Appreciating a Mentor: Clare Cooper Marcus

22 June 2009, 8:06 am



I met my mentor, Clare Cooper Marcus in 1973. So we’ve been friends and colleagues for over 35 years. She and her husband, Stephen, were visiting Australia from California.


“You’d like my wife,” Stephen remarked.


Stephen was right: I liked his wife. Finding a shared interest in almost everything from spirituality to medium-density housing, we formed a friendship that endures today.


I’m the one who decided that Clare was my mentor. It doesn’t detract from “friend”, in my view. It just deepens it.


Sometimes I feel that Clare is my “tester”. Now a retired professor, she discovers something, explores all its dimensions, tells me about it and how to “do” it and then I follow along, somewhat shyly and perhaps reluctantly, in her footsteps.


In the late seventies, when I spent a couple of years teaching at her university in Berkeley, we’d launch forth on our famous “site visits” (mostly for fun but ostensibly as research for our book, Housing as if People Mattered, University of California, 1986), complete with a full kit: thermoses of tea, china cups, cloth napkins and homemade biscuits.


Morning tea was as essential ritual. We’d camp in a dingy courtyard of a public housing estate or an equally depressing open space in a new gated community, unpack our treasures and share our repast.



Clare’s “Space Cookies” a chocolate-and-oatmeal shortbread delicacy, were a great incentive for me to trudge with her through boring housing estates and display villages with (what we deemed to be deceptive) three-quarter-sized furniture. We were rarely polite to those we found responsible for some of the abominations of that housing form we discovered between 1973 and the present day. (I look forward to another round of “site visits” in September this year when I visit Clare.)


In my new book, co-authored with Dianna Hurford and Christine Wenman, Creative Community Planning: Transformative Practices for Working at the Edge (Earthscan, 2010), I say this:


The blessings that the courageous and poetic Clare Cooper Marcus continues to bring to my life are chronicled in many places in this book. We’ve been friends since 1973. We wrote a book together, Housing as if People Mattered, in 1986 and it’s still in print! I can attribute most of my journeying in creative and spiritual realms to her spirited encouragement.

Although I was never, formally, Clare’s student, I am that student. And I bow deeply in gratitude to my mentor.


English-born Clare’s lived in the same house in Berkeley for thirty-five years. Her kitchen is a marvel of “house as a mirror of the self”, as is her bountiful garden.


I’ve memorialized both in a story called “The Warm Kitchen”, which you can download from this link: The Warm Kitchen



One of the things Clare taught me is about guided visualisation, a topic I’ll explore in future blogs.


I learned what this process can be and how a rich and deeply moving engagement with the past or the future is vastly different from the boring and “rational” so-called “visioning” approaches used by most planners and engagement practitioners.


Clare’s work on the “Environmental Autobiography” is legendary and a must-read for design students and those in environment-behaviour research.


Some of us are blessed with family. Others have wonderful friends. I belong to the second category. The family I have is great but there’s not many of them and most live far away.


A wise friend once told me when I was feeling lonely for “family” that “spirit is thicker than blood”.


Clare Marcus is not my blood relation.


But after 36 years of friendship, her spirit flows in my blood.


Clare on her birthday, 2009

Some reading:


Marcus, C.C. (1978) ‘Remembrance of landscapes past,’ Landscape vol 22, no 3, pp34-43


Marcus, C.C. (1979) Environmental Autobiography, Working Paper 301, January, Institute for Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley


Marcus, C.C. (2006) House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home, second edition, Nicolas-Hayes, Inc, Lake Worth, Florida


Marcus, C.C. Iona Dreaming: the Healing Power of Place, a Memoir:


Marcus, C.C. and Sarkissian, W. (1966) Housing as if People Mattered: Site Design Guidelines for Medium-Density Family Housing, University of California, Berkeley


Sarkissian, Wendy, “The Warm Kitchen”. Downloadable from this link: The Warm Kitchen