SDSU Mission Falls Far Short


What would San Diego County look like if the Franciscans had never built their string of California missions during the 18th and 19th centuries? That question is worth pondering, since missions in Oceanside (1798) and San Diego (1769) have been the dominant architectural models here throughout the 20th Century.

Designed with care, Mission Revival buildings may not be very original, but they can provide a soft, romantic quality that seems suited to our Mediterranean climate. The interplay between indoor and outdoor spaces translates especially well.

But it takes more than Mission forms--arches, towers, tile roofs and wiggly parapet walls--to make a successful building. And the recently completed $7.8-million, three-story Student Services Building at San Diego State University, the campus’s first new building since 1978, shows how such historicism can fall short.


This approach also presents a philosophical problem; at a university where academic programs are looking to the future, imitating the past--and poorly--sends the wrong message to students, faculty and the public.

The school’s Facilities and Planning Management Office asked Hope Architects of San Diego for the mission-style design to accommodate administrative offices such as Counseling, Ethnic Affairs, Educational Opportunities, Career Services, Public Safety, plus various offices for the College of Business.

“This was a conscious effort to return to the old Spanish Mission style,” Nore Thiesfeld, associate director of the Facilities Planning and Management Office, said.

“I had felt rather chagrined that the architecture that occurred here, mostly during the 1950s and to some extent after that, had turned totally away from the original architecture of the campus.

“It really had become what I refer to as cheese-box architecture--boxes with holes punched in them and little or no character. That kind of thing occurred not only at SDSU, but on lots of state university campuses in California. The growth that occurred after World War II was so fast we could barely keep up with it. Buildings were cranked out just to provide space, with little thought to the architecture,” Thiesfeld said.

But new Student Services building, a tan stucco structure with gray and green trim on the east edge of campus, doesn’t capture much of the charm of the Mission era. Even worse, it doesn’t pay much attention to its surroundings.


It has the expected arches--dozens of them around window and door openings--and a tile roof. But its grandest gesture, an entry arch topped by a Mission-style parapet wall, doesn’t seem like an entry at all, since it faces a back road traveled more often by cars than pedestrians.

The building lacks the fine details of craftsmanship and materials--such as colorful tile--that can make Mission-style buildings rich and romantic. A third-floor central courtyard, for example, is plain and institutional in appearance, more suited to a factory or prison.

In back, the building is wrapped with arcades. Properly used, these would guide pedestrians past various entrances. Here, however, the uncomfortably narrow arcades carry pedestrians aimlessly past blank walls.

Views of parking lots under the building detract from the architecture, where even a minimal amount of landscaping or structural screening would have helped.

Phase 2 of the Student Services Building will replace the existing Campus Lab School to the west of Phase 1 when it breaks ground early next year. Its design looks like it could be a more promising version of Mission Revival. The arcades at the front of the building, for example, will function more successfully, leading pedestrians past windows and doors, not blank walls. The arcade also will link the new building to the wide pedestrian mall between the Aztec Center and the bookstore.

Campus policies for planning and architecture have shifted several times over the years.

The school’s first buildings on Montezuma Mesa were built in the Mission Revival style during the early 1930s, and these early buildings, like Hardy Tower and Hepner Hall, with their smooth stucco walls, tile roofs and cloistered courtyards, provide the romance and human scale a college campus needs.

The campus’s postwar buildings were frequently designed by state architects. The mid-’50s engineering building, with its drab, fortress-like exterior, and the chemistry-geology building, completed in 1960, are prime examples of the state’s unimaginative design work.

“In 1960, the trustees for the state university system came into being, and they began to hire private architects,” Thiesfeld said. Although most of the newer buildings are modern in style, some make subtle references to their predecessors. Shifting design control away from the state brought better architecture to the campus.

For example, Frank L. Hope & Associates’ Music Building, completed in 1969, has tall, arched openings vaguely reminiscent of arched Mission-style arcades. Aztec Center, designed by Mosher Drew Watson & Associates, which was completed in 1968, follows the spirit of Mission-style buildings through a wide central mall and liberal use of windows that take advantage of the Southern California climate.

The main library, designed by the state’s architects and completed in 1971, is a purely modern building. The concrete exterior, decorated with a simple pattern of vertical ridges in the concrete, gives a pleasing sense of order. Clear-glass windows around the base invite pedestrians by revealing the activity inside.

But, despite the successes of some buildings, the campus still lacks the glue--a sensible master plan--that could tie everything together. During the postwar years, rapid campus expansion outpaced a master plan altered only slightly since the 1950s, usually to accommodate new buildings not anticipated when it was written.

“It’s an old plan,” admitted Thiesfeld. “It hasn’t been massively updated.”

Shortcomings run rampant.

The campus’s central north-south pedestrian mall, which begins at the Campanile Drive entrance, should orient pedestrians. It sets up a strong axis toward the arched entrance to Hepner Hall hundreds of yards away. Instead, trees planted in the center of the mall block lines of sight.

Even moving across the campus is a challenge. Maze-like alleys and small access roads that are widely used by service vehicles seem to be the most effective routes for the pedestrian, though not always the most comfortable.

Thiesfeld said campus planners hope their 1990s Mission Revival, intended for several new buildings, will bring back a “sense of unity” to the campus that was lost during the postwar years.

The new Mission Revival should proceed only after a new campus plan is drafted. There should also be room for contemporary variations on the Mission era, in the name of progress and creativity.