The Bilbao Effect

Marquee Architects Draw Mixed Reviews on Campus

"Universities are generally incredibly conservative and unbelievably cheap," adds Michael Benedikt, director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at the University of Texas at Austin. At large research universities, Benedikt and others point out, architecture is typically chalked up as overhead on research contracts, and is viewed by facilities managers as a cost to be minimized. In addition, building committees are vigorously punished when a project goes awry, but rarely rewarded for innovation. "University administrations are deciding, Look, we either have a great name building here, or we get the most damn chem labs per square foot that we can possibly get," Benedikt says. To top it all off, those empowered with making building decisions are often trustees with no particular background in architecture, or else donors with checkbook in hand but little grasp of aesthetics. As Benedikt puts it, "Some donors are like helpless puppies: Here's $4 million for a new microbiology building, I'm sure you'll do the right thing."

The Austin campus, in fact, has recently been ground zero for one of the most widely reported architectural battles in decades. "Beverly Hillbillies vs. Bauhaus" was how one local newspaper headlined it when the renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron abandoned the job for the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, following the UT regents' rejection of the contemporary design. Amid the fallout, Lawrence W. Speck resigned his position as dean of UT's school of architecture, commenting in his letter of resignation that the regents' treatment of the architects and lack of aesthetic awareness "compromise standards of performance in my field beyond what I can accept."

As Benedikt says, the dispute highlights another pitfall for progressive campus architecture. "Herzog & de Meuron were going to create a very spare, one-story, mostly glass building. And the regents weren't going to have it. It simply wasn't Texan and it wasn't contextual. But I think the whole conflict was mainly a kind of class thing." Lamentably, an architectural project intended to enhance UT's reputation now had precisely the opposite effect: "Quite a lot of damage has been done. It makes us more parochial than we need to be."

In light of such damage, some planners insist upon a reciprocity between the mission of an institution and its buildings. Flocking to the latest design fashion, they say, can be fatal a few years down the road. "If you look at the history of campus planning, the wheels came off during the 1960s and you got all these wacky buildings by the stars of the time," says Wheeler. "But now they stick out like sore thumbs. My concern is, are we just chasing trends? Or do these buildings actually reinterpret the pedagogy of what's happening inside?"

While not what you might call star-quality architecture—it's been compared to a beached ocean liner—another New York campus project aims at just such a reinterpretation. Baruch College's hulking $270 million Academic Complex, currently under construction at Lexington and 24th Street, has been hailed as a new building type, a sort of supercollider for academic life. Billed as a "vertical campus" for Baruch, which has been spending $18 million per year to rent commercial facilities for its classes, the new complex was designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates to put faculty and students from the school's major business and liberal arts programs, currently strung out around the neighborhood, in one dynamic building. Baruch administrators boast that the school's Information and Technology Building won awards for the William and Anita Newman Library, which opened in 1994 inside the shell of a century-old cable-car power plant. On a recent visit to that building, however, it was clear that no matter how commendable or innovative a school's architecture may be, the ineffable qualities of space are powerless to alter certain verities of campus life.

"As you can see," says fourth-year journalism major Shan Wu, indicating a group of students stoically encamped under the sun-washed atrium, "the new architecture hasn't done anything for the line at financial aid."

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