How 5 California Colleges Approach Campus Design

How 5 California Colleges Approach Campus Design

In this article, originally published in 2 parts on Metropolis Magazine as "Building a University: How 5 California Schools Approach Campus Design" (Part 1 & Part 2), Sherin Wing investigates how different Californian universities utilize the design of their campus to express and enable their differing missions.

A school is more than just the sum of its intellectual records. Its legacy is very much tied to a physical place: its campus. More than a mascot or a symbol, the design of a campus and the buildings that form it greatly contribute to a university's lasting identity.

The key, then, is how a school’s material identity advances its intellectual mission. For example, academic buildings often physically symbolize the type of scholarly exploration and research that takes place therein. Administrative centers, on the other hand, anchor the more idealistic work taking place in the lecture and science wings. At the same time, individual buildings can function collectively as didactic forums for the public, demonstrating such principles as energy and water-use efficiencies. Lastly, the circulation between the buildings themselves is important. Open green space, for instance, can accommodate crowds, lectures, and even protests, providing a counterpoint to the more stately, processional routes that crisscross a campus.

Clearly these are different, and at times conflicting, agendas. How are they ranked and pursued by individual universities? Five campus architects at different California universities reveal how similar factors work in concert to produce very different visions and results. For some the initial plan of a school continues to wield influence over future developments, while in other cases a commitment to architectural movements and types gives rise to an eclectic, flexible approach to campus design.

Find out how these 5 California Universities approach their architecture after the break

The Teaching & Learning Center for Health Sciences (in construction) incorporates walls of red brick, a reference to the older Romanesque-style buildings on UCLA's campus. Image Courtesy of Jeffrey Averill/Skidmore Owings & Merrill


In considering how initial buildings shape a school’s subsequent development, a key issue is ensuring that they advance an overall vision of what the school represents. At UCLA, the original inspiration for the univeristy grounds informed later campus projects and additions. In doing so, the unity of the campus plan was maintained, while the school's history, through its architectural fabric, was preserved. Jeffrey Averill, AIA, and Campus Architect, explains the planning strategy: “The original campus developed as part of a Beaux-Arts axial master plan that drew upon the Italian Lombardy-Romanesque for inspiration and reference rather than the models of Collegiate Gothic from Oxford and Cambridge. With the landscape and sunlight of Southern California, these northern Italian buildings seemed more appropriate.”

Yet later projects have expanded beyond the original vision, reflecting changing aesthetics: “During the post-war expansion phase though the Romanesque style was abandoned for the most part in favor of modern architecture, the Regents insisted that the new buildings still utilize a warm, red brick on the exteriors of most of the buildings. More recent buildings that may vary from this treatment of brick still use brick to continue those connections and root the buildings to the UCLA context.” What’s more, current development demonstrates how intellectual and environmental goals exert their influence: “An accelerated push to build substantially more on campus housing has provided economical choices for students, resulted in stronger academic performance and significantly reduced environmental impacts and commuter vehicle trips.” These are coupled with the construction of new science buildings that will function as showcases for “California native and adapted plant types,” as well as opening up opportunities for green roofing and other sustainable strategies.

Bonner Hall at UC San Diego, 1964. Bonner, like Geisel Library, is emblematic of UCSD's commitment to progressive architecture. Image Courtesy of Robert Glasheen Photograph Collection, MSS 154. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library

UC San Diego

This approach contrasts sharply with UC San Diego. UCSD, founded in the 1960s, is strongly identified with modernist architecture. The iconic Geisel Library conjures up images of a cubist spaceship but also functions as a draw and an easily identifiable symbol of the campus. Boone Hellmann, FAIA, recently retired Vice Chancellor and Campus Architect at UCSD, notes how the school aligned itself with forward-looking architecture: “The campus began in development in the mid 60’s. Modernism was very much present in the vocabulary and vernacular of the architects in those days. Additionally, construction technology was contributing to the design solutions.” This approach has added to the architectural eclecticism at UCSD: “It is immediately apparent that the architecture of UC San Diego is disparate…but that’s not a bad thing. First and foremost, nearly all of our buildings are of a high quality design so there is a commonality about the pursuit of architectural design quality. Second, our landscape is exceptionally strong with the stands of eucalyptus trees and green areas and thus becomes the contextual fabric that is the glue that binds the parts together. The buildings are then ‘inhabitants of the landscape.’”

Of course, continues Mr. Hellmann, current and future developments continue to use the UC San Diego Master Plan. "This is a ‘road map’ that guides the development of the campus. It carefully considers available land resources, circulation, academic drivers, open space, etc., such that future buildings are carefully considered into this matrix.” Yet the architecture is not simply an end in itself. It signifies the academic work being done at the school which in turn attracts new students, faculty, and administrative staff to it. In other words, the modernist, even futuristic, campus references the equally scientific intellectual work done by UCSD students. One may think, then, of Math and Sciences as a strength at the school and indeed, UCSD is well-known and ranked highly for its Engineering and Science departments.

The Clark Center at Stanford University. Image © Foster + Partners


Stanford offers another vision of connecting its physical identity with its academic mission. The school “continues to follow the principles of the original campus master plan by Frederick Law Olmsted,” says David Lenox, University Architect and Director of the Campus Planning & Design. In practice, these principles can be aesthetic, such as the university's preference for hipped red clay tile roofs. They are one of Stanford's most emblematic architectural features, says Lenox. As such, “we continue to construct buildings with this feature but we have also found innovative ways to reinterpret it.”

Yet the goal with many of the newer buildings is to go beyond the envelope and begin to shape space in a way that's symbolic of Stanford's scholarly identity. The Bio-X Clark Center by Foster + Partners, for example, incorporates many of the elements and materials of the original campus buildings, but breathes new life into them. The structure wraps around a central, open-air common space that bleeds into the surrounding campus grounds. It is a spatial model that follows from the school's approach to interdisciplinary research: “In our new buildings and redevelopment of existing academic precincts we focus on creating connections between the interior and exterior environments as well as creating unique hubs that relate to the programs," Lenox explains. "The new buildings in the Arts District are more contemporary to reflect the creative programs within, while many of our buildings in the School of Medicine are also less traditional reflecting the research and discovery within.”

The Richard C. Seaver Biology Building at Pomona College. Image Courtesy of Pomona College

Pomona College

At Pomona College, the challenge of maintaining a strong physical identity associated with the academic mission of a school is presented with a unique twist: while the school is a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium, it is also an independent school with its own set of departments. How, then, does it maintain its unique identity? Pomona presents yet another iteration of how to combine the past, including Myron Hunt’s campus master plan and Ralph Cornell’s landscape master plan, with current practical needs and technological advances.

Pomona is currently steeped in construction that recalls the building materials and elements established by the venerable campus landmarks. The projects are both varied and numerous, including offices, a new laboratory, auditorium, athletic facilities, and even an art studio with a live webcam of the construction. These buildings, however, must also comply with the city of Pomona’s Green Building Standards, which calls for LEED Gold certification at the very least.

How to reconcile the one with the other? The Richard C. Seaver Biology Building, which houses labs for Ponoma's biology faculty, functions as an ideal case study. The building incorporates several sustainable technologies in its design, including its use of recycled materials, waterless urinals, as well as low-emitting materials. But it also gestures towards the older campus buildings and the architectural legacy they represent. Says Andrea Ramella, Assistant Director Planning & Project Management: “The buildings are more modern and they play off their traditional neighbors by using some of the same techniques; varying the stories, using a ribbon window effect on upper floors; and incorporating many of the same materials in new ways.” All these architectural elements—materials, form, and certifications—work in concert to remind students and visitors that, for all its traditions, Pomona stands on the academic cutting edge.

The Science & Engineering building at UC Merced, with the quad in the foreground. Image Courtesy of UC Merced

UC Merced

All these schools have one thing in common: they have been around for at least forty years, while some were founded in the 19th century. The question is, how does one build identity from the ground up? Enter UC Merced. Since its inception in 2005, UC Merced's status as the first new research university in the US this century has been both blessing and curse. Its vision is grand: to match the latter distinction, the school has endeavored to have all of its buildings meet LEED standards.

The pressure, however, is for the school’s academic credentials to match its physical identity. Initially, the school struggled to build its academic reputation. But in recent years, its resource-efficient, future-oriented campus points to an academic core that is equally committed to scientific advancements. Indeed, UC Merced has decided that research opportunities should not be limited to its graduate students, but should also be integral to its undergraduate curriculum. Students are responding and with that, so is the next phase of the campus’s development. This past year, the number of applicants have soared ten times above the available slots. Says Thomas E. Lollini, FAIA, Campus Architect and Associate Vice Chancellor, “We presently serve about 5,700 students. However, the campus is embarking upon an ambitious undertaking of its second phase of development to accommodate a population of 10,000 students by 2020. The 2020 Project will be planned and implemented as a mixed-use district.”

At UC Merced, then, the school's goals are written in its campus and all its buildings. These embody the principles of conservation and resource-efficiency combined with technological innovation: “All buildings completed and currently under construction are expected to exceed California’s stringent energy codes by 30%. The architecture reflects an array of environmental design strategies to minimize energy demands, yet contribute to an integrated urban design fabric while employing a common design language with varied design interpretations. Its sustainably designed and managed landscape adds to the sense of place.”

There are many clichés about the future and how it shapes universities: that it is now, and that it has yet to be written. But what is most interesting is that combining intellectual pursuits with architecture creates some unique projects and solutions, both for the universities already established, as well as those yet to be founded.

Sherin Wing, author of ArchDaily's College Guide, also writes for Metropolis and The Architect’s Newspaper. She has also contributed to Archinect and Architect Magazine. She co-authored The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School and is currently writing a book for Routledge on contemporary architects who design sacred spaces. She received her PhD in the Humanities from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter: @SherinWing.

About this author
Cite: Sherin Wing. "How 5 California Colleges Approach Campus Design" 15 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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