Saturday, March 14, 2015

UC Irvine: A Singular Brutalist Vision

The university's main library, the Langson Library, was designed by William Pereira Associates, in collaboration with Jones & Emmons and Blurock Ellerbroek Associates. Note how this building like others sits on a concrete platform whose supports are meant to be in the shadows, giving the building an appearance of floating. Photo ©Darren Bradley. 
It may seem a bit incongruous - when driving through the somewhat bland Orange County suburbs of Irvine - to come across towering, brutalist concrete sculptural forms scattered amongst the trees, but that was exactly what architect William Pereira designed in his master plan for that campus in 1963. 

Crawford Hall is one of Pereira's original buildings that opened with the campus in 1965. It served as the student center until other buildings could be built. It's now part of the athletics center. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Computer Science Building. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Pereira, who also designed the master community plan for the city of Irvine, was also responsible for San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, UCSD's Geisel Library, the original buildings of the LA County Museum of Art, the LAX Theme Building, and many, many others... 
LACMA's original design, with those amazing reflecting pools and floating platforms. The pools are long gone, as are some of the buildings. What's left of Pereira's design is soon to be torn down and replaced.
Photo by the great Julius Shulman © Getty Research Archives
Hell, he even made the cover of Time Magazine...

time pereira

It was a bold plan at the time, and still is. Pereira wanted to create a sort of academic village in a wooded, hilly park. At the time, it was a barren hillside of treeless cow pastures. Instead of flattening the hilly terrain with bulldozers, he created floating white concrete platforms suspended over the ground on pedestals, that would support the buildings and present them like individual sculptures on display in a giant museum sculpture garden. 
Crawford Hall. Both buildings, connected by this arched breezeway, both sit on a concrete platform like the other buildings Pereira originally designed in 1963. Looks like the set of a science fiction movie. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Another view of Crawford Hall showing the platform it sits on. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Most of the original buildings are designed in a ring, terraced around this central wooded park, with the sciences clustered in the south and the humanities in the north end. This ring configuration means that no building is more than ten minutes' walk. 
Original 1963 rendering of UC Irvine by Pereira's office. You can see the ring concept, with Aldrich Park in the center.
Rendering courtesy of UC Irvine Archives. 
The buildings were brutalist and very modern, with passive solar features to capture the sea breeze and keep them cool without air-conditioning. The fins and sunshades provided an opportunity to create different patterns, and each building - which represented a different academic department - had its own pattern and therefore identity. 

Detail of the sun shades on the Langson Library. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Langson Library by William Pereira Associates, with Jones & Emmons and Blurock Ellerbroek Associates (1963).
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Better than most, these designs create wonderful and fascinating patterns of shadows and sun that change constantly as the sun moves across the sky. 

The Social Sciences Tower  was designed by AC Martin Partners, in collaboration with William Pereira Associates (1972). It featured prominently in the fourth Planet of the Apes movie (more on that below). 
Murray Krieger Hall was one of the buildings designed by Pereira personally, along with Jones & Emmons 
and Blurock Ellerbroek Associates (1963 - 1965). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Courtyards with shade trees were integrated into the designs on the platforms. 
Krieger Hall. Photo ©Darren Bradley
To create the wooded landscape from a barren hillside, Pereira enlisted the help of landscape architects Robert Herrick Carter, C. Jacques Hahn, J. Charles Hoffman, and Frederick Lang. They worked closely with Pereira and the other architects to create a landscape that appeared natural, as if it had always been there, but which included trees and plants that also complemented the designs of the building facades. What appears natural is actually quite deliberate and orderly when you look closely. 
uci original
I discovered this photo today, while researching old photos of the campus. I was amused that it's taken at almost exactly the  same angle as my photo, above. It wouldn't be possible to get the identical angle today, because of all the trees now. Here, you get the idea how barren and treeless the whole campus was at the time.
Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives. 
It was a brilliant plan and the effect of these giant sculptures floating on the hillsides amongst the trees was - and remains - quite striking. Pereira's version of modernism - elegant, sculptural forms perched lightly within a natural landscape - was universally applauded and a huge success... until it wasn't. 
The Engineering Tower is the tallest building on campus. It was designed by Kistner, Wright & Wright in 1970. Pereira's influence is clearly evident in its design, with its elevated pedestals and sun screens. As I was sitting there in the shade, a guide passed with a gaggle of would-be students, giving a campus tour. He pointed to this building and the one behind me and said apologetically that these old, outdated buildings were being phased out in favor of more modern construction that better supports the innovation of today's engineering technology (whatever that means). Photo ©Darren Bradley
By the early 70s, Modernism - and specifically Brutalism - was starting to be seen as a sort of dystopia rather than utopia. In fact, in 1972, the entire campus was used to represent an oppressive totalitarian state in the film "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes". 
Screen capture from the film "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes", with Krieger Hall in the background. 
planet apes 1
Another screen capture from "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. That's the Social Sciences Tower in the background, which was completed that same year and was probably not yet even occupied yet. 

In 1977, Pereira was replaced as campus architect by David Neuman, who immediately announced that he was throwing out Pereira's careful plan and that the campus was "growing up". By this, he meant that he was abandoning the pastural setting to create a more urban campus that no longer respected the circular design. Neuman invited post-modern architects like Charles Moore, Venturi & Brown, and Robert A.M. Stern to design new buildings on campus. Gone were the modernist patterns and details, as well as the concrete pedestals floating over the landscape. The bulldozers had arrived. 

Charles Moore (a post-modern architect who has done some beautiful work, such as Sea Ranch, but who also designed one of my personal least favorite projects ever, the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans), said of the UCI campus and Pereira's work that it "suffered from the failed optimism of the 1960s." Here's how Mr. Moore decided to improve  the built environment on campus...
Moore's University Extension Program building on the UC Irvine campus. I think my local strip mall borrowed this design for their Marshall's store. Photo courtesy of UC Irvine Archives. 
Thank you, Mr. Moore. You're right - I don't feel nearly as optimistic anymore. 

Leon Whiteson, architecture critic for the LA Times, wrote in a December 1988 article that Pereira's buildings were "over-scaled and boringly detailed.

I have a somewhat personal connection to UCI. In 1990-1992, my best friend at the time was a student here and I used to to stay with him in the dorms quite a bit. I remember already how interesting I thought the architecture was around the quad, but how he was telling me that everyone referred to the old buildings as giant cheese graters. 
Another view of Krieger Hall by Pereira, with Jones & Emmons, and Blurock Ellerbroek (1963). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Have the caretakers of Pereira's modernist heritage at UC Irvine learned from past mistakes and come back to a more appreciative stance in his regard? It would appear not. 

As I was wandering around campus yesterday afternoon, I came up to Steinhaus Hall, which is one of the original buildings designed by Pereira in 1963. It originally looked like this: 
Steinhaus Hall by William Pereira Associates (1963). Photo courtesy of UCI Archives. 
But in 2008, when the screens needed to be replaced for an earthquake retrofit, the campus architect decided to just get rid of them altogether and replace them with this... 
I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. This is from UCI's website. 
Zero fucks were given, as the expression goes. So please go and enjoy the remaining buildings while you can, before the next "earthquake retrofit" takes down more of these gems. 


For more information on another University of California campus that was (and continues to be) defined by its modernist/brutalist heritage, please check out my posts on UC San Diego herehere and here.  


Unknown said...

Beautiful images of a now somewhat dated vision of the perfect future.

Sadly, with brutalism, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water.
There is so much sophisticated thinking, rich form making and fine detailing to be found within brutalism but they've been discarded along with the worst failures of the 'style' by the general public AND most of the architectural profession.

Nice post. Thanks mate

modarchitecture said...

Thanks for your comment, and great points. It is indeed a shame that so many people have dismissed the entire category of brutalism based on some of the worst designs. But it does feel like it's due for reconsideration and redemption. And it's nice to see some architects, such as Ando, who never abandoned it.

Unknown said...

Seidler stuck with his love of off form concrete to the very end too.

This unknown person commenting is Rory :)

modarchitecture said...

I was wondering if it might be you!

Unknown said...

So beautiful. I need to get up there and walk around!

Me said...

Terrific post! Thank you.

Check out my album of UCI Brutalism pics on Flickr at

Anonymous said...

Good post.

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Anonymous said...
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Ftu said...

Got my ba from uci. The langston library and other like buildings are some of the ugliest forms of architecture I have ever had the unfortunate experience of seeing and using. Clearly, low cost student buildings was the idea, not utopia. The newer buildings such as the science library live up to the idealistic architecture I would expect from such an institution.

Mary McGhee said...

I was an undergraduate at UCI from 1979 through 1981. I was actually very happy there, but that was in spite of the horrible architecture. The Brutalist style is well-named--there wasn't a single classroom on campus with a window. The entrances to all the buildings were nondescript and well-hidden, and usually not at ground level. At the beginning of each quarter you'd see new students wandering around, looking lost, knowing their class was in there somewhere but unable to find the way in. All that beige and gray concrete, unrelieved by anything soft or warm or inviting...I never knew a student who liked it.

And, while I can't blame the Brutalist style, or maybe even the architect--the university might have wanted it that way--we can't forget the original Engineering building. It had eight floors, administrative offices on the first floor, classrooms and labs and faculty offices on the rest. The only women's restroom was on the first floor. The upper floors had just one restroom each, with urinals. All the secretaries worked downstairs, so who would ever need a women's room above that level? ��

I've been back to visit recently, and I could hardly find a building I recognized. I was a little sad, but on the whole, it's not a bad thing they've made the campus more visually diverse and welcoming.

kurt said...

Faculty at UCI reporting. These make me cry (in a good way). UCI is a forward leaning, perhaps slightly naively utopianistic place and the architecture fits it.

Many of the buildings still evoke strong feelings for me.