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ARCHITECTURE : Modest Buildings, Open Spaces Are the Basis of Loyola's Beauty

August 20, 1992|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture and urban design

Loyola Marymount University is an almost picture-perfect campus. Unlike UCLA, which winds itself up a steep canyon, or USC, which sits hemmed in by a dense residential neighborhood, Loyola commands the Westchester cliffs with a 125-foot tower that you can see for miles and a monumental mall that sweeps away the curves of the surrounding suburban streets. The only things that have kept Loyola from becoming a major civic moment in our city is the relatively small scale of the campus and the current fad for buildings that are seemingly monumental, but badly placed and hollow.

What makes this campus work is the way it uses its position at the edge of the cliff. Architect David Elms Graham placed the first building, the 1929 Xavier Hall, right at the northern end of the property. He then placed St. Roberts Hall facing Xavier to the south to make the beginning of a courtyard. In 1953, Sacred Heart Chapel and Memorial Tower were built just to the east. Together, these light-colored, vaguely Spanish buildings became a visible emblem of the campus that then developed farther to the south. Unfortunately, it has been all downhill from there. Each successive wave of buildings was built farther inland and and away from that first statement, and each generation has failed to match the achievements of the previous one.

In 1958, the large corporate firm of A.C. Marin designed a grouping of classrooms, administration and library buildings that catch a combination of yellow brick and glass in an expressed concrete grid, giving the viewer back in clarity what they lack in character. In 1963, New York architect Edward Durrell Stone designed Foley Center as a kind of miniature Kennedy Center, a Rococo Modern temple to the arts lost in an armature of Moorish arches and spraying fountains. In the 1970s, the campus formulated the central axis leading from the south entrance of the chapel into a pedestrian mall, allowing the outlying buildings that had since sprung up to fend for themselves in meadows of parking.

Recently, things have gotten worse, with attempts to create Postmodern places out of cheap materials in Doheny Hall or to make a muscular courtyard of the arts in the Burns Center. It makes you realize how simple and good the first buildings were. Sacred Heart is a strange structure, an elongated nave clad of concrete, fronted by an almost pasted-on facade, but it has a confidence about it that it bestows on the lawn that spreads out in front of it. Sitting there, you are surrounded by an almost informal grouping of buildings that have just the right picturesque quality we associate with the romance of American campuses. This is a place where nature and learning conspire to morally uplift young men and women, while providing a sheltered lawn and a view of the Westside for the rest of us.

The linear arrangement of the modernist buildings creates an academic mall where the didactic clarity of the buildings contributes to an atmosphere of education. Each one is a composition that completes itself in its neighbor, creating a unified experience that gets more intense as you approach the center of the campus to the north. Recent buildings have replaced these academic places with pictures of civic importance or functional minimalism. Even the approach to the mall has become too grand, a barren boulevard marching between playing fields to a line of flags and a security check point. This could be a high school or an office park. Loyola would do well to look hard at its heritage. It is not one of brilliant buildings, but of modest structures and clear spaces that make the heart of this suburban campus a moment of great beauty.

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