"Style is Superficial": Alice Raucher on Social Justice and Sustainability at the University of Virginia

Architecture is defined by its humanity. This is especially true in a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic and global calls for social justice. The impact has been felt across sectors, including in higher education. As Architect for the University of Virginia, Alice Raucher advises the university on capital planning and design guidelines. Working to address unique design challenges, Raucher is acknowledging the University's past while planning for the future.

Style is Superficial: Alice Raucher on Social Justice and Sustainability at the University of Virginia - More Images+ 23

Alice Raucher. Image Courtesy of AIA Virginia

Managing University-wide land-use and campus planning projects, Raucher engages in community and agency interface in these areas. She oversees the architectural design of all capital projects and provides guidance on the selection of consultants associated with planning, building and landscape projects. In this interview with ArchDaily, she explores how the University of Virginia is advocating for social justice while designing for sustainability and wellness.

Why did you choose to study studio art and art history, and then architecture?

I have always been interested in art from a young age. In college, I studied art history with Robert Pincus-Witten, one of the renowned modern art critics. It was through Robert’s classes that I was introduced to the intellectual relationship of art and architecture and the broad canon of architectural theory. I will never forget another professor acting out Michelangelo’s steps in the Laurentian Library and what a visceral impact it had on me. These classes opened my eyes to the artistry of architecture, and to a work of architecture being something more than a building.

David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink Renovation and Expansion. Image © Michael Marsland, Yale University

After graduation from college, I worked for a year at the Art Commission of the City of New York (which has jurisdiction of all City-owned painting, sculpture and architecture) and I facilitated many presentations by architects for local projects. The presentation and experience of a large-scale model for the new Central Park Zoo by Kevin Roche sealed my fate. That was in 1981; 26 years later, in 2007 I was able to thank Kevin for his role in influencing my decision to study architecture when we worked together on the renovation of and addition to Ingalls Rink at Yale, a building that, to this day, has a similar visceral impact on me. The idea that I could positively impact others in that way was very compelling to me.

David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink Renovation and Expansion. Image © Spagnola & Associates

Looking back on these experiences, I realize that I also learned the important lesson that style is superficial, and that the lasting impact of art or architecture relies on something much more complex.

You’ve worked as both an architect and educator before moving into your current role. What do you believe is the relationship between academia and practice?

In the best circumstances, each informs the other: students are able to imagine and design without confining boundaries, which often pushes ideas to their full realization, without compromise. Practicing architects are always endeavoring to keep the idea pure, while accommodating compromises of budgets, codes, client preferences, and more. Keeping the idea strong and clear in the face of those challenges is what I particularly love about the practice of architecture, that it is not meant to be conceived in a vacuum. On the flip side, students who have practical experience are usually able to draw and think much more spatially; they develop intellectual flexibility and creative facility.

UVA Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Image Courtesy of Howeler + Yoon

Style is Superficial: Alice Raucher on Social Justice and Sustainability at the University of Virginia - More Images+ 23

As an example, our recently completed Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (MEL) was initially conceived as a student ideas competition, and it was this initiative that led the way to the incredibly impactful memorial that was developed. Students question the status quo, which pushes us to question our own preconceptions. When MEL became a capital project, students were part of the process of selecting a design team, engaging the communities, and reviewing the design. They had the full experience, from the inception of an idea based on principle, to the culmination of the physical structure.

As Architect for the University of Virginia, you’ve worked on the development of the University’s design guidelines, as well as all capital projects and campus planning. Can you tell us more about these projects and the goals you set within your role?

I was fortunate to join the University as it was embarking on plans to celebrate its upcoming bicentennial in 2017, with all the reflection that it brings on the past and the promise that it holds for the future. I had a great deal of support to envision what the Grounds might look like in the next century. With the arrival of President Ryan, the new 2030 strategic plan set forth a vision for a more connected, involved, and socially responsible University, and we are making the Grounds a physical realization of that vision.

UVA Ivy Corridor Landscape Framework Plan. Image Courtesy of Dumont Janks
UVA Ivy Corridor Landscape Framework Plan. Image Courtesy of Dumont Janks

I am looking to grow the University responsibly, which means rehabilitating and reusing our historic or existing buildings wherever possible, or if we do build new, we do so in a way that strengthens the pedestrian, public transportation, and bicycle infrastructure. We have a campus that started with a very identifiable core (perhaps the one most known to architects!) but over the years, the University grew as a reflection of the times. Our North Grounds was developed to be accessed by automobiles, and we are trying, through recent projects, to knit areas of Grounds together. For instance, a project such as the Ivy Corridor Framework Plan provided the vision for an entrance to the University, an opportunity to create connectivity between Central and North Grounds, and a vision for smart, sustainable growth for the University as it embarks upon its third century.

Your work grapples with the university’s history and its past as a site of enslavement. How have you worked to confront this past?

UVA has always been and remains distinctive, from the initial conception of Grounds and its relationship to its academic mission, or the secular nature of the University itself, and its overriding, founding purpose: to serve our then-new democracy. Thomas Jefferson’s vision was far from perfect, and we know that it excluded more people than it included. But the core elements of his design were visionary and, in some respects, even revolutionary.

Higher education is more firmly established today than it was two centuries ago, but we are in a period of unprecedented instability and uncertainty. And in recent years, American institutions like ours have begun to reckon with its history, both physical and social: Enslaved people built many of our structures, and white supremacy is still embedded into many of our systems.

UVA Alderman Library Renovation. Image Courtesy of HBRA Architects

In this context, we ask daily, what is UVA for? What are we becoming? With the arrival of our new university President, UVA launched a revolutionary Strategic Plan on the institution’s 200th anniversary, titled “A Great and Good University: The 2030 Plan.”

As Architect for the University I look to ways in which the built environment can support this vision.  

We are working to support the movement towards personal and societal equity and personal wellness through recent projects such as the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, the Contemplative Commons, our new Student Health and Wellness Center, even the new addition to our main library, which, for the first time, will have a new welcoming façade outwardly facing towards the broader community. I want our institution to be judged by future generations, in part, by how well the physical campus holistically and ethically supports this progressive vision. For instance:

UVA Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Image © Sanjay Suchak, University of Virginia

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers: For more than four decades, the entire University was a site of enslavement. Now, we’re confronting our past, uncovering new knowledge, and using that knowledge to teach, heal, and shape the future.

UVA Contemplative Commons. Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design & VMDO Architects

Science suggests that mindfulness and contemplation can reduce bias thinking and help mitigate our automatic associations and related behaviors. No other site on Grounds so faithfully corresponds in design and intention to Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the original Academical Village as the Contemplative Commons—to deeply connect the University community in life, learning, and research through integrated natural and built environments and spaces for both intense collaboration and quiet reflection.

UVA Student Health and Wellness Center. Image Courtesy of VMDO Architects and Duda Paine Architects

The Student Health and Wellness Center is a transformational new interdisciplinary facility focused on the emerging paradigm of preventive and holistic care, integrating student life and healthcare together by introducing students to critical aspects of social, physical, psychological, personal, and environmental wellness.

With changes to climate, technology, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

First and foremost, we look to hire architectural teams that are engaged in their own research with regard to designing for greater resiliency, that are using the latest technology for modeling, representation, and efficient construction techniques; this will ultimately help inform our own decision making. We have a number of dichotomies that we grapple with here at UVA: Jefferson’s own interest in architectural invention and construction technologies does not easily translate into an historic context 200 years later; we are a public institution with a budget conscience, yet with a significant architectural pedigree which sets a high bar; and we set significant sustainability goals (The 2030 Sustainability Plan), yet a good percentage of our buildings are historic structures and we are in a hot, southern climate.

UVA Brandon Ave Upperclass Student Housing Phase II. Image Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi

That said, I like to say that our sustainable approach is Grounds-wide, that we think in terms of sustainable districts, not just individual buildings. Our development on Brandon Avenue is one example: when I arrived, there was a developer-grade residential building being proposed for the street, which is in a strategic location directly adjacent to the Lawn. We had the opportunity to take a step back, and now the master plan for Brandon Avenue, the “Green Street”, is a sustainable, mixed-use, student-focused neighborhood. The centerpiece of the neighborhood is a working landscape, a bio-filtration area that handles all the storm water from the neighborhood, and sets the tone for the neighborhood’s sustainable focus.

UVA Student Health and Wellness Center. Image Courtesy of VMDO Architects and Duda Paine Architects

New projects, either recently completed or under construction include Bond House, a new student residential building tracking LEED Gold, the new Student Health and Wellness Center, a transformational new interdisciplinary facility focused on the emerging paradigm of preventive and holistic care, introducing students to critical aspects of social, physical, psychological, personal, and environmental wellness, and on the boards is a second student residential building which will include a district-wide dining facility. All of our consultants are eager to engage in these collaborative and mutually challenging creative relationship, which always results in innovative solutions to help achieve the University’s goals.

Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How is the university looking to plan for the coming year and what campus life might look like?

We all understand that this is an unprecedented time, and, along with every other institution of higher education, we are working hard to minimize health risks while still trying to deliver the high-quality academic, residential experience for which UVA is known. The University’s leadership determined that students would return to Grounds this fall, but instruction would occur via a hybrid model, with larger lecture classes administered on-line, with a percentage of smaller, in-person seminars. The semester will begin in late August and end right before Thanksgiving, with no fall breaks. Teams of experts have been working for months on the UVA Return to Grounds plan, which is constantly updated to reflect the latest state and federal guidelines for higher education.

The Lawn, UVA. Image Courtesy of UVA Communications

Life on Grounds this fall with definitely be different than every other year; the Lawn, for example, which, with the Rotunda will always be the heart and soul of the University and a great community gathering place, will this year need to be more sparsely populated.

With every project, we endeavor to increase the opportunities for community and socialization; this year our community will need strict physical distancing and disciplined mask-wearing to ensure the safety of the University and broader communities. We will all be working together and be responsible for each other, understanding that our success depends upon this. Then again, UVA’s culture is built upon student self-governance and the Honor Code, so if anyplace is primed for success, it is UVA.

UVA Health System Integrated Space Plan Report. Image Courtesy of UVA Office of the Architect

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

If planning for this pandemic has taught us anything, it is for our plans to be flexible and to try to prepare for all contingencies, or at least, the ones we think are possible. When the University went to remote learning and working this past spring, we discovered that we were able to be efficient and successful in ways we might not have predicted previously.

UVA Pan-University Studies. Image Courtesy of Dumont Janks

Coincidentally, our office completed a few pan-University studies months prior to the pandemic, including the Academic Strategic Space Study, the Administrative Space Study, and the comprehensive Parking and Transportation Study. Each of these studies proposed newer, efficient, perhaps even radical ways of learning, working, or commuting---we considered many of them to require a change in our culture, and therefore more difficult to achieve. Some of these ideas, such as a longer academic week to minimize over-utilization of classrooms, or teleworking with the addition of local hoteling space, which has the dual benefit of lower administrative space needs and an optimized parking schedule, would never have been tested as thoroughly as they have been during this crisis.

University of Virginia Rotunda. Image © Anna Wesolowska

McCormick Road, a main artery through Grounds, had always been in our imagination as an ideal pedestrian corridor, but which is usually a busy vehicular street. The need to have lower density sidewalks and shorter bus queues, as part of our Return to Grounds plan, has led to the road’s temporary change to pedestrian circulation.  A change in the culture can happen if we are bold enough to envision change for the better, and we all understand the greater good to come out of that change.

About this author
Cite: Eric Baldwin. ""Style is Superficial": Alice Raucher on Social Justice and Sustainability at the University of Virginia" 23 Jul 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/944071/style-is-superficial-alice-raucher-on-social-justice-and-sustainability-at-the-university-of-virginia> ISSN 0719-8884

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University of Virginia Rotunda. Image © Anna Wesolowska

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