Montana State University

When in Rome: MSU School of Architecture show salutes Kommers and study abroad experience

October 31, 2012 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Peter Kommers, professor emeritus in the MSU School of Architecture, is also a successful artist who advocates teaching MSU architecture students hand-drawing skills, even in a day of computer-aided design programs. Hand drawing is emphasized in the MSU Rome Studio that Kommers helped organize and manage. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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When Peter Kommers won the prestigious Rome Prize for architecture and a year in Rome nearly 40 years ago, the ancient city was a revelation for the Montana-raised architect, artist and Montana State University graduate.

"I found out how valuable it was to get to study and live in Rome," said Kommers, now a professor emeritus in the MSU School of Architecture, but at the time was a young architect and MSU graduate living and working in Bozeman. "I learned other major schools of architecture had a program in Rome. I thought we could have one, too."

Four decades later, scores of MSU architecture students have benefited from Kommers' insight and have studied architecture and design in Rome as well as other locations around the world.

A visible measure of that impact can be seen Nov. 5-21 in MSU's Cheever Hall gallery when the drawings of students who studied in Rome last summer will be on display.

The show is bittersweet for Steven Juroszek, who is director of the MSU School of Architecture, a colleague as well as a former student of Kommers. While Kommers is officially retired, he has helped each summer with the MSU Rome Studio, a 12-week international studies program that Kommers helped establish in 2005.

"The (MSU Rome) Studio provides an "incredible opportunity" for MSU students," Juroszek said.

"For many of them, it is their first opportunity to study abroad and to be immersed into a different culture. It changes how they see the world and when they return to the United States, it changes how they see their home. Living amongst some of the wonderful architecture that exists in Rome makes history come alive for them and positively influences how they see their own work."

That was certainly the case for Kommers when he first went to Rome. A native of Billings, Kommers and his family lived in many cities and towns across Montana as he was growing up. He graduated from Butte High before he came to MSU, where he received his undergraduate degree in architecture. He earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of Oregon after he served with the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam conflict. He returned to Bozeman to practice architecture with his colleague, Don McLaughlin.

While he completed an extensive application for the prestigious Rome Prize, he said he had no real thought of winning the prize, which is awarded by the American Academy in Rome to 15 emerging artists working in architecture, landscape architecture, design, historic preservation and conservation, literature, musical composition or visual arts.

"I thought it was a miracle when I'd won it," Kommers said of the prize he won in 1975.

His colleagues were not so surprised. Juroszek said Kommers is recognized as "an incredible architect, artist and illustrator. He is a phenomenally talented designer, and his ability to capture the essence and spirit of a place in a drawing is unsurpassed."

The prize allowed Kommers, his wife, Dianne, and their then small daughter, Faye, to live in Rome for a year that spanned parts of 1975 and 1976 while Kommers studied architecture and design. Kommers still calls it "a rare experience for a young architect from Montana." His understanding of architecture, art, history and design grew so much from the immersion of living and working among the classic and modern architecture that abounds in Rome.

"There was a richness of experience of the year I had there, I wanted to make that opportunity available for other Montana students," Kommers said.

Kommers started teaching at MSU as an adjunct when he returned and became a full-time tenured professor in 1983 and nearly immediately advocated for a foreign study option in what is now the MSU School of Architecture.

The program actually began in the mid-1990s, when Kommers found a place for MSU students to live in Rome. However, it wasn't until 2005 that he was able to find a studio, in Rome's Palazzo Pio, that MSU could rent for the summer that the program took the form that it is today. Currently, about a dozen MSU architecture students spend 12 weeks in Europe, including nine weeks in Italy, first studying architectural history for two weeks in Tuscany and Umbria before moving to Rome for six to seven weeks. Following their residence in Rome, the students complete another two to three weeks of independent assigned travel in Europe before returning to the U.S.

"The fact that students live in Rome for six to seven weeks means that they transition from being tourists to residents and as such they tap into the rhythms of the city," Kommers said. While in Rome, they study the renaissance architects of St. Peter's Basilica and their precursors as well as complete a theoretical design project of a part of the city near the Coliseum.

"Living in Rome expands their senses, not only the history of architecture but in the study of a place in evolution," Kommers said.

Indeed, former students say that becoming immersed in another culture is life-changing, but also provides an essential educational framework for future architects.

Robert Remark, who graduated from MSU in 2011 with a master's degree in architecture and is now practicing at JLG Architects in Grand Forks, N.D., said while the memories of Italian culture and architectural sites are precious, his thinking about his profession was transformed by experience.

"What I do find myself thinking back on was the process we used while we were participating in the Rome Studio," Remark said. "I think about the way we structured our group, the methods we used to study the site and share data and ideas. I reflect on our design process and our focus to work intelligently, fast, yet thoughtfully and with the goal of designing a project that was relevant and respectful to the people and the place."

In fact, the MSU Rome Studio has been so successful that the School of Architecture now offers several travel and study opportunities throughout the world including Europe, Central and South America and Asia, although no others include a resident studio. And while Kommers will no longer be involved (he is busy in retirement working on his acclaimed contemporary paintings as well as his own designs), members of the SOA faculty will take turns teaching and keeping the Rome Studio going.

"Having someone of (Kommers') caliber as a colleague and a teacher has allowed the School of Architecture to be known for its excellence in design and in graphics," Juroszek said. "So many of our graduates studied under Peter and he helped everyone to achieve more than they thought possible. He made the school a better place for our students and was a wonderful colleague."

Peter Kommers (406) 994-4255, peterk@montana.edu