On a gleaming sunny afternoon two weeks back, folding chairs were lined up in rows on the street on the UCSB campus, for scientists, administrators, curiosity-seekers and the architecturally minded. A building was being christened, a safe harbor for arcane thinkers known as the Institute for Theoretical Physics, founded in 1979 and finally with a home of its own.
As Director James Langer explained over the microphone at the new building’s dedication, the ITP is “a facility for bringing together scientists from all over the world to tackle interesting problems.”
Physics is one thing, architectural celebrity another. What this building represents to many is the lasting thumbprint of its maker, the internationally renowned and sometimes controversial architect Michael Graves.
Graves hasn’t gained his formidable reputation by way of restraint. The Princeton-based architect has often worn post-Modernist tendencies proudly, freely weaving historical reference points and conjoining geometric volumes like so many building blocks--all sprinkled with a playful sense of irony and unusually vivid exterior colors.
One of Graves’ Southern California projects is a headquarters on the Eisner-era Disney lot in Burbank, a quasi-classical edifice with relief sculptures of the Seven Dwarfs serving as supportive columns.
But what the current visitor to UCSB finds in Graves’ ITP building, which serves as a gateway to the campus from its southern entrance, is a subtle and even seemingly polite variation on familiar Southern California themes. Gabled red-tiled roofs, soft earth tones and trellises are nothing new around these Mediterranean-esque parts.
They are, however, fairly new to the fabric of the university’s largely utilitarian architectural scheme. The ITP’s home stands apart from its immediate surroundings even as it reaches out to the aesthetics of the hosting community of Santa Barbara proper, with its dominant Spanish Colonial motif. In this way, the ITP building literally serves as a gateway and a bridge between the city and the school’s self-enclosed microcosm, which seems architecturally disassociated from the community that hosts it.
Adjacent to the ITP structure, for instance, is the massive engineering complex, a fairly straight Modernist rectilinear steamship of a structure. Gray and white surfaces and mechanistic, repetitive rhythms of windows prevail.
Graves’ structure, contrarily, involves two long wings fanning out from a cylindrical tower--with an ocean view to die for--that serves as the vortex on the site. One wing ties in at a right angle to the engineering building, the other, roughly tracing the line of the nearby cliff and, by extension, the Pacific coastline.
There it is, in a metaphorical nutshell: The ITP is situated at the juncture of engineering and the deep blue sea. And, at the risk of reducing things to simplistic symbolism, the engineering building exudes sobriety and pragmatism, whereas the ITP, with its soft, embracing image and gentle ironies, might be seen as either a suitable think tank or rehab center.
All is not as mild-mannered or vernacular as it initially appears, however. Graves has equipped the structure with a number of intriguing details and dichotomies. False window frames and semiclassical pediment motifs--perched over the entrance and tucked into the ceiling of the conference room inside--add a veneer of slyness to the whole.
Trellises, which will one day play host to climbing vines to create a Western fringe Ivy League effect, are placed over the second-story windows and create raked, checkerboard shadows on walls depending on the sun’s angle. Meanwhile, individual copper awnings act as eyelids over the ground floor windows.
Five years in the planning and building, the ITP structure is Graves’ first design for the UC system, another in a series of projects that promise to give the architect a stronger profile in the state, and a notable architectural addition to the campus and the community.
It’s high time that a self-congratulatory cultural haven such as Santa Barbara got a Graves. Now, it’s got one--if a tame one by this architect’s standards.
Having completed his work here, Graves is on the institutional brain at the moment. At the University Art Museum is a show in the back gallery entitled “Michael Graves: Work in California.” What’s surprising, given his penchant for the slightly outlandish, is that Graves didn’t start making an impact in this state earlier than he has.
The show includes documentation of the Aventine in La Jolla, which is like a mini-post-mod villa with a slender sliver of a Hyatt hotel that looks like a vintage toaster on a huge scale.
Another project in the exhibition is a significant, and yet-to-be-built Graves project, the mammoth “Metropolis” in downtown Los Angeles, along the Harbor Freeway. If projected computerized images tell the truth, the 2.7-million-square-foot, mixed-use complex with earthy color scheme and geometrical playground-like design may steal the show down in that increasingly interesting urban area.
Graves himself gave a dry-witted and substantial lecture at UCSB before the dedication ceremony. Using slides, mostly of paintings throughout history, Graves traced the connection of his work with the fundamental ideals of still lifes--such as the work of Morandi--as well as the architectural paradigms of Le Corbusier.
And, ever the grown-up, deconstructionist trickster, Graves used the term “putting Humpty Dumpty back together again” more than once. Mother Goose meets high aesthetics.
Concluding his lecture, Graves noted that “the storytelling capacity of painting is well known, but the storytelling capacity of architecture has largely been lost. It is the responsibility of us to bring it back, at least on a subliminal level, to make it available to all of you.”
ITP’s storytelling era is now in session.