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

October 05, 1995|LEON WHITESON | 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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