Rome, was published in Italy, as were his recollections of the community planner Giancarlo de Carlo, who brought Urbino back to life.

Invited by Anthony Teo, a senior advisor to three leading public universities in Singapore, Bender coauthored papers for the Univer-Cities conferences they sponsored. As his writing partners, Marthinsen and I joined him in Singapore in 2013. In 2016 and 2019, we spoke without him in Newcastle, NSW, Australia and again in Singapore. Teo included our papers as chapters in the Univer-Cities series he edited, published by World Science.

Bender with Professor Hidenobu Jinnai in Tokyo’s Futugawa District, 2018. Credit: John Parman

Bender had a favorite analogy, “clocks and clouds.” Another favorite was “elephants and sled dogs,” extolling the latter’s flexibility and self-sufficiency. Optical illusions that showed how our preconceptions blind us to the fuller nature of many things often illustrated his talks. For his 1970s book on factory-built housing, The Crack in the Rearview Mirror, he enlisted Forrest Wilson to make the memorable drawings that underline his points. He was a visual thinker.

In Tokyo, Bender was “American grandpa” to the children of his CED student, now Waseda University Professor Tetsuya Yaguchi. Courtesy: Tetsuya Yaguchi

Late in their lives, the Benders moved to St. Paul’s Tower, giving up their beloved house on Santa Barbara Road, a landmark for so many of their friends. They remodeled their apartment in mid-century modern style, noting that it was the same size as the house Bender designed for Sue and their children in Amagansett, where they counted artists like Tino Nivola as neighbors.

Sue Bender, a ceramicist and painter, did her masters in social work at UC Berkeley and then wrote a bestseller, Plain & Simple, based on her fieldwork in Amish communities in Indiana and Pennsylvania. (She enlisted her husband to make the book’s wonderful drawings.) She survives him, as do their sons, Michael Bender of Seattle and David Bender of Oakland. His loss is also felt by a worldwide network of friends, many his former students from CED and Cooper Union.

John Parman is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley CED. Bender was his advisor in graduate school. Their 50-year writing partnership was joined by Emily Marthinsen in 2012. He lives in Berkeley.