When Karen Van Lengen arrived at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in 1999, the School of Architecture she joined as dean was full of talented people and fresh ideas. But the building it occupied, Campbell Hall, was sorely lacking in space for reviews, classes, and staff. The four-story concrete-and-brick facility, which was designed by Pietro Belluschi and opened in 1970, had been criticized by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. "There was a huge accreditation issue," Van Lengen says. "I had to do something about it immediately."
Even perceptually, the physical environment was lifeless. So, launching an initiative called "Campbell Constructions," Van Lengen seized the opportunity to upgrade the building. Instead of hiring a name-brand outsider, her stratagem was to provide design opportunities for the U.Va. faculty. Starting with a rather modest gallery renovation, Van Lengen quickly moved on to bigger projects. A feasibility study by Bushman Dreyfus Architects, of Charlottesville, set the stage for three larger-scale projects—two additions and a new landscape plan.
Van Lengen worked with U.Va.'s provost to pay the faculty for their design work with summer salaries and stipends. She also insisted that the more ambitious projects be managed by an architect of record: SMBW Architects of Richmond. In addition to the logistical hurdles, there were political battles to win—in particular, with the conservative Board of Visitors' predilection for traditional design schemes that cater to "Jeffersonian" precedents. "It was a hard sell," says Van Lengen. "But we did it" Van Lengen also raised most of the $15.5 million cost of the three largest projects. A host of other, smaller initiatives was supported by private funds or university resources.
Van Lengen, who is resigning in 2009 after 10 years on the job, couldn't be more pleased with the legacy she will leave. "Not only did we use our own family to make our own space, but we did it in a way that is not about image," she maintains. "It's about how we live together to develop more dialogue, more innovation, and more opportunities."