Deconstructing Design

UCR campus architecture was driven by post-war Education Explosion, Modernism, and automobiles

By John Warren

At its beginning, the American university campus — like the colonies themselves — was not content to replicate British blueprints.

The notion of a standalone community where students would learn and live in the same place was an American idea. Campuses were built on expansive plots of land away from urban centers, as city influences were distrusted.

Henry David Thoreau punctuated the mindset, writing, “It would be no small
advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain.”

The best representation may be Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Its core campus has been called “The Greatest Outdoor Room in America.”

Jefferson said his goal with the Virginia campus was the creation of an “academical village”; its architectural character “an expression of the American mind.” His campus arranged around an open square of grass and trees — the pedestrian-friendly quadrangle — endures.

Designers call it “placemaking”; creating a space that has symbiosis with a set of objectives, one that reinforces the power of ritual and belonging. It’s an iconic water fountain, a stone façade, or even the sensation one has walking under a leafy canopy.

A sense of place was created with Virginia’s Rotunda, the Oval at Ohio State University, Harvard Yard, or one of the multitudinous buildings called “Old Main” on campuses across the United States.

New Forces

By the middle of the 20th century, forces were converging that would
impact the look and feel of American university campuses, including the new University of California campus in Riverside.

“Automobile dominance” is the phrase planners use to describe the impact of cars on campus design, evident in expansive asphalt parking lots and paved roads. It was a notion directly at odds with the traditional American campus and its pedestrian-friendly placemaking.

Also, universities could no longer define themselves as independent “cities of learning.” As their physical footprints expanded, they found themselves waging land-use battles with suburban neighbors abutting their boundaries.

The biggest change came with a post–World War II phenomenon known as
“The Education Explosion.” By the 1960s, baby boomers were reaching college age. Between 1951 and 1961, U.S. college enrollment had climbed from 24 to 37 percent. While the U.S. population grew by 20 percent during the 1950s, the college population grew by 60 percent, from 2.2 million to 3.6 million.

The problem was most pressing in California. In 1962, there were 50,000 students spread across seven University of California campuses. Within 13 years, it was expected the number would reach 125,000.

The University of California system met the challenge with ambitious expansion plans. UC Davis and Riverside had their beginnings in the
1950s, and new campuses in Irvine, Santa Cruz, and San Diego followed in the early 1960s.

When Jefferson built the University of Virginia, his concern was quantity — enough students learning so that the principles of democracy would be perpetuated. In the throes of the Education Explosion, the challenge was maintaining quality.

Concurrently, after a generation of struggle with traditionalists who clung to Gothic or classical architecture, the minimalist, Modernist design movement had won in the university world. It was the architecture of the machine age.

“Form follows function,” Modernist architect Louis Sullivan famously said.

At the new UCR campus, which opened in 1954 with 127 students, it meant a chance to embrace Modernism in every bright-white façade, every flat roof, and in glass — lots of glass — resplendent with gleaming metal framework, stretching in long, horizontal bands.

Architectural Modernism at UCR is unmistakable in the earliest buildings, which include the Rivera Library and Watkins, Webber, and Spieth halls. The architecture embellishes the buildings without ornamentation, and is a response to the desert climate. It’s evident in the covered outdoor passageways, such as those found by Rivera Library, the sunlit portico outside Watkins Hall, and the “bris de soleil” sun shading — windows shielded from the harsh afternoon sun by horizontal and vertical fins.

“The core UCR buildings quietly work together to create a coherent sense of place. They are elegant in their simplicity,” said Jacqueline Norman, campus architect.

Building continued into the mid-1960s, with the construction of Sproul and Pierce halls. But enrollment dropped in the early 1970s — a trend that would continue into the mid-1980s — and construction virtually stalled for a generation.

In recent years, older American campuses have wrestled with the Modernist movement’s legacy, some declaring their aging, minimalist buildings inferior to earlier, more traditional architectural styles. The buildings have been razed on some campuses, where there has been a return to more dramatic styles, such as Gothic.

But as UC Riverside ramps up for its largest-ever expansion, planners view its early design not as something to be mitigated, but as the campus’s design tradition.

“It’s easy to build bridges between old and new when we are honoring the same basic, timeless design principles,” Norman said. “The new architecture will be reflective of the 21st century, but will be responsive to fundamental issues that never go away.”