History of the School of Architecture + Design

creation of the school

Virginia Tech was founded in 1872 as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, a public, land-grant institution located in Blacksburg, Virginia, incorporating the facilities of the Preston and Olin Institute, a Methodist academy, along with portions of the adjacent ‘Solitude’ farm. In the 1873 VAMC catalog, courses on building were augmented by the promise of new shops and a drawing/drafting room to be added before year’s end. In 1896, the institution’s name was changed to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute or, simply, VPI.

Construction education was taught through civil engineering, and an architecture degree was soon granted by adding one year to the four-year civil engineering degree. The Department of Architecture, in Engineering, was created in 1928, with 34 students enrolled, under the leadership of Clinton H. Cowgill, for whom the current primary facility of the College was later named. Cowgill served as Department Head for 28 years.

By 1947, the Department of Architecture in VPI’s School of Engineering offered three distinct degrees: Building Construction, Architecture, and Architectural Engineering (dissolved in 1969). Architectural Engineering had a separate track, while Architecture and Building Construction shared the first four years. A fifth year was added for those pursuing a Master of Science in Architecture. The 1947 University catalog stated, “This curriculum is for those who wish to prepare for the practice of architecture as a profession and for other planning activities. The art of building is given adequate attention, but more than ordinary emphasis is given to the science of building. An understanding of engineering principles and of building materials and methods, as well as demonstrated competence in design, is required of all recipients of the professional degree.” The degree in architecture first became accredited the following year, 1948. Architecture students invited Frank Lloyd Wright to lecture at VPI in May of 1951. The event, held in Burruss Hall auditorium, was attended by 1,200 people. In 1953, the School of Engineering became the School of Engineering and Architecture.

In 1956, the Board of Visitors authorized the offering of the professional degree of Bachelor of Architecture. That year, Leonard J. Currie was appointed to replace the retiring Clinton Cowgill as Department Head of Architecture. A former student at Harvard under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, Currie was later a colleague of Gropius at Harvard and in Gropius’s office, The Architects Collaborative (TAC). As Architecture Department Head at VPI, Currie added urban design and planning to the curriculum, which became a degree program. Art courses were actively taught as support courses for the architecture degree and for the university community at large. Currie internationalized the content in the curriculum and recruited new faculty with significant national and international stature.

When plans were made to form a new College of Architecture, Currie helped to recruit Charles H. Burchard, also a former student of Gropius at Harvard who had worked in the office of Gropius’s Bauhaus protégé, Marcel Breuer. Burchard had been a respected educator at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is this educational lineage that bonded Currie, Burchard, and Gropius to the Architecture program at Virginia Tech.

In 1964, President T. Marshall Hahn appointed Charles Burchard as the founding Dean of the College of Architecture. Architecture, building construction, planning, and art were all being taught at the formation of the college and became the precursors to the four schools in the college today. Dean Burchard served the College up to 1979, a period that saw its development into a comprehensive professional school and its emergence as an exemplary and innovative center in architectural education.

Based on recommendations from colleagues, including Eduardo Catalano, Professor of Architecture at M.I.T., and Sam Hurst, former Dean at Auburn University, Dean Burchard hired Olivio Ferrari in 1965. A native of Switzerland, Ferrari was a graduate of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany during the period when the Ulm School of Design was under the rectorship of Max Bill, Swiss architect, artist, and designer and former Bauhaus student. Ferrari had collaborated closely for several years with Max Bill on a number of significant building projects in Bill’s Zürich architectural office. Ferrari had taught at Auburn and served as an instructor at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich under Professor Bernhard Hoesli, one of the “Texas Rangers” who had taught at the University of Texas — Austin in the 1950s.

bauhaus foundation

In 1966, bringing together the historical precedents of Gropius and Bill with the teaching approach of Hoesli, Burchard and Ferrari drafted an educational position and curriculum that was later referred to as the ‘blue book.’ This was intended as a workbook for faculty and an explanation of the school’s pedagogy. Many of the fundamental educational tenets of this plan have continued to guide and inspire the program since. This document also served as the basis of several curricula in other schools of architecture. Over the next few years, Prof. Ferrari brought several of his former students at Auburn to teach in the architecture program: Tom Regan, Gene Egger, Bill Brown, and Harold Hill. The formation of the new college curriculum in the early 1960s grew from the clear and direct influences of the Bauhaus, the Ulm School of Design, the studio of Max Bill, the ETH, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

In 1967, Prof. Ferrari recommended to Burchard that he invite Herbert Kramel, a former colleague at the ETH who had been an instructor under Prof. Heinz Ronner, to become a faculty member. In 1968, Prof. Ferrari and his wife Lucy, along with Kramel, led the college’s first study abroad program to Salzburg, Austria, aimed at introducing students to historic and contemporary examples of European architecture and culture. This began the legacy of one of the most successful and consistent international travel/study programs in American architectural education. (More info. on the history of the Study Abroad Program…) The program continued to flourish under the leadership of Prof. Gene Egger, whose continuous involvement dates back to 1970.

Dean Burchard oversaw the design and construction of Cowgill Hall, completed in 1969, to provide a home for the new College of Architecture. Cowgill Hall remains the home of the College administration and the School of Architecture + Design.

From 1968 to 1972, Prof. Ferrari led a focused studio group called the ‘inner college.’ This unit, made up primarily of 4th and 5th year students, was an example of using the ideas from Ulm and the Bauhaus to create an educational environment that allowed individuals to excel at what they were best at doing.

After implementation of the Burchard/Ferrari plan, the Architecture program was organized into three 2-year divisions. In the first division, the “Foundation,” labs and seminar-workshops were taught as “search courses,” with stress on process rather than solution. Education was to proceed by experimentation and not by reliance on the authority of the faculty. Both the faculty and students were to engage in joint identification of problems and explore processes leading to development. The second two-year division employed the same educational techniques as the first, but challenged students to attain new levels of sophistication and competence, with an emphasis on developing a professional attitude toward design. The content of the labs and workshops included the study of structure, mechanical systems, and building construction. After completing the first and second divisions (four years), students elected to either complete a terminal fifth year and receive a Bachelor of Architecture, or enter the third division, a two-year Master of Architecture program.

In 1972, the M.A. in Environmental Systems and the Ph.D. in Environmental Studies were begun. Also in 1972, in order to provide workshop resources similar to those at the Bauhaus and Ulm, a ceramics-based form and materials laboratory, directed by Ellen Braaten, and a printmaking and graphics laboratory, led by Rengin Holt, were established. These workshops, along with expanded wood and metal shops, provided a fundamental and essential component to support the school’s pedagogy.

In 1973, the University became Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (VPI&SU), and the college changed its name to the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, better representing the growing urban and regional studies programs in the College. In 1974, as part of the College’s 10th anniversary, Buckminster Fuller, former teacher at Black Mountain College and architect/inventor, came to Blacksburg for a very memorable six-hour lecture: he would talk for two hours, take a nap behind the stage, and come back for two more hours and talk, continuing to talk for another two hours over dinner.

The M.Arch.2 and M.Arch.3 programs began in 1974. Also in 1974, the Landscape Architecture Department was formed.

Dean Charles Burchard retired in 1978 after 14 years. In 1983, he was awarded the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for lifelong achievement in teaching, creative work, and service for the advancement of architectural education.

Following Dean Burchard’s retirement, Julio San Jose was appointed Dean, serving a two-year term. Beginning in 1980, Dr. Charles Steger, an alumnus of the architecture program, served as Interim Dean, and subsequently was appointed as Dean. For the next 12 years, the College would experience a period of significant growth.

Under Dean Steger’s leadership, the architecture program developed its “Second Generation Mission,” which addressed the current needs of the profession and challenges to its future. With this initiative, the College increased its research mission, enhanced its technological presence, and reorganized its administration. Dean Steger authored a statement of the educational tenets of the school. Based on the educational ideas of Gropius and Itten at the Bauhaus, initiated within the College by Burchard and Ferrari, these tenets included: student self-activation, freedom of the student to determine the focus of his or her education, student self-pacing, self-criticism, and self-correction, an attitude of constructive discontent, and a commitment to holistic and heuristic learning.

Aware of its responsibility to address design issues in the context of the city, the College established the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center in 1980. Under the direction of Prof. Jaan Holt from the early 1980’s until 2016, the Center expanded from a small urban outpost studio to an international consortium of architecture schools, providing students with an opportunity to study architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design in the context of the city in close association with the professional community in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia.

In 1985, through the efforts of Prof. Milka Bliznakov, the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) was founded. The mission of the IAWA is to document the history of women’s involvement in architecture, interior and industrial design, landscape architecture, urban design and planning, architectural history and criticism, and the records of women’s professional organizations.

In 1991, after decades of European travel and residency programs, the VPI&SU Foundation purchased the Casa Maderni, a 200-year-old Lombard-style villa in Switzerland, leading to the creation of a University Center for European Studies and Architecture (CESA) in 1992 (renamed the Steger Center for International Scholarship in 2014). Dean Steger, together with Professors Olivio and Lucy Ferrari and Visiting Faculty member Lorenz Moser, were instrumental in the establishment of this Center. Located in the village of Riva San Vitale, on Lake Lugano in the Ticino region of Switzerland, the Center provides a base for the Europe Study Abroad Residency program, as well as accommodating other majors within the University.

Prof. Ferrari was named a Distinguished Professor by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) in 1990. In July of 1994, Prof. Ferrari passed away, and Virginia Tech posthumously conferred on him the University Distinguished Achievement Award.

In 1993, Dr. Patricia Edwards, faculty member in Urban Affairs and Planning and Associate Dean for Research, became Dean, following Dr. Charles Steger, FAIA, who had assumed the role of Vice President for Development for Virginia Tech. In 1994, the Research + Demonstration facility was dedicated, accommodating building work related to faculty interests and providing space for work on funded research grants. Dean Edwards re-organized the architecture program as a department within the College, headed by Prof. Ron Daniel. During Prof. Daniel’s tenure as Department Head, a new Industrial Design degree program was established within the Architecture Department, enrolling its initial freshmen class in 1995.

In 1997, Dean Edwards retired, and Dr. Paul Knox, a faculty member in Urban Affairs and Planning and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, was appointed Dean of the College. Dr. Marco Frascari joined the architecture faculty in 1997, after having served as director of the Ph.D. program in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1999, he founded a new study area in Architectural Representation, based at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, within the college-wide Ph.D. program in Environmental Design and Planning. Burchard Hall, named for the College’s founding Dean, Charles Burchard, was dedicated in 1998, providing expanded studio space for 200+ architecture and industrial design students, as well as new workshop facilities.

During the fall semester of 2002, the Chicago Studio was established by Prof. Kathryn Albright to provide an alternative to the traditional design studio, allowing students to spend a semester in Chicago, working closely with local professionals in a studio setting and studying various aspects of professional practice, and to foster relationships between the School and the professional architectural community in Chicago. This initiative received an NCARB Prize in 2005.

In the 2002-03 academic year, Dean Knox led the College through a restructuring effort, during which the Department of Art and Art History, formerly in the College of Arts and Sciences, joined the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. At the same time, under the leadership of Architecture Department Head Frank Weiner, the Architecture and Industrial Design programs were joined by the Interior Design program, formerly in the College of Human Resources and Education, to form the new School of Architecture + Design, initially led by Prof. Weiner. The Center for Design Research was established at this time. Prof. Scott Poole was selected as Director in 2004. In 2007, the Landscape Architecture program, previously a separate department within the College, became a part of the School of Architecture + Design.

Prof. A.J. “Jack” Davis was selected as Dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies in the spring of 2007. Under Dean Davis’s leadership, the Department of Art & Art History was reorganized as the School of Visual Arts, and the Dept. of Building Construction established the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, in collaboration with the Construction Engineering and Management program in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering.

In the fall of 2007, a new PhD program in Architecture and Design Research admitted its first cohort of students. This program expanded opportunities for advanced study and fostered the development of research and scholarship in architecture and design.

In 2008, Virginia Tech’s B.Arch. program was ranked first among NAAB-accredited undergraduate architecture programs by DesignIntelligence, which conducted a survey of leading firms which were queried about which programs have best prepared students for today’s and tomorrow’s professional practice; the M.Arch. program was ranked fifth among NAAB-accredited graduate programs. In 2010, the undergraduate Landscape Architecture program was ranked first in the nation, and the graduate Landscape Architecture program was ranked second. In 2011, for the first time, all undergraduate programs in the School of Architecture + Design (Architecture, Industrial Design, Interior Design, and Landscape Architecture) were simultaneously ranked in the top ten.

A+D faculty members, including Profs. Joseph Wheeler, Robert Dunay, and Robert Schubert, led a collaboration with the College of Engineering and the Pamplin College of Business to compete in the 2009 U.S. Solar Decathlon. The resulting project, the LumenHAUS, the School’s third Solar Decathlon entry (2002, 2005, and 2009), subsequently traveled to Madrid, Spain for the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe competition, in which seventeen research universities from around the world gathered to demonstrate their solar-powered houses to the public and to compete in ten categories ranging from Industrialization and Market Viability to Solar Systems and Hot Water. The LumenHAUS won first place overall, as well as placing first in the Architecture category and second in the Communication and Social Awareness category. In 2012, the LumenHAUS received a national Institute Honor Award for Architecture from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

to be continued…