Community-driven: Places and elements of the past are reflected in the work architect Kathy Galvin does today

Architect Kathy Galvin says "architecture shapes the spaces we inhabit, and that space, in turn, contributes to shaping our outlook on the world and ourselves." Photo: Christian Hommel Architect Kathy Galvin says “architecture shapes the spaces we inhabit, and that space, in turn, contributes to shaping our outlook on the world and ourselves.” Photo: Christian Hommel

We asked the founder of Galvin Architects about field trips to Boston with her mother, why music inspires her, and the state of architecture in Charlottesville.

Why architecture? It is one of the most challenging, rewarding, and consequential disciplines one could master that is both an art form and a profession. Architecture shapes the spaces we inhabit, and that space, in turn, contributes to shaping our outlook on the world and ourselves. I saw this first-hand in Boston, before I began my career in architecture. I was a project manager for an urban planning and design firm that studied the redevelopment potential of seriously deteriorated public housing developments for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). We worked with the local community, BHA staff, and public housing residents to create a different future. The design and graphic representation skills that the architects on the team brought to the table left an indelible impression on me.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia? I heard about the architecture school’s program while I was a student at the Boston Architectural Center. I put together a portfolio and got in. Jobs were plentiful (and Boston was in a recession in the 1980s) and I stayed to apprentice three years so I could sit for the registration exam. Plus, I fell in love with the folk music scene. I’d always sung traditional Irish music in Boston, so I had a strong affinity for the ballad and acoustic traditions here. In fact, I met my husband Michael Costanzo playing music. We’ve been married now for 27 years.

What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design? My hometown, Brockton, Massachusetts, was called a working class suburb of Boston. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, The Commitments, I guess Brockton would be working class if it were working! Like a lot of factory towns in Massachusetts, it couldn’t compete with the cheaper labor and land costs of the south and oversees. My dad was an auto mechanic who owned his own shop and my mom was a nurse. When my dad became disabled, she became the breadwinner for a family of four on a school nurse’s salary, so money was tight. My mother always made room for enrichment and field trips to learn about art and history, however. Unwittingly, she made me a lover of both great architecture and cities as a result. Whenever we went to Boston, she would take me to wonderful places like Copely and Lewisburg squares and the North End (while my dad took my brother to Fenway Park). We’d visit magnificent buildings, like the Fine Arts Museum, Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, and Symphony Hall. One building stands out in my imagination as magical, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. That building was designed as a Venetian palazzo, built by Venetian craftsmen. Miraculously, 20 years later, I found myself studying in Venice, surrounded by such beauty on a daily basis as a UVA architecture student.

Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you? UVA architecture school in the mid-’80s (I was a graduate student from 1983-1986) was steeped in “urbanism.” Urbanism might be best described as the study of the physical characteristics that contribute to vibrant urban life. Even though we were charged with designing buildings per se, we always had to investigate the context. How did that building engage the public street? Did it create great public spaces around it? Did it complement adjacent architecture and contribute to a sense of place? My studio mates came from a wide range of backgrounds, from English majors to geography and economics majors (like myself) to contractors and art majors. It was a highly formative, exciting, and enriching time that culminated with a final semester in Venice, Italy. I’d have to say that Robin Dripps and Lucia Finney had the most lasting impact on me.

On process: How does it begin? For me, the design process (in that it is a holistic method of problem-solving) never stops. There is really no issue that’s come before City Council for instance, that hasn’t tapped into my training “in process” as an architect. We’re trained to think about every facet of a problem and compelled to bring in multiple disciplines to solve it. That’s why we’re so comprehensive and collaborative. Nothing gets built otherwise. In my view, no problem is ever truly solved otherwise.

What inspires you? Whenever I experience beauty and excellence in one place at the same time, I find that’s inspiring. For instance, last fall I heard Jennifer Koh play Bach’s “Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor.” The setting was perfect: Old Cabell Hall opposite the Rotunda across the Lawn as the sun was setting. It was spellbinding. When I see people lose themselves in the pursuit of excellence, that’s inspiring. Watching my son Kevin row in a crew meet on the James with the backdrop of the lovely Richmond city skyline or listening to my son Patrick play mandolin with his buddies after spending the day exploring a great city like Chicago, fills me with awe. Watching and listening to aspiring women entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for a new kind of paint to restore old furniture or a new kind of salon to refresh body and soul, is exciting. Inspiration seems to come to me from many inputs and it all adds up over time.

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you? It’s everything for me. By personal inclination and professional training, I must consider the context within which I work. Being different for the sake of being different has never been my modus operandi. I think Rene Descartes said something about “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” I feel that way about architecture. The work we do today is part of a continuum. I am informed by the finest places and architects of the past and elements of that past are woven into the work I do today. For instance, when I meet the child of a friend, I love discovering and delighting in the eyes of the mother or the cheekbones of the father in that child’s face. It’s marvelous how a unique person is created by that blend of ancestry. I feel the same way about great architecture and cities.

What’s in your studio at the moment? Urban design work at the moment. For instance, I’m working on corridor design guidelines for a county close to Northern Virginia and creating a vision plan for a small community in south side Virginia. Plus, I’m on Charlottesville City Council and I just finished teaching my class at UVA on Urban Design.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region? I love places like the Lawn, the Downtown Mall, and East Jefferson Street between Lee Park and Court Square. Unfortunately, these places were created decades ago. Likewise I love buildings that reflect excellent design, craft, and urban design, but they too are often from another century. I am not advocating that we replicate particular styles, but we must pay better attention to scale, massing, façade, and street-level details and context and build on the inherent walkability and human scale of Charlottesville. That’s why, as a city councilor, I’ve called for a task force to assess the quality of our public spaces and a code audit. We now have the PLACE design task force and the code review is currently underway.

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