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Concreto Y Sol Y Sombra

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.

 

Well . . . no. The "prison" image is suggested by the huge decorative grilles over the windows. They're the building's most prominent exterior feature and possibly its most unfortunate one. The problem with this building, at least on the outside, is that it has too many features, too many decorations, too many textures. The south facade in particular is a riot of grilles, bars, railings and grates. The eye roams fitfully over it all, like a fly in a barn, wondering what feature to alight upon. Meunier is impatient with criticism that the new building is "busy"; what we're seeing, he insists, is "an incredible richness of content." The feeling here is that what we're seeing is a building where the designers burned too much midnight oil to make it say A*R*C*H*I*T*E*C*T*U*R*E. It's more successful inside. You enter by a three-story skylit galleria that seems to draw you toward the college's library, which is visible straight ahead. It's one of the few entry sequences on campus with spatial drama. The main lecture hall is a stunning room, an auditorium flanked by curving red colonnades backlit with mysterious pink light. Several spaces in and around the building have been planned for outside-of-class encounters among faculty and students. It's an intelligent idea, but the spaces aren't designed intelligently. One of them, an outdoor "cafe" off the second floor, once again (sigh) is unusable five months of the year. An open-air "faculty court" in the center of the second floor is cooler because the building's air conditioners dump their exhaust into it, but that makes it annoyingly noisy. On the bottom floor the lecture halls are organized around a large indoor court, but its concrete floor and hard-surfaced walls give it the acoustics of a train station. The philosophy behind this building is intriguing. In a statement with the winning competition entry, the architects declared: "It [the building] chooses not to oversimplify. Oversimplified buildings, much like oversimplified visions of society, always seem artificial and inauthentic. This building enjoys the richness of texture that is always present in our elaborate and complicated world." Does that mean, the perplexed bystander wonders, that architecture should reflect, rather than resolve, confusion? NOW WE'RE AT the J. Russell Nelson Fine Arts Center, and we're confused. What is this building? Where did it come from? What does it mean? "I love it," comments a woman. "But where's the door?" And as we're hanging around outside being puzzled, we're broiling. There's no shade anywhere. Five months out of the year . . . And yet, though Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock's Fine Arts Center can be lashed with some of the same criticisms as the library addition and the architecture building, it's a great building. It's arguably the best work of architecture in the Valley since Wright's Taliesin West of 1937. The difference between it and the others revolves around what Meunier was saying about architecture: This building rewards contemplation. Predock won the commission in a competition in 1983--the first ever conducted for a university building in Arizona. ASU spent a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant on the contest and attracted several architectural celebrities to enter. Predock was an unexpected winner in that his national reputation was just beginning to emerge; he was then considered an important "regional" architect of the Southwest. The label irritates him. "You're a `regionalist' if you can't get a job out of state," he says. Predock's architectural vision, however, is clearly a product of his 35 years in the Southwest. He calls himself a "desert rat," although he doesn't look or talk like the usual variety. His sapphire-blue eyes radiate intensity; his fine, frost-white hair sweeps around his scalp in dramatic waves. Talk architecture with him, and you'll wonder if you're lost in Finnegans Wake. In the middle of a long soliloquy he'll toss out something like, "I make naked buildings--take away the skin and the city of dreams is within." Is this profound or nuts? Too late, he's on to the next chapter. The Fine Arts Center, in fact, is a naked building. In a region where enlightened architects lately have been talking up self-shading, protected architecture, Predock's building rides the landscape boldly and defiantly, welcoming all the light and heat that the sun can lavish on it. The minimalist landscaping and total absence of ornamentation is intentional. To explain why, Predock draws on the Spanish concept of sol y sombra, the duality of sun and shadow. Build a plain, blank wall, let these forces play on it and you have complete architecture. Build many plain walls and stairways and terraces, and you have rich, powerful architecture. If you dressed it up or even planted some nice, shady trees around, its macho would vanish. Predock meant it to be uncomfortable outside at times; it wasn't a dumb oversight. Look, he says, desert animals don't lounge around in the midday summer sun; they burrow underground and resurface at dusk. Humans should do likewise. "I think we've lost our homeostasis with the environment, where we adjust our behavior patterns to it--like the siesta in the Mediterranean. Architecture can be a reminder." So we have a didactic building. What more? Well, it's a playground for daydreamers. Rudy Turk stood outside it one recent morning, his gaze sweeping across its colliding boxes, plazas, terraces and triangles, and exclaimed, "I would love for someone to make films out here! Can you imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger out here, throwing people off these walls?" An architecture student wrote in a class assignment that going into it "was like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark." A writer for Architectural Record saw an abstract sphinx crouching beside Mill Avenue. Even its detractors find inspiration: Last winter the editor of ASU's State Press wrote an elaborate satire that envisioned members of the campus Design Review Board rappelling down the walls as the cops swarmed, mistaking the center for a prison and the board members for bust-outs. Predock's own story line for the building is weird enough that not many visitors are going to guess it on their own. Imagine an archaeological cross section through the site, with the ruins of Hohokam irrigation underground and an endangered artifact of our time--the drive-in movie screen--poking into the sky. Stir in a Talking Heads refrain about water underground and the architect's motorcycle trip through southern Spain years ago. There, you have it. Predock admits to a "Joycean stream of consciousness" at the drawing board, but what emerges is more adventure than confusion--which is the difference between this and the architecture building. The 119,000-square-foot center houses the University Art Museum and the dance and theatre programs. The best piece, and the most accessible, is the museum. Visitors entering from Mill Avenue first pass urns of planted herbs. There's an abrupt transition from bright sunlight to shade, with the happy shock of cool air on the skin. Then down a long flight of stairs, where the sound of gurgling water arises. Think about it: In the space of fifty feet, Predock's choreographed entry sequence has engaged four of our five senses. At the foot of the stairs is the "nymphaeum," a subterranean lobby named for the caves the Greeks built for their gods, where the waters supposedly were sweetened with nymphs. Astride it are two galleries, with three more on upper levels. Take the stairs: Predock has haunted them with uneven light from little clerestory windows, as in a cave, and here and there a view of an outdoor sculpture pops into view through an unexpected window. There's a Magic Moment of architecture at the other end of this building in the lobby of the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse--a plain, undecorated well lit by a mix of diffused sunlight and two hidden amber bulbs. You stare into it through two plain, square openings and you're seeing dusk on Uranus. Or a motorcycle nymph's lair in southern Spain. Invent your own program--Predock has placed light on display as art here and it's not like anything you've ever seen before. Complaints: The building is separated from Mill Avenue by a parking lot, which screws up its relationship to the street. ASU says this will be fixed in the second phase of construction (1993 or so) when the building is extended through the parking lot. Don't bet on it. A strange miscue is the curving brick arcade that wraps around the playhouse, a conciliatory nod to the round building next door--but why should a naked building ever say it's sorry? Finally, approaching the museum from the campus side, you really can't find the freaking door. Predock, who loves to challenge people with architecture, went one step too far. SCHLUNTZ CREDITS former ASU president J. Russell Nelson with turning up the heat under architects doing work for ASU. In 1982 Nelson created the Design Review Board, which reviews prospective architects and later scrutinizes their plans. Meunier, a board member, admits that "very rarely do we have a profound impact. If the basic scheme isn't strong, we can't salvage it. Most of what we do is like editing: a clearer turn of phrase here, a change of punctuation there. I do think we have inched things toward a greater level of cultural responsibility on campus." Inches are welcome, but it's almost too late. ASU became a university--in name--in 1958, but for most of three booming decades it has skirted some profound questions: Should a university's architecture hang out there on the cutting edge, defining the agenda for the rest of society? Should its buildings challenge the imagination and stimulate the human spirit? Should the campus make a bold statement about responsible use of natural resources and harmonious relationships with the land?

 

Taxpayers may scoff that all this is too much to expect of a state university, that keeping building costs down and pigeons away from the windowsills are more to the point. But imagine a campus in which the answers to these questions all were "yes." Imagine an Arizona in which architects, legislators and Circle K executives had spent four years in such an environment, presumably absorbing its spirit along with English Lit 201. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger over there at the Fine Arts Center, throwing lughead developers off those walls.


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