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Anna Wu considers herself fortunate to be  at Carolina

Wu

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 and Design.

‘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 Carroll Hall.

“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 see it.”

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 does.”

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.”

Family ties
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 special place.”

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 they managed.

“We were all fortunate to be here.”

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INSIDE THE PRINT EDITION: SEPTEMBER 16, 2009

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