considers herself fortunate to be
She is an architect by trade who arrived at Carolina just in
time for a decade-long capital construction program that would eventually reach
$2.1 billion – and become one of the largest building programs of any
major U.S. university ever.
She considers herself lucky because she came to the Triangle
in 1987 as “a trailer spouse.” Her husband is a biomedical engineer who landed
a faculty position at Duke, which he still holds.
She started a small architectural firm in Durham that
eventually led her to Carolina in 1995 after the firm completed a project for
an autistic adult residence center at the University.
She began as a project manger and became intimately involved
with the three-year process of crafting a new master campus plan that, when it
was approved in 2001, was considered the roadmap to Carolina’s future. That
summer, she was named University architect and director of Facilities Planning
‘Always patient and kind’
Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser cited Wu’s “careful
stewardship” of the University’s campus when he and Bruce Runberg, associate
vice chancellor for Facilities Planning and Construction, nominated Wu for a
2009 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
Moeser said Wu, more than anyone, is behind the high-caliber
work on the University campus. Since coming to Carolina, Wu has managed more
than 12 projects, including the renovations of Memorial Hall, Lenoir Hall and
“It doesn’t take more money to build really good buildings,”
Moeser wrote. “It just takes the determination to do so, the tenacity to resist
temptation to take the easier path, and the eye to know the quality when you
Moeser said Wu had all these qualities, plus one that truly
sets her apart: her “quiet, modest way” of dealing with people that generates
their trust and confidence in her.
“Whether it is a highly temperamental architect or a trust
with a very critical point of view, Anna is always patient and kind,” Moeser
said. “She listens to criticism, and she never lets her ego get in the way of
solving a problem. With the trustees, her task is to get to ‘yes,’ and if that
means going back to the drawing board with the architect, that is what she
In describing Wu’s breadth of contributions, former Board of
Trustees Chair Roger Perry, said: “Her vision, intellect and brilliant
understanding of land planning and architecture are resulting in a campus of
extraordinary quality in terms of its utility, efficiency and beauty.”
Wu suspects she was drawn to the drawing board by her
father, who along with Wu’s mother, emigrated from China to go to school in
upstate New York. They eventually settled in Cincinnati to raise their family.
“My father was a mechanical engineer, but he really loved
architecture and he took us to see a lot of buildings when I was growing up,”
Wu said. “I’m sure that started it. Actually, I think a lot of people who go
into architecture have some family tie to the trade.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of
Pennsylvania, Wu earned her master’s degree in architecture from the Harvard
University Graduate School of Design.
Of all the books she has read about architecture, she thinks
“The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel about an individualistic young
architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his
artistic vision, harmed the nature of architects most.
Sure, Wu said, there are some architects such as Frank Lloyd
Wright who view themselves as infallible, godlike figures whose perfect designs
reveal their creative genius and are inalterable.
She, like most architects, knows better. A good building is
one that merges the architect’s vision with the client’s expectations. That
process is not always as easy or fast as some would like – but patience
and collaboration almost always result in a better product, she said.
“Our job is to help all the stakeholders discover the
solution to all of their concerns,” Wu said. “It is a process that we all go
through together. It takes time and it takes meeting with people and listening
to people. You have to hear what they have to say.”
A building design is good only if it fits the context in
which it is being built to create a sense of place, she said. That is why the
2001 campus master plan, and its updated version in 2006, were so crucial. It
was time well spent, Wu said, because it allowed the campus community to buy
into the plan’s core guiding principles.
‘A special place’
Wu said she is humbled by winning the Massey and more than a
bit uncomfortable about all the accolades she has received for her role in
transforming the two-centuries-old campus to meet the demands of a new century
while preserving its historic charm.
“A lot of life is about luck and timing,” Wu said. “I feel
incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity. Carolina is a really
And, she readily acknowledged, she had great support.
“We were fortunate to have had strong leaders who were
really focused on the physical and programmatic development of the campus,” Wu
said. “We were fortunate to have the many people who joined this office with
me, along with the many people in construction management who had to bring all
these designs to fruition. There were hundreds of people who touched all our
projects, but each individual put a lot of pride and care into the projects
“We were all fortunate to be here.”