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September 25, 2008

Co-founder of University of Washington programs in Italy dies


Astra Zarina, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Washington, co-founder of the UW Italian Studies programs and co-founder of an institute on architecture and urban studies in Italy, died Aug. 31. She was 79.

“Astra was generous, brilliant, funny, open, opinionated, difficult, but above all, inspiring,” said Jennifer Wilkin, her longtime assistant and now associate director of the UW Rome Center.

Zarina was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1929, and emigrated to the U.S. with her family after World War II. She graduated from the UW with an architecture degree in 1953, when there were few female architects, and later that year married fellow architect and UW graduate Douglas Haner.

Two years afterward, Zarina received a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and thereafter practiced professionally for a number of years. In 1960, she won the American Academy in Rome Fellowship in Architecture, the first woman to receive such an award. About the same time, she also won a Fulbright grant for study in Italy.

In 1964, Zarina joined the UW faculty as a visiting lecturer. Six years later, she and the UW Department of Architecture initiated the Architecture in Rome program. In 1984, after becoming a full professor, Zarina co-founded the UW’s Rome Center with her second husband and fellow architect, Anthony Costa Heywood. As part of renovating several floors of the historic Palazzo Pio as headquarters, Zarina helped discover and restore a medieval tower hidden for centuries behind the walls of the palazzo.

From the late 1960s onward, Zarina and Heywood worked to restore numerous buildings in Civita di Bagnoregio, an ancient town 60 miles north of Rome. The buildings, including the latest restored in 2007, served as headquarters for the UW Italian Hilltowns program.

Recognizing efforts to save the structures, the World Monument Fund added Civita de Bagnoregio to its 2006 list of 100 Most Endangered Places.

Along with Heywood and others, Zarina also founded the Northwest Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy, a nonprofit based in Seattle.

At heart, however, Zarina was a teacher who nourished both physical and intellectual hunger.

“Over the long arc of a distinguished teaching career, both in the U.S. and Italy, Astra Zarina influenced thousands of students who continue to benefit from her inspiring passion and genius for architecture, Italy, and education,” said Daniel S. Friedman, dean of the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In 1979, the UW recognized Zarina with a Distinguished Teaching Award.

Her students remember a woman who often combined good teaching with good food. “She organized ‘didactic dinners’ for all of her architecture students,” recalled Wilkin. A 1988 menu lists risotto with porcini mushrooms, chicken with tarragon and Bavarian cream with homemade pomegranate sauce. Students helped prepare meals and joined guests at a carefully laid table where rich conversation then flowed for hours. “Astra saw food, wine and fellowship as essential elements of a life well lived. Understanding how to live well was then essential to understanding architecture and becoming an architect,” Wilkin said.

“Architecture and urbanism were Zarina’s professional talents, but reaching out to people and inspiring them was her magic,” said former student Jacqueline Smith.

For years, Zarina lived in or near the Rome Center. People in the neighborhood referred to her as “la Zarina,” which translates as “little czarina.” According to Wilkin, the nickname was especially appropriate for the woman who often took center stage.

Zarina could also be demanding and difficult. Fluent in English, Italian, German, French and her native Latvian, Zarina sometimes spoke sharply. Her English was perfect, Wilkin said, but if she said something rude, she’d sometimes follow up with, “Pardon me. English isn’t my mother tongue.” Zarina was also known to mix two or three languages in one sentence.

Along with Heywood, she is survived by her sister, Vija Rekevics; her brothers, Uldis and Valdis Zarins; her nieces, Elizabette Grove and Carmen Gudz; and her nephew, Karlis Rekevics.

After Zarina’s funeral Mass on Sept. 2, a door stood open at the church of San Donato in Civita di Bagnoregio. Tacked to the door was a black-and-white funeral notice, something that regularly appears in Italian towns. Wilkin studied the note and a tabby cat standing in the doorway. “Astra adored cats and would have loved this feline adieu.”

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For more information or a photograph of Zarina, contact Catherine O’Donnell at (206) 543-2580 or cath2@u.washington.edu.