Pushing the boundaries of campus culture

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Winston Churchill said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” A university that contributes so much to the local and global cultural dialogue should not ignore the reciprocal relationship between culture and architecture. Buildings and landscape are not merely passive spaces in which to perform activities. The way a building or outdoor area is designed influences the attitudes of the people who inhabit it.

While many of the newly constructed buildings on campus are models of responsible architectural design, they fail to excite a passion for change or to stimulate a dialogue about our evolving physical environment. Every building on campus need not serve as an architectural revelation, but buildings that inspire students to reconsider accepted methods of construction and design can precipitate a broader questioning of other unchallenged aspects in culture, science and society.

The conservative character of campus’ newer architecture is not due to a dearth of creativity on the part of the architects commissioned to design these buildings. Instead, it is dictated by the Campus Master Plan, which states that “the scale, shape, texture, materials and color of proposed structures and the composition of open spaces match that of older revered places.” The plan, written by Cesar Pelli and Associates in 1996, is a reaction to buildings such as RLM and Jester which detract from the humanist spirit of campus’ older buildings.

Regarding these buildings, the plan goes on to say that “the mass of these more contemporary buildings has profoundly altered the character and human scale of the campus,” and that “architects who add new buildings to a campus have an obligation to understand and respect the character of its most exceptional parts.” Though many of campus’ most derided buildings are “contemporary,” it would be a mistake to equate bad architecture with contemporary architecture.

In December 1998, the University hired Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron to design a building for the Blanton Museum of Art. The architects proposed a pair of rectangular limestone buildings stretching east to west under an undulating green roof. The orientation and dimensions of the buildings were derived from campus’ older buildings, which were designed to respond to the particular climatic conditions of Austin before the advent of air conditioning.

Although the building did not look like anything else on campus, its design DNA was derived from well-established local architectural traditions.

After an unsuccessful presentation to the Board of Regents, the green roof was changed to a red tile roof in order to connect the building to the campus’ existing architectural character in a more visible way. However, this change failed to satisfy the Board, and after a series of further disagreements and snafus, Herzog and de Meuron quit the project. While UT proceeded to construct a lackluster, historicist museum complex, Herzog and de Meuron moved on to design landmarks including the Beijing Olympic Stadium and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. They were then awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2001.

The importance of the Blanton episode is not that UT missed out on the opportunity to acquire a star architect-designed showpiece. Instead, the situation is meaningful because it established a precedent that future buildings on campus would conform to a narrow interpretation of the goals established in the Campus Master Plan. Herzog and de Meuron’s Blanton proposal demonstrated a far deeper understanding and respect for campus’ “most exceptional parts” than the building we have today. Yet because of an unwillingness to accept a different interpretation of campus’ architectural character and an unwillingness to change their own aesthetic prejudices, the Board of Regents deprived students of the opportunity to appreciate the built environment in a deep, profound way.

A university campus serves as a safe place to challenge accepted ways of thinking. In classrooms and laboratories, students and faculty are encouraged to push boundaries and change the world. In order to reinforce and facilitate this belief in positive change, buildings and outdoor spaces around campus should also challenge accepted ways of understanding the built environment. If we are truly intent on changing the world, then we must create an environment that welcomes change on campus.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.