[Image credit: Kieran Timberlake / Olin]
This past winter, BUILD sat down with Rebecca Barnes and Kristine Kenney at the University of Washington in Seattle to discuss the dynamic developments on UW’s campus, designing and planning universities now and in the future, and what Seattle can learn from Boston during this time of major growth. Check out part 1 of the interview in ARCADE Magazine, Issue 35.1, available in print on and their website.
The work you are engaged in is much more involved than what most people think of as a typical day in the design profession, involving diplomacy, advocacy, and negotiating. What professional skills were most important to cultivate in order to be successful in your work?
Rebecca Barnes: The key is building and managing relationships; it’s about understanding and communicating with people. I’ve always been interested in that, and it’s what guided me through my career, which has involved a lot of public work. Both the public sector and the university setting attract people who are motivated by a sense of mission. At UW there’s a culture based on the shared values of education and public service, and design serves those missions.
Kristine Kenney: In a firm, everyone’s collectively working toward the same goal of designing the project to meet the program. What I’ve found in the university setting is the goals and priorities are typically not aligned at the outset given the diversity of participants, and depending on the source of funding for a project, the decision-making process often changes. Each participant advocates for their interests, and with limited resources, it’s extremely important to create an environment that helps bring those together. Our role is to foster collaboration and develop projects that support these varied interests.
[Image credit: Mahlum]
RB: We’re always looking to find the common ground among people who bring wide-ranging perspectives. The campus is a complex environment; it compares to a good-sized city. Our aim is to persuasively communicate the value of the campus setting and to help decision makers be good stewards of campus resources. These days, data is hugely influential, and developing your own data set in a visual format is an impactful tool. In writing the Campus Landscape Framework, we worked with Caitlyn Clauson and Stephanie Krimmel to create the online survey we called MyPlaces. This produced quantitative as well as visual data that contribute to analyzing choices and alternatives. It freed us from an “I think that” and “you think this” debate, and armed us with “look what nearly 3,000 people said online.” It’s enabled us to more convincingly communicate planning and design options in a visual language with a broad reach.
This takes us back to design studio. As you both have educations in design, what lessons from the studio have served you best in your careers?
RB: Design thinking and the methodology of design have been key. I first realized design thinking was a useful tool on the Big Dig. As an architect and urban designer, I was in a minority role in a highway engineering culture and became aware that engineers have a different language and thought process. They look to find the shortest distance to the solution, while architectural designers will seek out all applicable information that will help think through alternative solutions to find the best one. The process of defining and exploring a broad range of alternatives, then bringing together an integrated solution that maximizes multiple aspects, distinct from heading down a single path, has led repeatedly to great design outcomes in pretty much every design or planning project I’ve led, regardless of scale, budget or schedule.
KK: I moved from architecture into landscape architecture during school. It was a unique perspective going into landscape architecture with the background of understanding spatial relationship relative to a human scale. The understanding of “place” is something that has always resonated with me and it led me toward campus design. Here on the UW campus, we’re given 650 acres to shape and steward with a single owner that manages and maintains it – that’s a significant amount of opportunity. When we’re working on all these projects around campus with different design teams, it’s ultimately all for the same place, for the same client, which allows you to leverage synergies between the various efforts to the betterment of the physical setting.
[Image credit: Bill Talley]
Was there a significant shift in mindset either of you noted, going from consultant to client representative?
RB: As the client-owner, you have the long term view both backwards and forwards that consultants don’t have. We link the immediate actions and the long-term vision. As a consultant, you want to set that relationship up, but the reality is you won’t be around to manage it. As a student, I chose to pursue architecture instead of planning because it seemed like planning just put ideas out there only to have something completely different done by the next person who came along. While that’s true, I have learned that each idea influences and sets parameters, and makes some things possible and other things not possible. Over time this “cascade of actions” is something that I have developed a great appreciation for, and I have enjoyed creating the framework for and guiding early actions and the long-term direction for positive change in the form of building design, physical plan and public policy.
KK: The challenge moving to the client side was resisting the urge to over-manage or take control of the design. There’s relief in being able to stand back and influence the process, but when it feels like things are going in the wrong direction, you need to know when to step in and redirect. From the client side, it’s about understanding the legacy and the history of the university. Through the Campus Landscape Framework, we communicate that this legacy we’ve been given isn’t something that manages itself, but rather it requires careful consideration, and can fall apart if we’re not conscious of our work. It’s particularly true of smaller projects, which can deteriorate the fabric of the campus environment very quickly and significantly if neglected. Understanding how the campus is cared for and maintained influences the designs we request from our consultants to ensure compatibility and sustainability into the future.
[Image credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates]
Many universities look at the UW as the example of campus design. Are there campuses that you look to for exceptional campus planning?
RB: The University of British Columbia campus and its recent public realm work is a great inspiration. As members of the Society of College and University Planners, we both see a lot of campuses, and import good ideas from each of them. I’m also a member of the Association of University Architects which convenes yearly at a campus so we can share lessons learned in person, looking at each other’s campuses as fellow practitioners. And I probably developed my interest in campus settings while an undergraduate at Brown University, spending many happy days on its main green, and wandering around the surrounding historic residential neighborhood in which the campus was embedded.
KK: The campuses back east have been an important influence for me; places like Williams College, Amherst College, and Storm King Art Center. There was a little culture shock when I first moved to the West Coast. The history and age of campuses back east, most of which were formed much earlier, clearly defined what a campus was for me with their traditional layouts, historic architecture, and prolific use of quality and natural materials. The campuses out west are more contemporary in comparison to when they were created and often portray more humble architectural expression and materials. The University of Washington is a gem and in many ways and exception, which is why I’ve been here for a decade now, because I see and want to be a part of sustaining and enhancing the beauty of this place.
What does keeping up with the Joneses look like at the level of the university campus?
KK: On one hand, it’s hard to look at a place like Stanford, which is able to build a great deal with so much richness of expression, and on the other hand see state universities struggling due to decreasing financial support from the State to sustain their physical environments. It’s important for us to remain focused on understanding the trends in higher education and our professions and how the physical setting can enhance the educational experience.
RB: In the future, we’ll be engaged programmatically and financially with private industry to achieve our mission. Public universities are struggling with legislatures’ retreat from capital funding, and we’ve been challenged to find ways to serve our capital needs more efficiently. We’re also on the cutting edge of blending integrated project delivery (IPD) with progressive design-build, learning from others’ experiences to inform our own practices. Doing more with less is a big theme now, not only with the physical campus environment but also with classrooms, offices and study and social spaces.
[Campus Maps from 1909, 1958, 1968]
What is it like working on a project that will technically never be complete? Is there inspiration in working on a project that has constant evolution or is there frustration that the thing is never done?
KK: Rainier Vista is a good example. It was my first project when I started here, and I brought Michael Van Valkenburgh on board to help reimagine the Rainier Vista from Red Square down to the stadium. This area has changed so much over the years, at one point being used as a vehicular entrance to campus. The project originally started off as a way to honor our Regental Laureates (major donors to the University), and through that process, we received funds to create the Rainier Vista Concept Plan in 2008. This proved to be instrumental in countering Sound Transit’s proposal for improvements at the end of the Vista. What you see out there today is the result of having a plan, a vision, of what we want and how significant a tool it can be in leveraging opportunities. But it’s not complete, the proposed improvements for the Rainier Vista includes upgrades the areas further north and we’ve only completed this portion after eight years’ time. There’s no funding currently to complete the reminding improvements, but through ongoing negotiation and partnerships, we hope it’ll be completed someday. There’s so much potential everywhere, it keeps our job exciting, and as time elapses, we have the opportunity to evolve our thinking in how we approach campus design.
RB: It’s a designer’s dream and a real privilege to be stewards of this complex, historic, humane and beautiful place. We’re always conscious that we are temporary stewards, and we work to conserve and nurture the contemporary campus as well as to set the stage for the best possible future we can guide the changing campus toward This attitude is reflected in our guiding documents. The draft 2018 Campus Master Plan, for instance, describes a thoughtful and strategic long-range vision that may take 50 years to realize in some fashion, as well as a proposal for the first 10 years of implementation actions. Similarly, the Campus Landscape Framework, also called Campus in Motion because change is constant – seasonally, by era, as a result of social, political, economic and cultural forces and through its leadership. We use all that we can draw on about what good planning and design can do for campus place-making. Everything we do has potential to make this a better place, and we don’t want to waste any effort or resource. We’re often asked what it’s like to leave the world of design for the world of administration, but we haven’t left. We are designing every day, at a variety of scales, with a variety of means including talented design colleagues, both staff and consultants.
[Image credit: Sasaki]
Is there an effort to tie together the planning principles of the University of Washington with its satellite campuses in Bothell and Tacoma, or are they dealt with as completely different landscapes?
KK: UW Bothell is in a suburban setting, while UW Tacoma is in a very urban setting, and we’re in the middle here in Seattle. They’re each very different in character. Bothell was for the most part built all at once, while Tacoma has evolved from a systematic renovation of urban warehouses and the selective insertion of new buildings.
RB: UW Tacoma was a former warehouse district and the Prairie Line Trail, a former railroad right-of-way, cuts through it. The right of way was purchased and it offered the first link in a regional trail system Tacoma intends to develop. It serves as the university’s central gathering place, while also – perhaps counter-intuitively – accommodating cyclists and pedestrians on this segment of the regional trail. The design was completed by PLACE STUDIO LLC in Portland, with Kristine’s and my involvement, in collaboration with the leadership of UW Tacoma. Bothell is in a different situation in both its character and evolution of infrastructure. They share a campus with Cascadia College at the edge of SR-522 and I-405, where wetlands limit the amount of building. Both UW Tacoma and Bothell are developing as unique institutions and campuses.
Last May, the Gates Foundation awarded $210 Million to UW for a new initiative to improve global health and fund the construction of a new population health building. How does a gift like this change the way in which you think about designing and constructing a new facility?
RB: The way it already has us thinking differently is by its mission to host many talented people who will make significant contributions to the health of people around the world. This enormously important mission will be served by a building which, at 300,000 square feet, is a new scale for our campus. The timing of this gift enables us to use improved project management and project delivery practices. The legislature opened up design-build to progressive design-build a couple years ago; the distinction being qualifications-based, instead of project- and price-based selection of an architect-contractor team. The first progressive design-build project at UW is the just-complete West Campus utility plant by Miller Hull Partnership and Mortenson Construction. The lessons we learned with this project will be useful.
We also have a new university organization called Capital Planning and Development (CPD), which brings together my office, real estate, and the former Capital Projects Office to foster more effective inter-disciplinary collaboration. CPD’s new leader, AVP Mike McCormick, brings a comprehensive and proactive project management approach, and integrated project design experience, which structures the team of owner, architect, and contractor to share in financial incentives to achieve project goals. The Gates Foundation didn’t cause this, but they came into this environment knowingly with their tremendous gift that enables the university to employ new ways of working to produce a project that makes the best possible use of the gift.
[Image credit: Kristine Kenney]
On a smaller scale, is there a favorite nook or cranny on the UW campus that you enjoy that isn’t an obvious place along a visitor’s tour?
RB: The passage lined by Deadore Cedars on Stevens Way is one of my favorites. The sequence of experience proceeds from open to deep, dark, and grand as you walk along. I also love to sit in one of the comfortable chairs on the third floor of the Odegaard Library, working on stuff and looking over all the student activity in the atrium below.
KK: The Medicinal Herb Garden, Grieg Garden, and the UW Farm(s) are some of my favorite spaces.
Rebecca, you speak of the common values of humility, wisdom, patience and acceptance in society. What is Seattle’s best path to achieve these attributes in light of the recent presidential election?
RB: Seattle has this in its DNA, so it’s about keeping that alive — love over hate, peace over war, sharing over elitism. As we move forward, we need to demonstrate this in our decisions, through community and civic leadership, recognizing how much we need each other, that everyone’s contributions matter. Humility came to mind because we can get caught up in celebrating how great we are, which is also important, but we need to express this while we keep sharing our good fortune.
KK: Coming from a design profession, you’re trained to look at things with a critical eye, dissecting and hypothesizing why and how they came to be, and for better or worse, passing judgement. For me, I find I have to sometimes re-check what I’m thinking and separate the subjective from the objective to better understand and accept. It’s about digging deeper, not being superficial and just sitting on top of it. Dig down and understand.
RB: Understanding the logic of a place means you’re seeking to understand the thinking and attitudes of the people who caused it to be what it is. It all goes back to people.
[Image credit: Kristine Kenney]
Rebecca Barnes, FAIA, is the University Architect and Vice Provost for Campus Planning at UW. Throughout her career, Barnes has worked in roles such as Director of Planning for the City of Seattle on the first “urban villages” plan, Director of Strategic Growth at Brown University, Chief Planner in Boston during the “Big Dig,” a megaproject that re-routed Interstate 93 underground through the heart of the city and re-directed some interstate traffic through a new Boston Harbor tunnel. In the early years of ARCADE, she contributed as a writer and managing editor, and worked in Seattle and Boston architecture and planning offices.
Kristine Kenney, ASLA, is the University Landscape Architect and Director of Campus Design and Planning at UW. Equipped with vast experience in campus planning in the private sector on the East Coast as well as in Seattle, for the past decade Kenney has been shaping the campus environment at the university.