On July 15, longtime faculty member Elizabeth (Beth) K. Meyer became the 13th dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, succeeding Kim Tanzer, who did not seek reappointment. Meyer, a “Double ’Hoo” who joined the faculty in 1993, accepted a two-year term, after which she plans to return to teaching. She recently took time to discuss her thoughts as she began her new duties.
Q: Forty years ago this fall, you entered the University of Virginia School of Architecture as a student. Why did you decide to become a landscape architect?
A: I wanted to be an urban designer, but the things that interested me in design were not inside the building walls – they were outside. I grew up in Virginia Beach. There had been a lot of urban renewals in Norfolk, and that was perplexing to me. Why is that big great neighborhood being torn down? What was being rebuilt didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.
What shifted me toward thinking about landscape architecture is that in my hometown, the best public space is the boardwalk. Every year, I saw thousands of dump trucks dumping sand, and every year, I saw a Nor’easter taking it away. I realized that somehow nature in the city wasn’t being accounted for in the most dynamic way.
I realized, then, that landscape architecture dealt with all of the spaces between buildings, with the processes of nature, and the social and political forces of society in a way that, at the time, I didn’t see architecture alone doing as completely.
Q: What do you think about the public spaces on Grounds at U.Va.?
A: Much of the University was developed in a suburban post-WWII pattern, and it’s just gradually starting to feel less car-centric and more pedestrian-centric. I will be teaching a studio class soon on the public spaces of U.Va. and trying to imagine McCormick Road less as a road and more as a shared public space.
Some of the new spaces around the first-year dorms are still a little bleak. That might be another opportunity for our students to begin to speculate about possible futures.
The one really good public space that’s been built recently is the renovation of the Dell. It’s a comprehensive socio-ecological space. That’s a new function for public spacing at U.Va. – the storm water is brought through the Grounds to be cleaned, filtered and stored in a place that most people wouldn’t think of as infrastructure.
Q: As a member of the U.S. Commission of the Fine Arts, you review design proposals for museums, monuments and public spaces in Washington, D.C. How has that experience affected your teaching at U.Va.?
A: It’s a great honor. This commission is about a hundred years old, and has this mission to predict the federal legacy in the monumental core of Washington. It’s an incredible opportunity to revitalize these iconic historic sites and buildings with new initiatives.
More pragmatically, I’m finding out about all kinds of projects I never would have. I’ve been proposing ideas to my colleagues about potential collaborations with agencies and individuals in Washington. It’s great for the University and for our students to have connections to contemporary projects that are happening in cities nearby.
Q: As the new dean, how will your many years of familiarity with the school, its faculty, staff and students inform your decisions and strategies as you take on this new leadership role?
A: The school can act fast on things because I’m not going to need a really long process of getting to know the place. There are a lot of interesting curricular and research initiatives happening that have been bubbling slowly and that we can move on quickly.
I’ve had the great pleasure of being on the Faculty Senate and its executive council for several years. I’ve met more people across Grounds in the last few years than I did in my first 15 years, and I’m looking forward to helping to make new connections – and strengthen the connections between our faculty throughout the University.
We can also gain by building stronger connections with our alums. I have 40 years of professional and personal relationships with this incredible alumni group, about half of whom are practicing designers and planners. The other half has used their architectural educations to become innovative thinkers in other fields and disciplines. I’m looking forward to building stronger connections between our alumni and the school. This is so important both in terms of providing opportunities for our students to experience professional internships, as well as offering continuing education experiences for our alums.
Q: What would you say is your vision for the School of Architecture?
A: We have about 45 full-time faculty in the school, and 15 are relatively new. Most of them have been here less than five years. We had a big generational turnover and lost some great colleagues to deanships and directorships at other schools.
We haven’t really given a voice to this new body of faculty members. So I think the school that’s described is not the school that exists.
This new group is incredibly accomplished, much more internationally diverse than the faculty has ever been. I want to help my colleagues give voice and shape to this new identity, and from that experience, find the new curricular and research opportunities that are possible.
Q: What kind of dean are you going to be? What will be your leadership style?
A: It’s easy to see any dean as a figurehead that establishes an identity for a school. I’ve worked with a lot of deans at Cornell, Harvard and here, and the ones that I’ve admired have been the ones who have figured out how to build something unusual and unexpected out of the chemistry and interactions of the faculty.
What I do well is getting to know my colleagues and their work. Whether as a department chair or a faculty member, I have always built new relationships and found the chemistry that comes from bringing people together who might not know that they have something in common – and seeing what you can build from that.
Q: What are your thoughts regarding your role within the University as it continues to have an even greater impact worldwide in leadership, achievement and research?
A: The last two deans have done an amazing job setting up the conditions for the success of the school. We’re having our conversation in the incredible addition to the school’s space that Karen Van Lengen oversaw and organized. And then there’s the really exciting Ph.D. initiative that Kim Tanzer was able to implement while she was here. So we have great facilities, and we’re building a research culture that moves from the studio into more advanced research with our centers and with the Ph.D. students.
My aspiration for this job is to establish the conditions for the school to move from being an extremely good architecture school with great teachers doing interesting work, to being a place where the work is out there more emphatically through both peer-review design competitions and scholarly work.
It’s really a cultural transformation that’s happening now as we move toward not only better-funded research, but also more serious reflection on the power of design thinking. We’ve been doing that really well as the School of Architecture for over 40 years, with design thinking understood as a form of creative problem-setting, not problem-solving.
We owe it, not only to our students, but also to other disciplines, to be more reflective about what’s powerful about the way that architects and planners think. We must explore how those lessons in applied creativity can be translated into broader principles, so that the teaching isn’t just one-on-one in the studio, but has a bigger impact as a research initiative itself.
Q: What does this new role mean to you personally?
A: This is a short stint I’ve agreed to do as the dean. I’m doing it willingly and with great enthusiasm. But I’m not doing it in a way that’s selfless. It’s pretty selfish.
I love this university and the Architecture School. I intend to spend the next 15 years of my academic life saying “no” to any offers that come my way because I want to stay here and teach.
The next couple of years are a way for me to help work with my colleagues to build the institution that I want to retire in – and that’s a pretty selfish act.