Nearly every building project that’s taken place on the Mills campus since 1992 bears the fingerprints of Karen Fiene. Known colloquially as the campus architect (her most recent title was director of facilities, compliance, and sustainability), Fiene first started working on Mills campus projects when employed by the architectural firm EHDD, initially coming on board to assist with renovations at Warren Olney in 1992. While operating her own firm from 1999 to 2005, she worked on the refurbishment of the Vera Long Building for the Social Sciences and the design for NSB. At that point, it made sense to bring Fiene into the fold as a Mills staffer, so she started working on a project-by-project basis in January 2006, then became a full-time employee in 2009.
Since then, she has blended specific site work with larger, overarching initiatives that affected the full campus, including broadening sustainability programs and bringing the Mills Community Farm to fruition. “Basically, anything that had to do with interiors, furniture selection, fabrics, lighting—anything that had a design element, that was me,” Fiene says. After delaying her retirement to help with the Northeastern merger, she finally called it quits on September 2—but you can expect to see her on campus in any number of capacities, from consulting to working on her own landscape painting. She sat down with the Quarterly to chat about the campus she knows so well.
Mills Quarterly: What’s your favorite spot on campus?
Fiene: There’s buildings and there’s spots—and experiences too. The most impressive is coming down Richards Road, and that’s known as one of the 100 most beautiful streets in the world.* You can’t do better than that. I also really love the creek by Lisser, and that was one of my favorite little walks before the trees came out. Even now, though, it’s beautiful with the deck. And I love walking up to Pine Top and down to the farm, because of course I love the farm. Building-wise, I do love the Julia Morgans, and special places like the Bender Room and the Student Union because of their designs and big spaces. I’m also captivated by the Chapel, and I’ve always loved how it has a spiritual feel—and you don’t have to be religious or anything—and the way it sits in the land with the labyrinth. The Music Building is phenomenal, and the Concert Hall: Those were fun projects to work on. The theater with the frescos… I just always find that to be a really magical building. Those are my favorites—and Mills Hall too, of course.
Quarterly: What campus project did you participate in was the most memorable?
Fiene: It’s really hard to say, because they were all so unique. Both NSB and the Music Building were EHDD, and they were both J.R. Griffin (construction company), and that was a unique experience because they’re great firms that care so much about the history. Because I love historic buildings so much, the Music Building restoration was very special for me, partly because it had little moments like rejuvenating the frescos. We found a couple who trained in Prague, and they got up on scaffolding over the holidays—completely unheated since the building was under construction—and for three weeks they were up there with tiny little toothbrushes, cleaning up all the frescos. And then, we climbed up in the attic and found all the chandeliers—there were all these things we were able to preserve.
Oh, I forgot Lisser! Lisser was really interesting because of all the surprises we found—like the time capsule. That was really cool. This is like saying which child you like best, it’s very hard! Then there’s NSB, which was a new construction, and that was great too. I really enjoyed working with [architects] Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the different firms with very high design standards. Vera Long was also a fun project.
Quarterly: As someone who’s been an observer of the campus for so many years, where would you like to see the Mills campus go next? What’s your wildest dream?
Fiene: Well, it sounds totally unsexy, but fixing up the buildings! We have so much deferred maintenance. For instance, I’d really like to give the museum its due. It’s an important public building. The older halls need more attention, though we’re starting to look at that. I’d like to see the Julia Morgan buildings preserved as much as they can be; Carnegie and the Student Union could use some love. I’d love to see the older structures repurposed and reused so their legacy and history are appreciated.
There was a big project at the lake that we’ve always wanted to do: a bypass channel that would slow the water and keep it from undermining the bridges over the creeks. We are actually getting a new spillway, and I’d love to see a promenade around the lake like we’ve seen in pictures with the lanterns. Those were some really interesting rituals, so the lake could be a really special celebratory space.
And I would also like to see some meaningful connection to the history of this land, the unceded land of the Ohlone, and how Mills could really honor that. There’s an amazing educational opportunity as well as meaningful land sharing. This is such a special, sacred place, and it’s been this enclave. That could be a way we’d be more open to community. How do we make this more welcoming? How do we make people feel like they belong here?
There’s also the issue of sustainability and getting the campus to net zero, so what would that mean for bringing existing buildings up to energy standards? What does that mean for new construction? I’d like to see us get a ground-mounted solar system and change all the lighting to LEDs. These are things we’ve wanted to do but were unable to due to lack of funds.
Quarterly: What do you plan to do in retirement?
Fiene: I have no lack of projects. I’m a watercolor/plein air painter. I’ve already been working half-time, so I’m painting a couple days a week, but I really want to enter shows and do workshops. So that’s a big thing. And my mom is 86 and I’m her caregiver, so I’m spending more time with her. In fact, in September we’re jumping on a plane and going to Wales to see her brother!
A lot of my friends are also retiring, so we’re planning to go to the Galapagos, Santa Fe—I have something happening almost every month. And then there’s sleeping, reading, gardening… it’s always felt like I was running, and I probably will still be running, but at least I won’t also be working 40 hours a week!
*according to the 1993 book Great Streets by Allan B. Jacobs