A Greater Whole
Originally published in Texas Architect, January/February 1999
Some of the most powerful and convincing environments we have produced in the United States over the last two centuries have been college and university campuses. Both in terms of architecture and urban design, the halls of academe and the lush grounds that surround them often are oases in the desert of commercial cacophony that characterizes so much of the American urban landscape. They stand as paragons of civil, well-mannered building and as prototypes for the way in which individual buildings can conjoin to create communities.
Most of the best of these campuses began with visionary initial plans conceived by very capable architects. Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia; Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge’S plan for Stanford University; John Galen Harvard’s plan for the University of California at Berkeley; and Cass Gilbert’s plan for the University of Minnesota are all excellent examples of well-conceived, comprehensive projections that draw inspiration from the particular character of their regions, their sites, and their budding institutions.
Occasionally, however, fine campuses have developed in a more informal fashion. In some ways they have “just grown” with each new building’s architect working very sensitively with the prior context and extending it in a coherent way. Rather than drawing on a sweeping overall vision, quadrangles, courts, and malls develop incrementally in response to very local needs and conditions. Harvard and Yale grew their campuses more in this manner. When a powerful architect like H.H. Richardson built Sever Hall at Harvard in the late 19th century, it was not so much a part of a long-term plan as it was an effort to establish an appropriate mass, scale, material character, and enclosure for the particular part of Harvard Yard he was working with at the moment.
For most campuses, over a long period of time, success depends on both of these ways of working – strong, coherent master planning and sensitive, incremental design. Reliance on master planning alone can create campuses of excessive uniformity and inflexibility when faced with changing needs. For large campuses especially, reliance on sensitive incremental design may not be enough to generate a desirable coherence and unity. Building a truly great campus (like building any quality urban environment) requires constant attentiveness at many scales – the individual building, the immediate context, and the larger whole.
In Texas we are fortunate to have been the beneficiaries of a handful of America’s best and most beautiful campus master plans. Rice University’s elegant plan of the early 20th century by Boston architect
Ralph Adams Cram is a model of responsiveness and invention (see “Survey,” page 64). Cass Gilbert’s plan for the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) of 1910 and Paul Cret’s subsequent reconceiving of that plan in 1933 are both strong, clearly defined visions for the university’s future. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge’s work for Southern Methodist University (SMU), William Ward Watkin’s plan for Texas Tech, and O’Neil Ford’s work for Trinity University in San Antonio are all admirable conceptions with strong and distinctive implications for urban and architectural character.
Some of these universities have nurtured and fleshed out their plans admirably through the years, combining consistent and sensitive incremental design with updated master plans to keep their campuses rich and strong. Rice and Trinity probably deserve the highest accolades for their record in this regard.
Texas Tech, perhaps, has drawn the least in terms of sustained energy through the years from its auspicious start. SMU and UT Austin have recently instigated new initiatives to recapture the admirable qualities of their earlier campus designs.
UT Austin Master Plan
At UT Austin this planning effort began in 1994 when Cesar Pelli and Associates was hired to produce a new comprehensive master plan for the campus – the first such plan since Paul Cret’s landmark 1933 effort. Cret’s plan had served the university well for more than 20 years, but by the early 1960s the commitment to this vision began to falter. Rapid growth in student body, faculty, and staff led to a period of building that emphasized speed and accommodation of immediate departmental needs over long-term campus planning and design. The result was often buildings that were isolated and fragmented. New parts of the campus were developed absent the friendly well-defined outdoor spaces that characterized the original “40 Acres.” As the campus had expanded to almost 400 acres it had lost the livability, grace, and style that had been so strong in the heritage defined by architects like Gilbert, Herbert M. Greene, and Cret.
The Pelli plan completed in 1996 outlined a comprehensive vision for the campus that included greater emphasis on pedestrian-friendly environments, the creation of a coherent community of landscaped open spaces, increased student housing and student activity centers, selective in-fill buildings within the core campus, creation of gateways and other orientation devices, and a respect for the architectural character of earlier eras. Its impact was immediate. Even projects already in progress were reviewed to try to bring them into greater compliance with the spirit of the master plan. As important new projects were conceived, the master plan became a guide for site selection, general building density and massing, and character of adjacent outdoor spaces.
The pattern that has emerged over the last few years has been that as a new project is initiated and a general location is identified, a local development study is conducted to bring master-plan issues into a tighter focus. Local development studies have now been done by Cesar Pelli and Associates for several projects, including a study to determine the best location for the initial stage of and a study to give greater specificity to the new north quadrangle district that was pegged to accommodate parking structures, general-purpose office buildings, and a new Psychology Building in the master plan. The latter project is now in various stages of design and construction, with Overland Partners of San Antonio as architects for the parking structures and office buildings and Cesar Pelli and Associates with Page Southerland Page as architects for the Psychology Building. Like prior work on campus by Gilbert, Greene, and Cret that bonds seamlessly into a whole, the work of different architects in the north quadrangle promises to create a strong ensemble as well as distinguished individual buildings.
Another local development study was recently conducted by Kell Munoz Wigodsky Architects of San Antonio for the portion of the campus where the College of Engineering is currently housed. No one’s favorite architectural environment on campus, this area is dominated by bland, large-scaled buildings that contribute little to the formation of active open spaces. The Kell Munoz scheme creates a net addition of almost 700,000 square feet of building and 570 parking spaces using three- to five-story infill structures to create a series of well-defined plazas and malls. The project orients strongly to Waller Creek, replacing open parking and loading docks on its banks with an outdoor commons edged by well-scaled building facades.
The combination of master planning, local development studies, and the selection of architects for individual buildings who are committed to creating a high quality overall campus environment promises to generate a new era of buildings at UT Austin that will help return the campus to its former architectural glory. Some new buildings on prominent sites and with one-of-a-kind programs like the new Blanton Art
Museum will demand a focal and distinctive architectural character (like the UT Tower or the Texas Memorial Museum were given in Cret’s plan). Others, like the new Psychology Building, the pair of office buildings designed by Overland Partners, and most of the buildings in the Kell Munoz Wigodsky plan, will need to be strong fabric buildings that create continuity and spatial definition for the campus (like the Texas Union and Goldsmith Hall did for the Cret plan). The master plan helps put each building’s role into architectural as well as urban design perspective.
SMU Master Plan
The SMU Centennial Master Plan is at an earlier stage in a similar process to that developed by UT Austin. Completed last year by Good, Fulton & Farrell Architects of Dallas with SWA Group, the SMU plan aims to cure some of the ills of the current campus and set its university on a well-defined track through 2015. New parking structures are planned to replace surface parking that has eaten up much of the outdoor space on campus through the years. The recaptured space is used to create well-defined courts and lawns flanked by solid, consistent building volumes. The resulting hierarchy of outdoor rooms extends what is so successful in some parts of the older campus fabric.
The plan is all about clarity, order and tradition – values important to SMU as an institution. It reasserts the importance of student life on campus, focusing on activities outside the classroom as well as within. New outdoor spaces for informal gathering, a new Student Services Building at a critical juncture on campus, a new recreational sports complex, and a new art museum at the front door of the campus will all enrich the life and fabric of SMD.
Regrettably, so much of architectural practice is the act of creating a single building for a client who is understandably interested primarily in his or her own domain. Campus projects offer the opportunity to work with buildings, not only as they accommodate individual users’ needs, but also as they build communities, public spaces, and cities. It is encouraging to see these examples at UT Austin and SMU where clients are alert to the value of buildings creating a greater whole and where architects are working creatively and collaboratively together to address those expectations.
Thinking about Campus Architecture
Architect: Cesar Pelli and Associates, Good Fulton & Farrell Architects, Overland Partners, Page Southerland Page, SWA Group
Tags: Southern Methodist University, The University of Texas at Austin
Originally published in Texas Architect, January/February 1999