The School of Architecture Celebrates 100 Years by Looking to the Future
Last September, more than 500 people gathered on the Lawn to mark the 100th Anniversary of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. The event drew alumni from around the country and the world whose careers have led them to a variety of aspects of design, all united by the overarching theme of the celebration, and of the School itself: Design Matters.
In a powerful speech that night, UVA School of Architecture’s Ila Berman talked about the humbling history that brought the School to this milestone year. She cited its longevity and its ties to Thomas Jefferson’s passion for the discipline, highlighted by the event’s setting in the heart of his Academical Village. She marked the founding of the School’s many degree programs: 1919 for Art and Architecture, 1958 for Architectural History, 1959 for City Planning, and 1969 for Landscape Architecture, celebrating its own 50th anniversary. She emphasized the importance of physical settings that facilitate scholarship, creativity, and innovation that shape the School, including the 1970 opening of Campbell Hall, a facility that continues to evolve to meet the needs of today’s educators and students.
This history, Berman noted, has had a revolutionary impact on the disciplines and the practices of the built environment that has extended around the globe, from research focused on Africa and India to the Amazon and beyond, and throughout history, from confronting its role in the Civil Rights movement to the events of August 2017 in Charlottesville and the rise of the Me Too Movement.
Design matters, indeed.
The School’s history, she told the alumni gathered at the event, “lives on in and is embodied in all of you. I hope that there is a kernel embedded in everything that you’ve done in your life since your time here. You are our greatest achievements and a living embodiment of the School’s tremendous reputation, and of the legacy, we are honoring and celebrating this evening.”
It seems fitting, given the tenor and tone of the anniversary celebration, that Berman spent more time talking about the School of Architecture’s future than its past, and its commitment to using design to address some of the most difficult challenges we face as a world today.
If we have one goal for our next hundred years,” Berman continued, “it would be to ensure not only that our students and future graduates are able to build on this legacy, but more importantly, that they have the support that they need to become the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and designers we so desperately need in this world, the ones who will take on the most difficult and pressing challenges of our time, and also envision, design, and build the most compelling, beautiful, and courageous of futures.”
The nature and scope of these challenges is complex. Berman recalled a speech biologist and explorer Sylvia Earle gave last year accepting the 2019 Thomas Jefferson Medal in Citizen Leadership. “She said that we as a world are facing global challenges never before imagined at this magnitude of scale, as our habits of consumption are burying the earth and oceans in garbage while the planet heats up, the ocean acidifies, glaciers melt, and the Amazon burns, and the earth’s population explodes.” She then calmly added, Berman remembered, that “we have about a decade to try to turn this around and make definitive and positive changes.”
The University and the School of Architecture, Berman said, has a critical role to play in effecting these changes. “Change, and sometimes revolutionary change, is something that the history of this University truly embodies and is a necessary part of the evolution for a civilization that deeply believes in the power of education and of our next generation to lead the charge.”
A month following this gala celebration on the Lawn, more than 275 alumni gathered in Vicenza, Italy to celebrate the A-School and UVA’s first-ever study abroad program. According to Joey Pierce, Director of Development and Executive Director of the School of Architecture Foundation, the event marked the largest UVA alumni gathering outside of Grounds.
The study abroad program was the inspiration, Pierce said, for a $20,000,000 anonymous donation, the largest in the history of the School. The gift will enhance excellence in scholarship and expand opportunities for global learning experiences. Once realized, the bequest will create three endowed funds to support an international travel program, two professorships in architectural history – one with a focus on European studies and another centered on Asian studies – and fellowships for Ph.D. and graduate students.
The donors felt like the program really changed their lives,” Pierce said, “and wanted to ensure that other students in the future could experience the same thing.”
The Vicenza event was particularly special to Pierce as both he and his wife, Dianne, are School of Architecture alums who were part of the study abroad program themselves. “This program is really at the core of what we do,” he said, “because we believe that if you are going to be involved in design, you have to experience, and I can hardly think of a better place to do that than in Italy.”
David Hale, who graduated from the School of Architecture in 1962 and went on to a successful career as a city planner, knew he wanted to be part of the Vicenza experience as soon as he heard about it. “I heard that they were taking a limited number of applications for people to join the trip,” he said. “They were going to take the first 26 people who called in on a certain date, and I happened to be in Egypt, and had to figure out the exact time difference. I called until I got through! What a wonderful way to kick off the anniversary celebration.”
Hale returned to Grounds for the first time in a long time in 2012 for his 50th A-School reunion, and he was more than impressed with all he saw and experienced there. He became one of the School’s most significant donors, donating in 2013 and following that up in 2018 by using the proceeds from the sale of his San Francisco condo to fund a professorship and scholarships. “David is such as great story because he took a place where he lived that he loved, and turned it into an opportunity to give back to a place that he felt had given so much to him. He has impacted the legacy of the School through his generosity.”
The School’s events on Grounds and in the Veneto region not only brought together alumni and friends in celebration, but also were opportunities to highlight aspects of the School that make up its DNA. A key ingredient in that DNA goes back to the defining message of the anniversary and the centennial campaign – a future-focused commitment to use architecture to build a better future for all. School of Architecture alumnus and Foundation Board President Paul Weinschenk, who used his degree to fashion a highly-successful career in the related field of real estate, said, “I think it has been a treat to look back, reunite, and to share stories of what a fantastic place this has been. But, quite candidly, the most important part here is this conversation about the future, and in many cases, the immediate future.”
Weinschenk pointed to the urbanizing nature of the planet and the related topics of sustainability and ecology as well as architecture’s continuing and expanding role in social justice. “All of that is intertwined, and how we think about the built environment will have significant impacts on all of us, from how we understand the history of the built world from the perspective of architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and urban design. This interdisciplinary approach is critical to our positive impact on what the planet looks like going forward, and it is the foundation of the School’s aspirations.”
One of the important ways the School of Architecture is addressing these challenges, according to Barbara Brown Wilson, is by teaching its students to listen to and engage with the communities they will ultimately serve. Brown Wilson, an assistant professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and one of the founding Directors of the Inclusion and Equity Committee at the School of Architecture, said that the next phase of the School’s evolution will be centered around problem-solving. “There are already hard, complex challenges that we know the built world has contributed to,” she said, “and we know that the built world must have a role in redressing them. I think we as a school and as a faculty are all committed to figuring that out, and to being humble about the fact that there are no obvious solutions, and that we can’t hope to solve these problems without inviting other voices to the table, which means we have to be creative and teach open-mindedness and collaboration. If we can pair that with humility and partnership, I think we are going to be in a really exciting position to contribute to solving these incredibly important problems.”
Getting community members to the table was the impetus for the creation of the new university-wide Equity Center that she co-leads, Brown Wilson said. “We can’t expect people to add to their daily lives without a structure that gives them legitimacy, power, and even reimbursement for their time,” Wilson Brown said. “We have to be able to honor people’s wisdom, just like ours is being honored.” The initiative includes faculty in law, nursing, medicine, music, public policy, and education at the University. It aims to redress racial and socioeconomic inequality to reform institutional values, pedagogy, and operations. “The Center exists around the notion that we have to think differently and learn differently, and even create our questions differently, if we are going to solve these issues. Also, we have to have the expertise of people with lived experience at the table even to formulate the right questions.”
The Equity Center and the School’s initiatives related to inclusion and equity also confront design’s role beyond the University and the local Charlottesville community. Design research is being developed by the School’s faculty and students working together as part of the Next Cities Institute, to model the next century’s urban environments. Taking on core issues of sanitation, housing, safety, well-being, to name a few, these projects propose improved living conditions across the globe, in India, the Global South, Africa, and the Arctic. Working with community members, stakeholders, historians, scholars, advocates, policymakers, and more, the School of Architecture is focusing on what our cities will look like and how we will design, build, and maintain healthy living environments for not just a few but for all citizens. In its celebratory centennial year, this mission to pursue design that matters and makes a difference in the world will carry the School of Architecture into its next century.