A crucible in design, the evolution of campus architecture

A crucible in design, the evolution of campus architecture

Photo Credits: MARKUS KAEPPELI / AGGIE. The design of Briggs Hall on the UC Davis campus is influenced by the Bauhaus style of architecture. Oct 31, 2019.

Design professor Mark Kessler discusses history, influence of different architecture movements, from Arts and Crafts movement to the Bauhaus

Students continuously interact with the layout of campus as they bustle around, plug away at Shields Library and meander through the Death Star. Through this repetition, students can become indifferent to the architecture, as it becomes an extension of their routine during a relentless quarter schedule. In spite of this, the campus’ architecture is filled with a colorful and diverse history that illustrates the push and pull tension between different architectural design beliefs.

Campus history spans over a century and begins with the wooden conservative structures of the early 1900s like the Barn and moves to the present, showcased by the flashy, contemporary California Hall. When strolling through campus, buildings representative of a variety of architectural phases — from older wooden buildings of the anti-capitalist Arts and Crafts movement to more open ambitious structures influenced by Postmodernism — can be found.

Mark Kessler, a UC Davis Professor of Design and licensed architect, discussed the different design forces of the campus’ development, beginning with the earliest buildings and moving through his descriptions and insights chronologically as the UC Davis campus unfolded.

“The earliest buildings on campus really had a shingle style that was Arts and Crafts based,” Kessler said.

Typified by buildings like the Barn, the Arts and Crafts movement, which originated in Britain and spread to North America between the 1880s to the 1920s, utilized a wooden shingle-clad structure and welcomed embellishment. The movement sneered at the explosion of industrialization occurring at the time. In direct opposition, the Arts and Crafts touted artisanship, rather than the businessman’s efficiency.

William Hayes was a major contributor to on-campus architecture and a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley who sought to shape his buildings in the context of Californian history and culture. Hart Hall is a prime example of an ode to popular styles of years past. 

“In Hart Hall, you see a conservative architecture, regionally based and ornamented like a kind of Spanish mission revival style by the same architect William Hayes,” Kessler said. 

Kessler also commented on architects adorning their buildings with superfluous details — a popular trend at the time

“In the industrial age conservative architects continue to apply ornament to what were modern efficient structures,” Kessler said.

In 1940, Hayes embraced a more contemporary viewpoint on architecture by applying art deco principles to Peter J. Shields Library.

“[With] Shields, Hayes dips his feet into Art Deco a little bit without much conviction, but Shields represents for him and his work an advance to a more contemporary aesthetic,” Kessler said.

Hayes was inspired by Art Deco’s attraction to geometric patterns for the library’s use of rectangular shapes to frame windows and provide quirky embellishment. This is evident in the many translucent block windows at Shields — bearing a resemblance to a set of ice cube trays.

In the 1950s and 1960s, campus architecture embraced modernism, a trend sweeping the nation. Modernism, made famous by architects like Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (commonly known as Le Corbusier) and Mies Van der Rhoe, pivoted to maximizing the utility of a structure, while remaining authentic to material and function. They claimed to value the beauty of simplicity in lieu of extravagance. 

Modernism of the 1950s and 1960s assumed a major debt to the Bauhaus (Building House), a small design school in Dessau, Germany. Founded by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus opened in 1919 at the close of World War I, and then closed on the eve of World War II due to political pressures from the Nazi regime. 

The Bauhaus shaped products and buildings with a high regard for function and efficiency. In its fleeting 14-year lifespan, it housed distinguished artists and designers like Paul Klee, Marcel Bruer and Wassily Kadinsky and completely reshaped how designers approach their craft.

During this time, architects chose to accentuate aspects crucial to the structural integrity of the building instead of disguising them in decorative trappings. 

“Most of the buildings on campus that express aspects that go back to European modernism, and ultimately the Bauhaus, would be buildings like Kerr or Wickson,” Kessler said. “There are many built on campus during that time that have this structure and infill expression. That is a similar tendency to find integrity in that distinction and to express it efficiently to find beauty and proportion.”

Partaking in the mass modernist movement, architects hired by UC Davis shaped buildings to reflect learning and academia.

“I think an argument can be made that these buildings signify a kind of technocratic competence in their regularity and their rationality,” Kessler said. “They mirrored what was going on inside. This was all about learning and knowledge and the application of science and the search for truth and that in creating these rational pavilions that this was the appropriate institutional architecture for a campus.”

These architects believed that imposing rationality on design would compliment and elevate students’ learning. The reliance on function and cookie cutter styles for crafting buildings can lead to lackluster final product.

“I would say that they fell short in ways that all of these buildings on campuses all over America fell short, which is that they locked into a formula, a template for an academic building and reproduced it ad nauseum,” Kessler said. “The variation is not really enough to sustain interest for the ages and really they become part of the great critique perhaps first launched by Robert Venturi, which is that it is a bore.”

Students who spend their time filtering in and out of the many modernist-inspired buildings on campus echo this sentiment. Nathan Lemus, a fourth-year cognitive science and Spanish double major, summed up his opinion of these buildings in frank terms.

“They are actually pretty horrendous to look at,” Lemus said. “I am not a fan. They all look very basic.” 

Under the direction of Venturi and other architects like Frank Gehry, contemporary styles of architecture broke away from the rigidity espoused by the Bauhaus. Architects began to further experiment with ambitious and eye-catching displays that contrasted the modernism of the 50s and 60s. Some of the more recent buildings constructed on campus attempted to be less austere and more daring. 

Kessler discussed how the patrons’ freedom was a central component to the design of both the Social Science and Humanities building and the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

“It was important to them to liberate the circulating wandering person and let that person discover on their own how to use the buildings,” Kessler said.

The Social Science and Humanities building — nicknamed the Death Star because of its similarity to the weaponized planet in the “Star Wars” trilogy — alludes to this new direction of freedom in design and layout. Those who have perused the building understand that navigating the concrete alleyways and winding staircases is not for the directionally challenged. The Manetti Shrem Museum also attempts to free their patrons by permitting them to explore the building without specified direction, however, it is considerably more intuitive than SSH due to its smaller size and single-floor layout.

Even though the Social Science and Humanities building is commonly equated to an unconquerable maze, Kessler still admires the ambition of the architect, Antoine Predock, in attempting to move against the grain of traditional campus administrative buildings.

“We’ve all gotten lost in that building and it’s a travesty,” Kessler said. “However, unlike most people who just say it’s a travesty, […] I acknowledge that I’m mindful of a talented architect who tried to offer an alternative vision, and it makes me smile sometimes just that someone took a risk that big.”

Students who do not care for the design intention of the building are often quite frustrated with Predock’s design decisions.

Lemus commented on his experience trying to find his way around the Death Star.

“I usually only have 10 minutes so I don’t have much time to go through your jungle gym of architecture,” Lemus said.

The Social Science and Humanities building symbolizes a design struggle persistent in time; one between an architect’s desire to give and find meaning in their building and the execution of its technical purpose. 

“Some architects would argue that buildings should reflect the complexity of our lives,” Kessler said. “It becomes rooted in the complexity of modern existence.”

Although UC Davis architecture is often seen as underwhelming by its community, it still embodies an intriguing ebb and flow of design movements. When this is taken into account, one can find a greater understanding and appreciation of the buildings that make up our campus.

Written By: Andrew Williams –– arts@theaggie.org