Reflections on Visions and Accomplishment: Architecture School Dean Karen Van Lengen to Step Down in June

April 24, 2009


April 27, 2009 — School of Architecture Dean Karen Van Lengen came to the University of Virginia in 1999. During her tenure, the school has undergone dramatic transformations. The changes in curriculum and the physical environment have greatly contributed to the continued high regard of the school.

As she prepares to complete her deanship this summer, Van Lengen reflected on the state of architecture education and her accomplishments. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Q. You have been dean of the School of Architecture coming on 10 years. What do you feel are your greatest accomplishments?

A. I had an idea of a vision about how to begin to integrate more comprehensively the programs we have here. We have four disciplines: architecture, landscape architecture, urban and environmental planning, and history of architecture – that also includes preservation. … We have put together a very comprehensive set of programs that have found ways to integrate with one another and in that way to present a more holistic approach to the design of the environment.

In the last 10 years we've been very effective – especially in certain areas like architecture and landscape architecture – in finding those intersections without depleting the focus and the integrity of the individual disciplines. And so U.Va. is not only very special in that way, but that has been one of the things we have worked very hard on in the past 10 years.

... That is the part that deals with curriculum, faculty development, research, etcetera, but all of those issues get framed by a physical setting which influences or can enhance that vision and that perspective. And so I would say the second part of it was to develop ... a physical infrastructure and design that would reinforce those values and that mission. And I am very pleased to say that, as of this year, we have opened the final three major projects, which are building additions and renovations that serve to actually complement one another and reinforce that mission.

Q. You have shepherded the school through both small and large building projects. What impetus and impact are they having on the life of the school?

A. In 2000 I founded a program called Campbell Constructions and the mission was to involve the faculty in a series of projects that would reshape the Architecture School and would shape it in such a way that it would reinforce our mission and also gave opportunities to the faculty and the students to do design projects here. So, over the years we have done a number of very interesting smaller pieces that have been deeply influential to the life of the school.

The last three just opened up this past fall [and] are much more substantial in terms of scale and size. They included an east addition, now called the Elmaleh Wing, done by W.G. Clark in collaboration with SMBW Architects, a south addition designed by Bill Sherman and again in collaboration with the architect of record, SMBW; and the landscapes that are specific to those additions and then comprehensive in the way that they tie together the Campbell Hall landscape with the University Grounds. Those were done by Warren Byrd, who was on our landscape faculty.

… Each one has added a very important aspect to the life of the school and they have done so in a way that is commensurate with the way in which the actual Academical Village works. They've displayed the themes of what we do in the school; they reinforce the mission of the school and they themselves are diverse in terms of the formal language, in terms of their use of materials, color schemes, etcetera, and all of these things seem to seamlessly fit together within the context of the landscape plan.

So the design of our physical environment has been enormously important to me in terms of reshaping and reframing the mission of the school. It's the great lesson about how architecture, landscape architecture and planning actually do inform and influence what we want to do in the world.

Q. What sets U.Va. School of Architecture apart from other architecture schools?

A. We have a number of distinguishing qualities at the U.Va. School of Architecture and I would start by saying … we are a public institution. ... We have the mission of a school that is engaged primarily in ... issues of the public realm – issues of urgent matters, as the responsibility of a public institution. And so that is a way to frame what we do and how we do it and to use the programs and the faculty and students to move in that direction.

We have engaged in a set of programs, from ecoMOD to REcover studio to the Learning Barge to the Bronx, redevelopment of the South Bronx project, and a long, long list of community-based initiatives where our students and faculty really invent new ways to work with communities and to use design as the tool in which we can solve really complex problems. …

A second part of it that is really unique to the University of Virginia is the quality of teaching. We are in a smaller environment than urban areas so the kinds of competitive structures that exist in more dense and urban conditions are not necessarily at play here. Our faculty has over the years developed a very strong culture of excellence in teaching that was here when I came, that continues to be here and that is one of the hallmarks of coming to the University of Virginia and remains so today.

We have developed a very strong and diverse set of foreign programs, international programs. We have done that over many years and are continuing to evolve and shape those programs. They are different from other schools because of the diversity of programs. We have long-term programs where students go and live in a country, and we have very compressed but dense experiences doing that, such as the Vincenza  or Venice programs [in Italy]. And then we have much shorter programs, which we do in our January term, which are also very dense but much shorter in their time frame.

So, for example, we sent studios both in landscape and in architecture to study the city, to study the landscape of the city and to study the building infrastructure. In doing that, our students had a cross-disciplinary experience where they understood how to look at cites from different points of view – from different scales, from different disciplines – and bring that knowledge back in a very comprehensive way that would then inform the design work that they did here.

Q. When you think about the success of your graduates and what that may mean now and what it may mean in the future – five, 10 or 20 years out – what do you think about? Is there satisfaction that you feel that you and others have done what you set out to do to help in shaping them in the right ways and giving them the skills to make positive change?

A. The mission of the school is to educate the next generation of students to go into the world and to be influential, to be leaders, to be generators of new ideas and to be stewards of the culture and the landscape and the building infrastructure. So, I am very proud of our students.

I always go back to this metaphor of the Lawn. ... This is one of the qualities that resonates the most to me, the education of a student here. If you just look at the way the student rooms are lined up on the Lawn, they are singular, individual rooms. The room opens up to a colonnade and then that colonnade frames the public realm. So, for me the great aspect about a University of Virginia education, particularly here at the School of Architecture, is that we frame the development of the individual thinking, we try to help students to think independently, but it's always framed in the context of the public realm of the community. It's a collage of expecting and teaching students to understand their responsibility to themselves and their responsibility to the larger whole.

That is one of the hallmarks of the education that we give ... to begin to think about design and begin to understand how design can shape a public realm that is not only interesting to the designer, but that also really answers the needs of the larger cultural issues. That's been very important to me. That's important to this faculty and our students are unique and very special in that way. What they will contribute as leaders in environmental design will be significant in the future.