Sunday, May 3, 2015

Crafton Hills College: Eloquent Brutalism in the Foothills

Crafton Hills College Laboratory / Administration Building (LADM), sitting at the top of the hill,
is the most recognizable building on campus. Photo ©Darren Bradley
When Palm Springs Architect E. Stewart Williams was first awarded the commission to  design an entire college campus in the foothills of nearby Yucaipa, California, it was a very big deal. In fact, this commission would be the largest and most important of his career. But when he had a chance to see the site, his initial reaction was to tell the college trustees that it couldn't be done. 

The long, broad staircases are a signature feature of the Crafton Hills campus. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The proposed site was located on the steep slopes of a remote canyon, far from utilities such as sewer, water, and power connections. Building there would be a logistical nightmare. But the land, a grant from the Finkelstein family, could not be turned down. So Williams decided to give it a try, and embraced the challenges that the unique site presented. In fact, he was determined that the beauty of the site should be disturbed as little as possible. He wanted to preserve and embrace the contours and have the campus blend into the landscape. 
Aerial view rendering of the site with the initial concept, by E. Stewart Williams. The final campus design would end up being a bit different from this one, and the although the general layout would remain similar for the central core. The theater would end up becoming a simple cube, rather than the circular fan shape shown here.
E. Stewart Williams, along with partners Roger Williams and John Porter Clark, came up with a solution.  They created a series of concrete cubes that appear to float above the steep terrain. The buildings are made of sand-colored concrete that emulate the surrounding colors, to better blend in with the environment. 

The various levels and patterns remind me of the works of M.C. Escher. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Student Services Building. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The buildings all have deep overhangs or fins to protect the windows from solar gain in the harsh sunlight, and the courtyards and elevated buildings create shaded passageways. 

View of the rear courtyard of the LADM building. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The views from the many cantilevered terraces are spectacular. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The result is an extraordinary collection of brutalist buildings in a most unique location, terraced down a hillside. The original campus was designed as a cohesive ensemble, and included classrooms, offices, a library, theater, and student center, built around a series of quads and courtyards.

Student Services Building. Photo ©Darren Bradley

A series of floating boxes, supported by pedestals and connected by ramps, stairs, and bridges, ensures that the buildings have as little impact on the terrain as possible. Special thanks to this student for appearing at the right moment, and for wearing a nice, bright shirt. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Main dining hall interior. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Ivy softens the concrete forms on many of the buildings. Photo ©Darren Bradley

E. Stewart Williams was best known for his work in Palm Springs, where he was involved with most of the civic projects in the city during the 1950s and 60s (city hall, airport, art museum...), as well as many significant residences and commercial projects. 

Palm Springs City Hall
Williams collaborated with Frey and Chambers on the design for the Palm Springs City Hall. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Coachella Valley Bank
The Niemeyer-inspired Coachella Valley Savings & Loan is another well-known project by Williams. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley

school district 3
Palm Springs School District Building (1962). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Edris Residence Redux
Edris Residence by E. Stewart Williams in Palm Springs. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Palm Springs Art Museum opened their new Architecture Annex earlier this year (a converted bank building on Palm Canyon Drive that was also originally designed by Williams) with an exhibition on his life and work. 

Stew at the bank
E. Stewart Williams at the newly completed Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan, which he designed in Palm Springs in 1960. This building has now been converted into the Architecture Annex of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Photo by Julius Shulman, Getty Research Institute Photo Archive.

The same bank, following a conversion and restoration by Marmol Radziner, to become the new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture & Design Annex. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Crafton Hills College was a significant commission for Williams, as it represents his largest project, and a unique chance to design an entire college campus. Work on this project extended from 1965 through its completion in 1976. 

View of the LADM building, when the trees were still small enough to get this shot. 
Photo by Julius Shulman, ©J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute Photo Archive

Since they didn't have drones back then, I assume Julius was on the roof of the LADM building to photograph this view of the old main library, seen across the quad. Note the absence of the fins or the third floor classrooms, which would be added by Williams as part of a later design. Photo by Julius Shulman, ©J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute Photo Archive

View of the LADM building seen from the library reading room across the main quad. Photo by Julius Shulman, ©J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute Photo Archive

Recently, the school has embarked on an ambitious plan to grow, and there are multiple new buildings now under construction around the expanding campus. As part of the school's expansion plans, a new library was built on the edge of campus. 

Photo of the new Learning Resource Center (Library) by Steinberg Architects,
courtesy of Crafton Hills College. 

It appears that most of the new buildings are using design guidelines that reflect the original buildings, although they don't appear to be made of concrete. 

No more concrete, but at least there are fins and floating cubes... Looks quite nice, actually. Rendering of the new Occupational Education Building, also by Steinberg Architects (Same as the new library). 

Alas, all this new construction has also meant the destruction of the original library in 2011, which Williams designed as the centerpiece of the school. 

"It's just kind of fun to watch," said one CHC student about the demolition of the library.
Original photo by Crafton Hills College, re-edited by me. 

The reasons given for its demolition were the usual excuses used in California when someone wants to demolish an otherwise historically significant building: "does not meet current seismic codes", and "too expensive to retrofit". 

The library was originally two stories, but a third floor was added later to accommodate additional classroom space.
Photo by CHC, re-edited by me. 

Of course, just about any building can be retrofitted to meet new codes, and the cost is usually less significant than building a new structure. It's also greener. 

Photo by CHC, re-edited by me. 

The truth is that all of these school bond measures that keep getting funded all over the country are giving public schools a lot of cash that they feel compelled to spend on new buildings (and tearing down the old ones). This school's president, Gloria Macias-Harrison, mentioned in the Redlands Daily Facts in 2011 that this was how the demolition of the library and the new construction was funded at Crafton Hills. "It's all part of our master plan," she said... 

Photo by Crafton Hills College. No editing on this one. 

Now, I'm all for building new buildings when they're needed. I love architecture, new and old!  And architects need to be able to design new buildings, of course. But why does it have to be at the expense of the existing ones? Especially the really good ones... 

In any case, I'm very skeptical of any correlation between the quality of education and the age of the buildings, so I don't know why we keep spending school bond money on them. The classrooms and library of my own alma mater (the University of Paris at the Sorbonne) were built in about 1885. But I don't think their old age had a negative impact on my education. 

I'm pretty sure the library at my alma mater doesn't meet current seismic codes, either. Do you think if it was located in Crafton Hills, the school would have torn it down, too?
Photo courtesy of the Universit√© de Paris - Sorbonne. 

At least the new building going up now in its place (a new student services center and bookstore) appears to reference the original building and other surrounding buildings on campus. 

Rendering of the new Crafton Center by tBP/Architects. This is the building that is due to replace the old Williams-designed main library, in the center of campus. Not a bad looking building, but it's a shame that it meant the destruction of the library in the same spot. 

I understand that many of the remaining Williams-designed buildings on campus will undergo renovations and retrofitting, including the old cafeteria, student center, and administration buildings. Let's hope that work is sensitive to E. Stewart Williams' designs and legacy. 


Unknown said...

very nice! i like your shots/series of buildings on college campuses...speaking of modernist campus plans, have u spent any time shooting mies van der rohe's designed iit campus in chicago? i think it's the best part of the south's a bit about it

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