Class Acts : After a Period of Bland Design, Colleges Are Taking On a Postmodern Edge Whose Influences May Reach Beyond the Campus

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the design for UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History was unveiled in 1985, it was roundly condemned by many faculty members and most critics as a triumph of mediocrity, an all-too-fitting climax to three decades of tasteless, characterless architecture on the Westwood campus. Situated close to Royce Hall, the heart of UCLA's grand 1920s architectural core, the Fowler design was a clumsy parody of its neighbor's distinguished Romanesque style.

The Fowler was a true low point in the quality of UCLA's post-World War II buildings. Following on the campus' dignified prewar architecture, the structures put up in the '50s through the early '80s were at best blandly utilitarian, at worst pretentiously kitschy. The 1964 Bunche Hall, one of the clumsiest designs, was rudely dubbed a "modernist hemorrhoid" by one critic.

"By the mid-1980s there was a general feeling on campus that we had to radically improve the design quality of our new buildings," said UCLA campus architect Duke Oakley. "Speaking of the postwar buildings in general, Chancellor [Charles] Young told me, 'Boy, that stuff stinks.' Since we were on the verge of a vast new construction program, we knew we had to drastically upgrade our standards."

Thus, the opening of UCLA's new $75-million John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management in June marked more than just the completion of a splendid new addition to the campus. It also highlighted one of the peak moments in a new wave of Southern California academic buildings created over the past decade by some of the nation's best architects.

Collectively, this 10-year, $3-billion program of collegiate construction represents the most impressive array of fine public architecture seen in the Southland since the 1920s and '30s. The only other current program of public building on a similar scale has involved new prisons and courthouses, and those buildings seldom match the aesthetic excellence or social pride of most of the new campus buildings.

The figures alone are impressive. In the past 10 years UCLA's building program has totaled about $850 million, followed closely by UC San Diego with $750 million and UC Irvine with $350 million. The University of Southern California has built more than 400,000 square feet of new facilities and has plans to double that total.

The style of most of the new campus buildings comes under the umbrella of postmodernism, a loose term that covers a host of variations. Some of the designs are strongly influenced by historical models. Others take conventional modernist notions apart and re-imagine them in dramatic or downright funky ways.

For instance, the Anderson school, designed by New York's Henry Cobb, is an updated gloss on the graceful red-brick Italianate architecture of neighboring Royce Hall. Close by is an extravagant avant-garde concoction of curved steel and glass designed by Los Angeles' Hodgetts & Fung to house books while the old Powell Library is being retrofitted and seismically strengthened.

UC Irvine features an even wider range of postmodern mannerisms. Its $25-million Science Library, designed by Britain's James Stirling, resembles a simplified Renaissance palazzo in pink and beige stucco. Across the campus is the Rockwell Engineering Center conceived by Frank Gehry as a cubistic assembly of simple forms made of sheet metal, concrete, stucco and copper.

Apart from the excellence of the architecture, there are wider civic lessons to be learned from this new wave of campus construction, said UCLA architecture professor Richard Weinstein. He points to the form and character of the campus as a model of ways to increase the population density of Southland cities without diminishing the quality of life.

Campuses are, in effect, small self-contained towns that are generally more densely built up than the communities that surround them. For instance, UCLA's 380-acre campus hosts 50,000 faculty members and students, plus 10,000 non-academic visitors. This gives UCLA a daily density of about 160 persons to the acre, more than five times the level in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

Since cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine can't go on sprawling over the horizon forever, their populations must inevitably become more concentrated. The main challenge planners and elected officials face is to make Southern California's metropolitan regions more densely built up without losing their essential livability. Urban designers cite the ordered but ample ambience of campuses as an example of how to accomplish this.

"When we began our building program, many faculty members feared that the campus might get too built up and lose its woodsy, bucolic feeling," Weinstein explained. "What we've proved on campus in the past decade is that you can make a district more dense without altering its character, mainly by skillfully filling in the gaps. Los Angeles, which has many gaps in its urban fabric, could well learn from our experience."

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Since 1945, University of California campuses across the state have been through a dramatic boom-bust-boom construction cycle. The 1950s through the early '60s were a boom period in which colleges threw up a host of raw new buildings to accommodate a tide of post-World War II enrollments. Campus construction slowed dramatically from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, however, partly due to a taxpayer reaction against students, sparked by their involvement in noisy '60s protests.

Against expectations, however, enrollment kept rising during that 20-year building slowdown. Thousands of new residents migrated from out of state, attracted in part by the excellent UC system. By the mid-1980s, faced with drastic overcrowding, Gov. George Deukmejian's Administration initiated the current building boom.

Funding for the state's capital programs comes from a mixture of public and private sources, plus revenues generated by campus facilities, such as medical centers and parking garages. University residences are self-supporting, a form of nonprofit housing paid for by rental income. About 15% of the construction budget comes from private benefactors who want their name on a building. Example: UCLA's Anderson school, named for its principal donor, Los Angeles businessman John E. Anderson.

Fired up by these abundant sources of funding, almost every Southland campus, both public and private, has enjoyed an architectural renaissance in the last 10 years. But among them all, UC Irvine's physical transformation has been the most remarkable. In the past decade at UCI, a raw new campus laid out in the mid-'60s by William Pereira, and filled with crude and boring modernist buildings, has turned from a turnip into a rose.

Under the imaginative patronage of former campus architect David Neuman, leading mainstream architects and several of our best local avant-garde designers have been commissioned for major and minor projects. The UCI list includes international architectural luminaries such as Britain's Stirling, Canada's Arthur Erickson, New York's Robert Stern and Philadelphia's Robert C. Venturi, John Rauch and Scott Brown, plus Frank Gehry, Charles Moore, Eric Owen Moss, Rebecca Binder and Morphosis.

Neuman's eclectic tastes ranged from Moss' eccentric Central Housing office, with its slanted drainpipe columns and skewed windows, to Erickson's severe stainless steel, glass and sandstone Biological Sciences building. On the campus' eastern quadrant stands Moore's Italianate Alumni House, which he described as "a stage set for an opera by Puccini."

"UCI has been busy growing up," Neuman said. "Its character has changed from a suburban college into an urbane campus with an ambition to be academically and architecturally first-rate."

But Neuman's enthusiasm for good architecture was gradually overcome by the hostility and indifference of many members of the faculty and their students. Engineering students derided Gehry's Rockwell Engineering Center as resembling a cheap hardware store, and former UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason, retiring president of the UC system, gave Neuman only grudging support. "I don't have to like it, but it does draw attention," he said of the campus' fine new architecture. In 1991 Neuman, having initiated most of UCI's innovative building program, accepted a post as campus architect at Stanford.

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The process of selecting architects for college commissions is exhaustive and exhausting. Each project is administered by a consensus-seeking building committee appointed by the department dean. These committees are made up mostly of faculty, but student participation is encouraged. In practice, however, fewer than half of the committees include student representatives.

After reviewing the resumes submitted by a number of architects, the committee selects a short list of designers for interview. This is the part of the process in which architectural quality comes to the forefront, where the comparative experience and reputation of the short-listed designers becomes a crucial factor in choosing a finalist.

This consensus-seeking process has had a markedly varied outcome at different colleges. At UCLA, for instance, it has mostly resulted in what UCLA campus architect Oakley describes as "good but generally conservative choices." At UC Irvine, by contrast, the choices were more daring during Neuman's tenure, due in part to his extra clout as the associate vice chancellor in charge of physical planning.

Sometimes an architect can be just too famous and expensive for a particular project. For instance, the commission to design UC San Diego's Visual Arts Facility was first offered to Gehry, but his fees were too rich for the modest budget. So the selection committee chose Rebecca Binder, based in Playa Del Rey, in a limited competition. In the end, the university got a superb small complex to grace its main campus.

Once they are selected, architects designing campus buildings have considerable latitude, within certain basic guidelines. These include a willingness to respect the context of the campus, even if that means taking account of the possibly mediocre buildings in the vicinity. Designers are also encouraged to increase campus identity and coherence; that is, to make each individual building or complex enhance a sense of place in its immediate neighborhood.

At UC Irvine, for example, while the new buildings come in a wide variety of design styles, each of the six academic "villages" that make up the campus has its own distinctive character. A subtle selection of complementary materials, plus skillful landscaping and the addition of such social amenities as parks, kiosks, bike paths and walkways help knit each village together. At USC, by contrast, the general neglect of such strategies has left the campus looking somewhat raw and shapeless.

Architects' experiences in working with campus clients vary from the miserable to the ecstatic. The complaints at the less happy end of the spectrum have to do with the endless number of meetings required to keep committees fully informed. "It's like trying to push an elephant through a turnstile," one embittered designer said.

More moderately, Los Angeles architect Clifton Allen, who has prepared master plans for several private local campuses, including Caltech and the University of Redlands, as well as designed individual campus buildings, said his experiences have been a mixed blessing.

"In the first place, I've found that you have to gently lead campus committees toward an understanding of what they really need rather than what they think they need. And in achieving the necessary consensus, you end up with some people really liking you and others hating your guts."

Binder, who has designed buildings at UCLA, UC Irvine and UC San Diego, is unreservedly enthusiastic about her campus clients. "They're generally supportive of good design and often try to push us as far as we can go. Compared to other public organizations, such as school boards, say, or municipalities, I've found that college committees are exemplary."

In general, the wave of new campus buildings has now crested, particularly those funded by the state. The projects now under construction were approved years ago, and in these tight-budget times it seems unlikely that the same level of construction will be maintained. The fate of the new UC campus proposed for Merced County in the Central Valley also seems uncertain. Private campuses such as USC, Redlands, Caltech, Claremont and others are more likely to continue at their current levels of construction for a while yet.

But the host of fine academic buildings added in the past decade has created a lasting monument. In a recent editorial, Architecture magazine Editor Deborah Dietsch declared: "These new university buildings teach the students who use them that good architecture fosters social interaction, improves learning, and enriches daily life."

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