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Some See UCI's Arts Project as Overdue

Bland courtyard will become a high-tech plaza with video and 'whispering benches.'

October 07, 2004|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

When UC Irvine opened in 1965, the campus consisted of eight monolithic buildings -- giant cheese graters, went the joke in later years -- clustered amid 1,500 acres of ranchland.

Much has changed on a campus that now boasts dozens of major buildings and lush landscapes. But one holdover from that early era is a bland courtyard with a few scraggly trees at the center of UCI's arts school -- an anonymous piece of real estate that's about to undergo a radical makeover.

Within months, university officials hope to break ground on a 30,000-square-foot high-tech outdoor arts plaza designed by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The $3.6-million project, which Lin calls "a garden of perception," includes a 200-seat amphitheater, lighted pathways, video screens, a "water table" fountain and "whispering benches" playing music and poetry.

Though the arts plaza is only a small part of the university's construction plans -- $700 million in buildings are going up or being designed -- Lin's project marks an important point in the evolution of a campus that generations of students have called "Under Construction Indefinitely."

"This is going to be a real focal point for the campus and the community -- a real work of art," said Nohema Fernandez, dean of UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

Lin's arts plaza, which will be built with public and private funds, is a departure from the functional architecture UCI has embraced in its recent building boom. But it also hearkens back to the 1980s, when university planners sought out high-profile architects such as Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, James Stirling and Charles Moore.

Buildings from that era, such as Stirling and Michael Wilford's Science Library and Gehry's Information Computer Science/Engineering Research Facility, injected character into a campus that many saw as dated and bland.

"Each generation should have an opportunity to make a mark on the land," said David Neuman, a professor and the University of Virginia's architect, who oversaw UCI's growth in the 1980s as an associate vice chancellor.

The piece of Irvine Ranch that became UCI has been shaped -- and reshaped -- by a succession of prominent designers and architects.

Urban planner William Pereira, a patron saint of the master-planned community, cut the first pattern. In the early 1960s, Pereira was hired by the UC Board of Regents to build a new university and by the Irvine Co. to plan the city that would surround it.

Pereira's circular campus incorporated six academic quads around a forested park and oversized, blunt buildings Neuman described as derivative of the International Style of the Swiss-born architect known as Le Corbusier.

"It was very much of the time," said Thomas Blurock, a Costa Mesa school architect whose architect father worked with Pereira on UCI. "It was very automobile oriented .... Its strongest characteristic was its lack of a social center .... A lot of people in those days believed that the model of the old cities was outdated. This was 'Brave New World' stuff."

But this new world had a shelf life. Some found the buildings too similar in size, too similar-looking. People hated interior rooms without windows and natural light. Others, according to Lynn Shoger, UCI's director of project development, found the structures difficult to "way find."

That's planner-speak for not being able to find the front door.

The buildings by famous architects in the 1980s provided the campus with much needed variety and a cutting edge that Pereira's uniformity lacked. But those structures also have drawbacks, Shoger said.

"We have had some issues with the durability of the materials that were used," Shoger said diplomatically. "Waterproofing issues ... all sorts of things. I can't think of a building from that era that hasn't had maintenance problems."

Those problems, in part, led university planners to stress longevity when exploding enrollment sparked another multimillion-dollar building boom in the mid- to late-1990s, Shoger said. Today's more traditional buildings -- with clearly defined bases, middles and roof lines, for example -- are designed with 70-year life spans in mind.

"Our goal is to come up with a design that people consider timeless," he said.

And the work is far from done. Projections are that today's enrollment of about 24,000 will one day reach 40,000 students -- and new buildings to accommodate them will be needed.

Some, such as Blurock, believe the campus -- a huge circle with no real center or dominant structure -- will always lack cohesiveness because it is hobbled by Pereira's original suburban-inspired design.

"The campus is very much of a suburban mentality. It's campus sprawl -- just like urban sprawl," he said. "As a place, it's never hung together."

Others, such as Neuman, disagree.

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