Van Lengen's challenge as dean:
Bringing the Architecture School into view
hasn't taken long for Architecture
School Dean Karen Van Lengen to blend the 19th century architecture
of Jefferson and modern design. Although she wasn't sure if she
would like living on the Lawn, she now says she loves it. "It's
such a beautifully designed space and so thoughtfully put together
and in some ways very eccentric, not following all the rules of
the time and of the vocabulary that was presented to Jefferson.²
Van Lengen hopes to follow in Jefferson's footsteps -- transforming
models from the past for a changing community -- as she leads
the Architecture School in the 21st century.
You've just completed your first semester as dean. What would
you like to accomplish, and do you have specific goals?
I would say after one semester, I have at least an overview of
what the school is about and where I think the school direction
can go. I would divide it possibly into three different areas.
The first is the development internally within the school, and
the second is the development of the Architecture School in relationship
to the University, and the third would be the Architecture School
in relationship to its peer institutions and the professions.
Lengen presents slide lectures to graduate students for their
trip to Berlin.
quick study of Karen Van Lengen
Education: Master of Architecture, Columbia University
1976; B.A., Vassar College, 1973
jobs/accomplishments: Former chair of Parson's School
of Design, 1995-1999; associate with I.M. Pei; established
her own architectural practice in 1986.
Family: Husband, Jim Welty, a sculptor who works primarily
in metal. His work is shown at the John Davis Gallery
in New York City. He worked with the artist Frank Stella
for 10 years in the 1980s. Daughter, Kiran, age 4 1/2;
loves to draw and visit her U.Va. student friends who
also live on the Lawn.
Sports, especially skiing and swimming. "It's something
I can do with my family. With my demanding schedule, spending
time with my family is important to me."
Reading: Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary
Landscape Architecture, by James Corner. Also reading
E.B. White's Charlotte's Web to Kiri.
I look at the internal structure, we're made up of four distinctly
different but interrelated departments who share bodies of information
and also have distinctly different bodies of information.
that had happened prior to my arrival is the beginning of the
very strong interdisciplinary program within the School of Architecture
and I wholeheartedly support that direction. We now have double
degrees in planning, landscape and architecture. A student can
come to the graduate programs and study two disciplines at once
and get two degrees in a shorter period of time than if they were
to do them separately. I think the future of the design of the
environment will be in understanding how the different disciplines
relate to one another. We're probably further along than most
schools in developing this.
In terms of the relationship between the Architecture School and
the University, I think there are also a number of potential overlaps.
We are beginning to develop a new arts village. It will include
the Architecture School and many of the arts-related disciplines
-- studio art, music, drama, etc.
It would be interesting for our school, and particularly with
my background coming from an art school, to begin to make more
interrelationships between those disciplines, and I think that
when you have everyone in the same space, those issues will evolve
much more easily.
And then I think there is an opportunity to carve out a special
identity for the school within the context of other architecture
schools. The future of environmental design lies in understanding
a much more holistic approach to the design of the environment,
understanding how planning is affected by landscape design, [how]
it's affected by architecture and that they're involved in the
same kind of sets of issues.
I think that we have such a strong program in architecture and
landscape that for us to really focus on creating programs that
promote that kind of thinking with a new kind of language will
be very powerful.
As dean of the sixth-ranked architecture school in the nation
by U.S. News & World Report, what is the most important challenging
issue facing you?
A: The school's a very strong school. It's very competitive with
the top schools of architecture and where I think we have a huge
challenge in front of us is the new area of financial development.
If we compare ourselves with our peer schools, with other public
institutions like the University of California and the University
of Michigan, both states are beginning to increase the budgets
to the schools.
don't have that situation here, and if you compare us to the private
institutions that historically have had such great endowments,
it makes it difficult to stay competitive in terms of getting
the best students, particularly at the graduate level; getting
the best faculty; and in serving faculty initiatives, opportunities
for the school, for initiating new programs. It all ends up requiring
money, so I think that's one of the biggest challenges that I
face in this job.
alumni are very loyal in terms of giving, but architecture as
a profession is not as highly paid compared to some others, so
we have the additional challenge of simply not having the alumni
out there to give very large amounts. We can't always count on
them to provide the kind of funding that we will need in the future.
being at Thomas Jefferson's university
"I was astounded that Jefferson was
in the vocabulary of every single person here. I've never
come across an environment where one single theme seems
so dominant in the lives of the whole community. One is
reminded of him on a daily basis because of the buildings
he made. It is the buildings that spoke about his dreams
for the culture, and it really is a lesson about the importance
of architecture in the community that leads us to believe
that our buildings and our design of space need to be attentive
to the culture we are serving. It doesn't mean that they
are not harmonious with the existing buildings. I think
thatıs a part of the challenge: to put new vocabularies
into the context of older landscapes, but I donıt think
we can imitate the past. We need to work with the past but
to design for our future, always remembering where we've
You touched upon interdisciplinary programs. Do you have any plans
for, or any thoughts about, University-wide interdisciplinary
activities and programs?
We have a very large group of undergraduate architecture students,
some of whom go on to Architecture School and others who do not.
The group that does not go on is normally very well-trained to
go into a variety of different careers and avenues that revolve
around a certain kind of thinking process which I would call three-dimensional
thinking, strong conceptual thinking. A lot of them are often
able to go into other design areas and do very well -- from the
design of real environments to the design of virtual environments,
and that can include the design of information.
I think there's another potential in the new Media Studies Program
that's being developed right now under the auspices of Arts &
Sciences, for perhaps [some of] our undergraduates to begin to
look at the whole area of information design in the context of
another area that seems to be of interest in our community and
also in the larger University community, and that is the discussion
of ethics. Ethics is normally associated with law and medicine,
but actually the ethics of the design of the environment is also
a very large and growing interest group and can mean a variety
of different things. We have developed this semester a lecture
series to begin to explore that idea of ethics in the design of
the environment. We have talked to the institute here on ethics
[Darden's Olsson Center of Applied Ethics] and would like to become
more involved in that University initiative. This lecture series
is meant to initiate that discussion and to continue to have it
grow within the development of the School of Architecture.
Lengen at home in Pavilion IX.
Diversity is a topic on everybody's mind in higher education these
days. What plans do you have to increase diversity?
We have a committee on diversity that has been very active, particularly
in the time that I've been here. That committee primarily focuses
on the recruitment of minority students into the school. We find
that once we get them to apply, many of the students end up coming,
so it's really a question of getting the word out.
the last year we developed a brochure that was targeted for minority
students and in collaboration with that, we set up a web site
so that all students could talk to fellow students about the curriculum,
about the facilities, about the basic landscape of the school.
We made sure that in that group of students we had minority students
as well as non-minority students to represent different voices
in the schools. I think that's been very effective because it's
been a one-on-one relationship for the students, asking very personal
questions about what it's like to go to U.Va. and what issues
are facing students.
year we also have targeted a number of schools and have gone to
them to recruit minority students. We went to two fairs, one in
D.C., another one in New York, and the one in New York was particularly
targeted to minority students.
I think there's a great effort on our part going on to at least
identify groups of people who might be interested in our program
and going after them.
Are there any specific initiatives that you'd like to put in place
for curriculum and/or for faculty?
A: We just put together a special curriculum committee to review
not only the individual curricula of each department, but the
places where there might be overlapping that would require some
new design or courses to do that. I think there is a great deal
of support in the school to look at it from a more holistic point
of view rather than just department by department.
we do that, one of the most important components will be the integration
of technology. So there's an agenda there as well to begin to
critique how we teach the different disciplines and how this new
environment will alter and suggest other kinds of courses, other
kinds of curricular initiatives.
On technology, are you referring to architectural technologies
or computer technologies or some of both?
A: I would say that the focus right now is on using technology
as one of the new tools in architecture. One of the distinctive
qualities of U.Va. students that we see is their famous ability
to draw beautifully, build models beautifully. They are well known
in schools of architecture, at least on the East Coast, for having
some of the most beautiful drawing techniques. But you need to
add the expression of architectural ideas to this whole new medium
of the computer, and it doesn't mean that students won't draw,
but it means they also need to become proficient in expressing
themselves in another environment. For us, that's a huge transformation.
[We hope] we will find a way to combine the legacy of drawing
with the new media, and that, I think, is a challenge.
What plans do you have to raise the profile of the school?
I think that the school ironically has a greater profile outside
of the University than it has within the University. Everyone
on the East Coast knows about U.Va.'s Architecture School, but
I'm not sure everybody on Grounds knows about the Architecture
School. One of the problems I see is its location. It has no presence
in the landscape.
ironic to me that on a campus where Jefferson built one of the
great spaces of all time, that has such a presence, we have an
Architecture School that's kind of hidden, that many of the people
don't even know where it is.
think for me the bigger issue is in allowing the [Architecture
School] building addition to articulate a new entrance which is
visible from Rugby Road and will then allow visitors who are walking
down Rugby Road to see the Architecture School, to enter a public
space that could also have within it a large exhibition hall that
can have traveling exhibitions, that can often show the work of
our faculty and of our students, so that someone coming into the
Architecture School can see what it is, in fact, that we do.
Q: Jefferson's design of the original buildings at U.Va. is
considered one of the most significant architectural achievements
in America. With the addition planned for the Architecture School
and the Carr's Hill Arts Precinct on the horizon, what role do
you see the Architecture School playing at this time in the University
The Grounds have a central space -- the original Lawn -- and that's
really the only prominent central space for the whole campus.
One of the opportunities I see as we develop not only the Grounds
bloc but also the other centers, one of which might be the Arts
Village, is to begin to develop another kind of public space for
of the roles that the architecture faculty might be able to play
in this process is in helping people to understand the outcomes
of different configurations of space. We can do that through studio
designs, through lectures, through a number of different ways
to help to understand the nature of that space before it unfolds.
As one looks at the Lawn, one realizes that Jefferson's idea was
about landscape and about buildings together. He had put together
a very interesting configuration of buildings but the landscape
component was a very important part of it. It was not something
that was done after the fact -- it was done concurrently with
the development of the architecture. I think that is a key part
of the development of the arts complex, that the landscape component
be thought of in tandem with the development of the buildings,
the placement of the buildings, and the articulation of the building
and the articulation and design of each building.
How do you describe your management style and what do you see
as your strengths?
I think it's important as a dean to be able to lead the school,
to move the school forward, so there's a leadership aspect to
becoming a dean and to focusing on the meaning of the school and
where it goes. But in order to do that I don't think it's a single
vision; it's a question of almost weaving together an elaborate
tapestry that involves my interests and my vision, in collaboration
with the rest of the energies that are inherently in this school.
I don't think you can really be successful until you have both
of those things working together, so it's a collaborative style
I would say, in general.
You juggle many roles. You're dean, fundraiser, educator, wife
and mother. What's your typical day like?
There are no typical days. The only typical part of my day is
when I take my daughter to school on my way to work. On the days
that I travel, my husband does it. Usually the days are different,
a different set of issues every day and I don't mind that. I think
it's interesting. It's a full schedule, but I also have to say
that it's a full schedule for everybody in the Architecture School
of the areas that I need to carve out time-wise for myself is
my own research in architecture which deals in part with practice
and in part with ideas that I'm interested in developing. Specifically,
I've become interested in understanding how to build in a more
comprehensive way -- one that involves the recognition of all
the senses, and particularly, the sound of space. That's a project
I'm working on now in collaboration with someone in New York.
I hope some of those issues will come out in a house that I hope
to design here in Charlottesville. So that's a particular interest
of mine, and I hope it will be influential in the school at some
point, but I really need to develop it myself before I bring it
into the school.