A Campus by Design : UC Irvine Hopes to Avoid Boring, Boxy Buildings and Add a Degree of Sophistication As It Expands

Looking out over the empty hills of the Irvine Ranch almost 30 years ago, planner William Pereira searched his mind for a powerful metaphor to match the UC campus he envisioned.

Pereira’s aim, stated in his 1963 Long-Range Development Plan for UC Irvine, was “to establish a heart and a sense of place” that would offer the first students a feeling for “the destiny of the campus.”

The plan became a strong symbolic presence for Irvine Ranch, then a dry rolling wilderness under hot white skies. At the heart of the campus was a series of concentric rings--the innermost containing undergraduate facilities, the outer one housing graduate and research buildings. This ring-within-aring metaphor was intended to express a student’s progress, from the self-absorbed concentration of the first years of study to the wider circle of the world beyond the campus.

While the late architect’s master plan was bold, the buildings he fleshed it out with in the 1960s and ‘70s were, in the view of many observers, overscaled and boringly detailed. Campus wags dubbed the modernist concrete boxes that enclose UCI’s inner ring mall “a bunch of giant cheese graters.”

$350-Million Changes

Now all this is changing. Under the supervision of campus architect David Neuman, UCI has inaugurated a $350-million expansion that, by 1992, will feature more than 20 major new complexes designed by some of the best U.S. and international architects.


“UCI is growing up,” Neuman explained. “Its character is changing from a suburban college into a urbane campus with an ambition to be academically and architecturally first-rate.”

Neuman, 42, described this change as “a response to circumstance, both local and beyond.” The nearby City of Irvine and surrounding Orange County have evolved in the last decade from a conglomeration of suburban dormitories into a series of self-contained semi-urban centers, he said. “In the same way, UCI has begun to take on the aspect of a more sophisticated campus.”

In contrast to the “cheese grater” uniformity of the Pereira-era buildings, the new class of UCI architecture exhibits a wide diversity.

On the eastern quadrant, Charles Moore’s Italianate Alumni House and Extension classroom complex--described by one critic as “a stage set for an opera by Puccini"--plays off a colonnaded Graduate School of Management by New York-based Venturi, Rauch, Scott-Brown.

Farther south, Pop-modernist fabrications by Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss feature eccentric layouts and quirky detailing, as if children were playing with giant building blocks.

On the west sector, Santa Monica-based Morphosis has designed a Food Satellite Center to serve the humanities department that mocks solemnity with a row of free-standing columns that will have the air of an instant architectural ruin.

Across the ring mall, Britain’s James Stirling has designed a $30-million Postmodern science library that will anchor the western quadrant. Stirling’s sculptural library, scheduled to open in 1992, has a stone base topped by banded stucco.

To the north of the library, New York-based Robert Stern is elaborating a Fine Arts Village that will resemble a folksy, red-tile-roofed barn when completed in early 1989.

And to the south of the library, Canada’s Arthur Erickson (who also has an L.A. office) has designed a $50-million Biological Sciences Unit featuring horizontal bands of light green glass and plastic panels in a sleek late-modernist manner.

In the view of national magazines such as Progressive Architecture, several lesser-known designers, many from California, have contributed some of their best work to UCI’s expansion.

Among them is L.A.-based Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond’s boldly Cubist Student Services Building near the administration center. Project architect Kate Diamond said designing for the campus presents a special challenge. “At present (UCI) tends to lack identity, so it needs buildings that are very sculptural and strongly modeled to provide a real sense of place.”

In Stern’s view, the “basic blandness” of the early Modernist buildings can work in the designer’s favor, providing “a kind of blank design canvas on which the architect can paint a more artful and resonant picture.”

The reaction of faculty and students to the new architecture has been mixed.

“Looks like a hardware store,” one student/user said of Gehry’s new engineering and computer science facility.

“The engineers who occupy my building are interested in how things are put together,” Gehry explained. “So I gave them an architectural metaphor that takes its clues from the assembly of components you might find in a machine. You can see how the whole thing functions because it is broken down into its major pieces, then reassembled as a working complex.”

“I don’t have to like it,” UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason said of the growing and varied collection of unusual structures, “but it draws attention, and it’s important that people come to see us.”

Conservative members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors have reportedly been ambivalent in their reactions to UCI’s architectural ambitions. Some supervisors are wary of boisterous campus growth--projected to double to 30,000 students by 2000--and its impact on local traffic congestion. Others have expressed fears that an architecturally sophisticated campus might upstage the unremarkable buildings that dominate the neighboring City of Irvine.

Meanwhile, those at UCI who like the new architecture wonder how all the differently styled buildings will blend into a harmonious whole when the present wave of construction is completed early in the next decade.

“How will all the new pieces fit together to make a campus that is integrated and coherent?” Neuman asked rhetorically. “The simple answer is, urban design.”

By urban design he means the creation of a distinctive look for each of the six academic “villages,” or departments, that slice the campus circle into equal segments. At the same time he plans to strengthen the physical links--the pedestrian walks, bike paths and landscaping--connecting the separate cloisters.

“While each segment of the campus circle will develop its own particular architectural character and feeling, the strongly emphasized park areas and avenues they share will give the university as a whole the sense of a small city,” he said. “These shared spaces will encourage faculty and students from different disciplines to meet, linger and exchange ideas.”

Neuman has been UCI campus architect since 1977. A graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he was promoted to associate vice chancellor in charge of physical planning in 1986. UCI and UCLA are the only two Southland universities with campus architects to coordinate physical expansion programs.

Limited Palette

To establish a common design vocabulary, Neuman asks all the architects working at UCI to select materials and finishes from a limited palette. This includes stucco, concrete, terra-cotta-colored roofing materials and a range of earth-tone Mediterranean colors.

“By 1992,” he said, “when our current architectural and urban design program is in place, UCI will be the most distinctive campus in California, displaying one of the most striking collections of great contemporary architecture anywhere.”

Observed California architect Charles Moore: “What’s happening at UCI is amazing. Who would imagine that a campus seemingly stamped forever with the curse of architectural mediocrity would raise a phoenix of fine design from the ashes of dullness?”