Concreto Y Sol Y Sombra

The Buildings of ASU

There's a story about the late Gilbert Cady, ASU's long-time finance wizard, that helps explain why the campus looks the way it does today. Rudy Turk, director of the University Art Museum, tells it: "Gilbert was a delightful guy, but he was very tight with a dollar. We were in the regents' room in the Administration Building one time, and I was trying to talk to him about the paneling in the room--it was some horrid varnished wood that was becoming more and more yellow with the passage of time. I said, `Gilbert, why don't you replace this with some walnut or something--it would be worth the money.' He said, `Rudy, this stuff is more expensive than walnut. But it looks cheap.'" That's the story of architecture at ASU. Most of it looks cheap; much of it is. It's also timid, banal, graceless and devoid of intellectual energy. As usual, the Arizona State Legislature is a convenient punching bag. "It's been very difficult to demonstrate the impact quality buildings would have on the educational environment," says professor of architecture Roger Schluntz. "We've got conservative state legislators who'll say, `Abe Lincoln did all right, and he just had a desk and a candle.'" In fact, the reasons behind ASU's blah buildings are a little more complicated. First though, the news: Three new buildings on campus are shaking up the place. One is a bad building, one is an annoying building, and the third is a magnificent building, but what's encouraging about all three is that they form a clean break from the past and they're whipping up critical debate. "If a building is worthy of contemplation," says John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, "then it's architecture. If it rewards that contemplation, then it's probably good architecture." If we accept Meunier's standards--and though they carry the whiff of elitism, they make sense--then the headline is that architecture, at last, has been sighted at ASU. THE FIRST PROBLEM with the Tempe campus is that unlike the U of Lute down south, there's no nucleus of good historic buildings to establish a theme--or to remind us that at one time state universities were responsible for some exquisite architecture. ASU and UofA were founded in the same year, 1885, but the former would remain a teachers' college for 60 years, living on ragamuffin appropriations. The extant buildings of "Old Quad," huddled just off University Drive, are not very ambitious, and to add insult to poverty, a while ago some thug with a T-square defaced the 1898 Old Main with an addition of prodigious insensitivity. All architecture majors should be required to tour it just so they'll know what crimes are possible when the client doesn't care. The word you hear most often to describe ASU's postwar architecture is "mishmash." Or something to that effect. People don't see stylistic kinships among buildings next to each other and assume that there's been no effort to give the campus unity, an extended architectural family. At UofA, they point out, the buildings all are dressed in uniforms of red brick to establish a theme. (A foolish one, however: Veneering five- or ten-story concrete buildings with bricks, which have no structural function, is like burning money.) There are relationships among ASU's buildings, but they're less obvious. The key is their vintage. The campus is a virtual open-air museum of trends and fads in post-WWII architecture, and this is one of the reasons it can't be called lovely: Most of those trends led to dead ends. The buildings of the Fifties--for example, the Administration Building and the Engineering Center--were evolutions of the Bauhaus movement, which presumed that Utopia could be had if we would just box ourselves up in machinelike glass, steel and concrete containers. In the Sixties and Seventies this gave way to a kind of placeless formalism--sometimes frigid and monolithic (the Life Sciences addition, 1971), sometimes prissy and overdecorated (Hayden Library, 1964). About this same time, the Incredible Concrete Hulks (Business Administration, 1967) appeared. These are gruff, powerful buildings that expose their structural muscle. They're not friendly or inviting, but at least they're not without character. And, of course, there is Frank Lloyd Wright and disciples. Gammage Center, originally planned as an opera house for Baghdad, is silly but wonderful at once, and until now ASU's only landmark building. The nearby Music Building, designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, wins honors as the campus's most ridiculous structure--a seven-story tenor drum dressed as a mariachi. Architectural style isn't the real problem on this campus, however. It's something deeper. Call it a failure of nerve, an absence of spirit, a shortfall of Architecture Power. Quick, now: Which buildings on this campus fill you with a sense of wonder or awe as you enter? Where is there a sense of mystery or discovery? Which building suggests that real intellectual energy went into its design, working out, for example, an elegant and efficient plan to elude the sun? There's more: Which of these buildings have any sense of place in the Sonoran Desert, suggesting ways that we humans might improve our environmental relationships with this land? A couple of them offer sunscreened atria where students flock on hot days, but essentially the whole campus, all but the palm trees, could be swapped with the University of Northern Iowa and nobody would notice any important difference. The reasons for this plague of mediocrity are legion. The most disheartening one isn't unique to ASU, or to Arizona. Until some 50 years ago, Americans viewed their public buildings as objects of community pride, and they willingly lavished tax money on them. (Look at the Pinal County Courthouse in Florence, or the University of Arizona's Old Main.) Something has changed. It may be that our increasing distrust and declining expectations of governmental bodies are being reflected in the buildings we're willing to let them have, or it could be that we're just more selfish and we want to keep our prosperity on display at home, rather than communally. Whichever, it's increasingly tough politically to get anything but a cheap and timid building constructed with public funds. Some state universities do have a few dramatic modern buildings, but more often than not, they're the largess of private donors (read: loaded alumni). ASU, as an adolescent university, doesn't get those sorts of bequests from loaded alumni. A related problem has been ASU's growth. Between 1945 and 1970 it ballooned from 553 to 26,425 students, a ratio outdistancing even Phoenix's expansion. Finding someplace to stash these bodies was something like heaving sandbags at the onslaught of a flash flood: The operative question wasn't "How does it look?" but "Will it keep us dry?" Other problems can be traced to the monofilament minds of bureaucrats. When ASU solicits prospective architects for new buildings, says Meunier, it does so by posting an RFQ ("request for qualifications") in the Tempe Daily News Tribune--the smallest and cheapest legal medium available. "The kinds of people who apply are the kinds who are watching for campus jobs," Meunier says. He adds, choosing his words carefully, "They are not necessarily stellar performers." The Board of Regents also has a bureaucratic formula requiring a 75 percent "efficiency ratio" in state university buildings. This means that 75 percent of the floor space must be assigned to classrooms, offices and johns. Lobbies, hallways and other "wasted" space must not exceed 25 percent. This sounds perfectly reasonable, but in practice it may prohibit an architect from conceiving an inspirational public space where students and faculty might actually spend time, stumble into each other, and ponder life's meaning. THE FIRST OF THE TRIO of new buildings, buried (literally) in the center of campus, is the least visible and the least controversial. It's also an opportunity lost. The architects, Sasaki Associates of Boston, had a chance to show how dramatic and inviting a subterranean building--a fine idea in central Arizona--can be. Instead, the Hayden Library addition is not much more than an underground book warehouse tricked out in silly postmodern doodads. The campus wanderer who hasn't visited Hayden Library since the addition opened in January will encounter, first, confusion: Where the hell is the door? The entrance to the prominent 1964 aboveground library is sealed off, and it takes a few minutes to realize that what you have to do is walk down into the pit a few hundred feet to the west. Okay, brighter folk might figure it out sooner, but this ain't Harvard. The pit is surrounded by a balustrade, which looks like it came from a Pointe resort, to keep people from falling in. Stand at the top of the stairs and what you see is an open courtyard fifteen feet below grade, and a portal that looks vaguely classical at the bottom and grows into a giant gun sight at the top. Through the gun sight you see the "lantern," a cylinder that drops light into the library lobby by day and glows like a lighthouse at night. The sunken courtyard could have been a delightful place. As it is, with no useful shade and a token fountain burbling over on an unused side, it's just a concrete apron people hurry across to get from the stairs to the library entrance. That's in mild weather. For the five months of summer, it's the Courtyard from Hell. Why do architects keep doing this to us? It's clearly revenge, but for what? Once inside, library patrons are welcomed by frosty refrigeration and an interior design that says, "Okay, fun's over--get your butt to a carrel and your nose into a book." The lobby is low, perfunctory and institutional. A swatch of daylight is lured in by that "lantern," but it's used only to highlight a copper ASU seal in the floor. From here, you proceed either to a deeper and colder underground level (periodicals) or to a passage into the old Hayden Library. Nowhere in either the new or old building is there any space that suggests it is the heart of the university, a church of reason, or even an inviting place to spend an evening reading. Hit the books, drudge. THE NEW COLLEGE OF ARCHITECTURE and Environmental Design was designed by the Hillier Group of Princeton, New Jersey, which was chosen in a competition. The architecture faculty is very enthused about it. Talk on the street is less cheery. "Looks like a prison," passers-by say.

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