"Study what is in your Backyard": Professor Virginia Jansen and the UC Santa Cruz Campus

Interviewed and Edited by Irene Reti  2021


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Virginia Jansen was raised in Dayton, Ohio and attended Smith College as an undergraduate, where she earned a degree in German language and literature. She earned her PhD at UC Berkeley in the History of Art. After a few years teaching at colleges in the Bay Area, Jansen arrived at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the fall of 1975 to teach medieval art and architecture for the Art Department (or Art Board, as it was then known) and then in the new department of Art History (now called History of Art and Visual Culture, or HAVC), where she taught for three decades.

In the mid-seventies, UCSC had no freestanding program in art history and Jansen helped build an art history major at the fledgling university. Her passion for delving into the history of architecture inspired her to turn to “study what is in your backyard” and focus on the unique architecture of the UC Santa Cruz campus. She soon became known as an expert on campus planning and architecture and in 1986 co-taught an undergraduate art history seminar entitled The History and Implementation of the Santa Cruz Campus Plan with Reyner Banham, the renowned English architectural critic, who was a professor of art history at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s. That course resulted in an UCSC exhibition and book The First 20 Years: Two Decades of Building at UCSC

Decades later, in 2015, Jansen once again contributed her knowledge of campus architecture by working with UCSC emeriti professors James Clifford, Michael Cowan, and Campus Architect Frank Zwart on another UCSC history exhibition called An Uncommon Place: Shaping the UCSC Campus. This exhibition, first mounted at Porter College’s Sesnon Gallery as part of the celebration of UCSC’s 50th anniversary and again in the fall of 2015 at Cowell College's Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery, “called attention to UC Santa Cruz as utopian experiment where architecture and environment conspire to create an uncommon place, a setting for teaching, research and imagination outside the bounds of the ordinary.”