New facilities VP an expert on sustainable campuses

By Ella Christoph

The U of C has hired Steve Wiesenthal, a newly appointed fellow of the American Institute of Architects with experience in facilities management, capital projects, and resource planning and management, as associate vice president for facilities services and university architect.

On a campus with buildings by renowned architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Wiesenthal said he admires the quadrangle’s neo-gothic aura, and also appreciates the Charles M. Harper Center of the Graduate School of Business (GSB), designed by Rafael Viñoly, and the Gerald Ratner Center, designed by César Pelli.

“I actually don’t feel like there is a single style I would bring to this, but rather looking at each individual project and trying to make sure that the architecture appropriately expresses the program and the goals of that project within an overall unified framework of the campus,” he said.

Wiesenthal has 17 years of experience in academic construction management at universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, the University of California, and Dartmouth. He earned his M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor of architecture and B.A. in Urban Planning from the University of Maryland. He plans to bring his expertise to a campus with a diverse array of prominent architecture.

“My approach has been to fully integrate those who are responsible for the present physical environment with those who are taking care of the future environment, and that extends philosophically to sustainability,” Wiesenthal said, referring to his role directing the recent development of the Mission Bay research center at the University of California–San Francisco. The project was nationally recognized for its advances in sustainable building, including energy reductions far exceeding those set by the state’s energy code—a living roof, day lighting, bamboo flooring, pedestrian-friendly green landscaping, and the development’s positive effect on water quality.

Wiesenthal plans to re-evaluate how the University makes use of building materials, implements waste management practices, and consumes water and energy in an effort to make the campus more environmentally sustainable. Ensuring sustainability requires designing buildings with architecture intended for educating people about green practices and working to make the entire campus, not only the facilities, more environmentally friendly, he said.

“One of the most exciting and challenging things for a university architect is helping to interpret what a university is all about through its architecture and campus plan,” Wiesenthal said. “Certainly to continue to build everything neo-gothic would suggest that we were rooted in our campus and history but not necessarily moving forward.”

At the time the quadrangle was built, the neo-gothic design was seen as state-of-the-art university architecture. Now, he said, exploiting technology to be environmentally sustainable is the most cutting-edge.

“My first reaction to the University of Chicago campus is that in some ways it’s an architect’s dream, because there’s this historical core of the neo-gothic architecture quadrangles, and there are some significant pieces of modern architecture, both on the north side of the Midway Plaisance and on the south side.”

As the campus expands south with projects such as the Logan Art Center, a new dorm, and a residence hall for the Graduate School of Business, Wiesenthal hopes to change the passage across the midway and make it less of a barrier. “One challenge I’ll be facing, and am excited about, is how we relate to the midway as a large college green,” he said.

Wiesenthal, who balanced the needs of a university and its neighbors at Penn, said he was impressed by the University of Chicago’s discussion of expansion ideas with the community of Hyde Park. “An ongoing conversation is really the best way to meet the needs of the university and the surrounding community,” he said.

“There’s a lot we can do to revitalize Hyde Park,” said Wiesenthal, who also hopes to work on keeping housing affordable and attractive for residents.

“I’m looking forward to working with the students and faculty and neighbors to be able to bring the quality of the campus up to the quality of the academics at the University,” he said.