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A Mecca Of Modern: UCSD Art And Architecture

A Mecca Of Modern: UCSD Art And Architecture
As UCSD celebrates its 50th anniversary, we explore the commitment to modern art and architecture on the campus. We'll talk with campus architect Boone Hellmann and a manager from the Stuart Collection of public art.

A series of lectures and discussions called UCSD By Design begins this month, on September 30th with Yale University architectural historian Kurt W. Forster. Each lecture will take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla. You can find out more by going to UCSD's website.

Dirk Sutro will be signing copies of his book on September 29th at the opening of the exhibition Modern UCSD: Celebrating 50 Years of Campus Architecture at the Geisel Library.

MAUREEN CAVANUAGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. As the University of San Diego – the University of California at San Diego celebrates its 50th anniversary, it's time to step back for a moment and assess what the school has accomplished. And at least part of that accomplishment is visible simply by stepping on campus. As UCSD has grown, the buildings and public art on display mark this university as one of the few with an extensive collection of both contemporary public art and architecture. The architecture spans the gamut from mid-century Modern to millennial green buildings. And the public art has both blended with and defined the natural surroundings. A new book and a series of lectures highlight the visual delights on the UC San Diego campus. Joining me to talk about the art and architecture of UCSD are my guests. Boone Hellmann is the UC San Diego campus architect. And good morning, Boone. Welcome to These Days.


BOONE HELLMANN (Campus Architect, University of California San Diego): Good morning. Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Dirk Sutro, a well known name at KPBS, is the author of the new UCSD Campus Guide published by Princeton Architectural Press. And, Dirk, good morning.

DIRK SUTRO (Author): Nice to be back here.

CAVANAUGH: And Mathieu Gregoire is the project manager of UCSD's Stuart Collection. Mathieu, welcome.

MATHIEU GREGOIRE (Project Manager, the Stuart Collection, UCSD): Good morning.


CAVANAUGH: Now, Boone, let me start with you. And I wonder if, indeed, a decision was made early on to focus on modern and contemporary architecture at UC San Diego?

HELLMANN: Well, I don’t think it was a purposeful decision necessarily in terms of the architecture but I think it more represented what was taking place with the development of UC San Diego. I think with Dr. Roger Revelle, who by all rights could be the father of the university, wanted to create a unique environment. And not only was it to be unique from an academic perspective, but I think they wanted it to also be an equivalent uniqueness in terms of the architecture for the campus.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So no one actually sat down and said we need this kind of architecture but at the same time, the university was very attuned to what was going on at the time.

HELLMANN: That’s exactly right. I think the architecture in the beginning days truly represented what was taking place in the environment, in the social atmosphere at that point in time. And I think it was an opportunity to create a quality architectural environment but there was no particular focus that was developed at that point in time about the architecture.

CAVANAUGH: So, Dirk, what was going on in the world of architecture when UCSD was founded back in 1960?

SUTRO: Well, that was the prime of mid-Modernism, I would say, and I was thinking about Modernism in California and there was a really strong regional Modern movement. There was Cal Berkeley in the Bay Area with people like Wurster and Esherick. And in LA there were people like Raymond Kappe, and down here we had people like Bob Mosher, Dale Nagle and others. And I think Boone is right, that the Modernism at UCSD is a product of the times but I also think maybe—and I never found evidence of this—but I suspect that there was somewhat of a conscious effort not to do the revival styles that you already saw at USD and at San Diego State, to stand out as this university of experimentation and advanced research.

CAVANAUGH: So it was kind of a mindset but it wasn’t written down on paper.

SUTRO: Well, I have two theories about architecture at UCSD and one of them is that the evolution of architecture is so welded to the evolution of science and research, and I say that, experimentation is kind of the DNA of UC San Diego and you see that in the science and research and you see it in the architecture.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Boone, what did – Take us back in time, if you could. What did UCSD start look – What did the campus look like about 50 years ago?

HELLMANN: Well, 50 years ago, let’s put ourselves back at an ocean bluff top with coastal sage scrub, a large collection of eucalyptus trees and a military installation. It was comprised of both Camp Matthews for the Marines and Camp Callan on what would be basically the western side of what’s now Torrey Pines Road. And in those days, it was still a very active installation for the training of rifle target practice and to certify for the Marines as well as small arms and artillery on the what we call our east campus area. The campus had a, what was then, was a collection of military buildings, a canteen, Quonset huts, those kinds of things. And when the City agreed to give the university some land, at that point in time there was a transfer and there was also the pending transfer of the military property as well. So at that point in time it was just a wide open space.

CAVANAUGH: And how big a wide open space?

HELLMANN: Well, at the beginning, I believe the initial purchase was in the neighborhood of 300 to 400 acres but with the inclusion of the military property the campus total acreage now is about 1200 acres.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So can you give us a range of the kinds of architectural styles that one can see on the UC San Diego campus?

HELLMANN: Well, there’s a wide range, if you take into account the architecture that exists down at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scripps began in 1910, if I recall correctly, as a marine biology…

SUTRO: It actually began in a Coronado boathouse a couple years before that.

HELLMANN: That’s true, yeah.

SUTRO: I wouldn’t call that the roots, though, of the architecture.

HELLMANN: And transferred to La Jolla. So there’s some beginning century architecture with the director’s house. Irving Gill has one of our well known buildings down there. But the architecture varies from what I would call a Modern international style in many ways to what I characterize as very contemporary but also to a fringe of some post-Modern but not really engaging post-Modern and then there’s a little dabbling of parts that one would characterize as Brutalism, certainly the UC San Diego Geisel Library is an example of Brutalist architecture, I think.

CAVANAUGH: Describe for us – I don’t know that many people are familiar with that terminology. What does that mean?

HELLMANN: Well, Dirk probably can give a better definition in the long run about that but my definition is it’s a type of architecture that evokes a humongous strength, almost a heroic strength, almost an imposition of a building on a space, and certainly the Geisel Library represents that, although I think it’s done exceptionally well. The Mandeville Center, where they have Mandeville Auditorium, is another building that is of that style. And in some ways I think that even Muir College could represent part of that, although in a different way. I like to think of that as almost a Modern collegiate gothic in a way.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Now I – We’re going to talk more about individual buildings but I’d like to go back and talk about one of the earliest buildings that you feature in your new book about architecture on the UCSD campus and that is the Irving Gill building, that very stark, modernistic building that was built in 1910.

SUTRO: Well, I’m a big fan of Irving Gill and, excuse me, he’s – If you talk to critics and scholars around the world, he’s really the only modern architect here that’s world renowned. And he was doing Modern stuff before people around the world were doing it 10 or 15 years later, so he really was on the cutting edge, and this wasn’t really necessarily recognized until many years later. If you look at the aerial photos of the Scripps Institution site from the time when the laboratory was completed, it’s just – I’d have to say it’s simply mind blowing because there’s nothing else out there. You – Boone mentioned the landscape. It’s coastal sage, it’s scrubby, there’s no eucalyptus down at Scripps. So really all that’s there is this perfect little cube of a building sitting on the bluff, and that building was very revolutionary if you think what had come immediately before. The end of the 19th century Victorian architecture, which is the sheer opposite of kind of frilly, decorated architecture. And then around the early part of the new century, Craftsman architecture, which is cleaner and rustic but still a lot more decorated than what Irving Gill did. And here was like a purely functional building, designed for research, and yet I find the building to be very inviting. In fact, when the first director was hired and came here, his name was Ritter, he and his wife lived on the second story of that building and the pictures of that building, you can find them online at the Scripps Institution archive of photos, and it looks like a hip loft of today. And that, to me, says there’s an architect in a building that are just really, really far ahead of their time.


SUTRO: Very much so.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get Mathieu Gregoire, the project manager of UCSD’s Stuart Collection, into the conversation in just a moment but I just want to have you two, Boone and Dirk, talk to me a little bit about how the landscape itself, where UCSD is situated, how has that informed the architecture and the design that’s gone on for the last 50 years?

HELLMANN: The landscape at the campus is informed in great part by the large eucalyptus grove that we have that traverses the campus. Of course, the eucalyptus were planted, believe it or not, as an attempt by the Santa Fe Railroad to have a quick-growing tree crop in order to build railroad ties.

CAVANAUGH: I had no idea.

HELLMANN: Hence, Rancho Santa Fe name where the other eucalyptus are. So those eucalyptus are mature, they traverse the campus. As Dirk mentioned, other than that, the campus originally was a lot of coastal sage scrub. We have tried to make the architecture fit into the context of the landscape environment and not have the buildings compete with the landscape but be what I call inhabitants of the landscape. And in my mind, while we have disparate architectural vernacular on the campus, I think it’s a good quality architecture but I like to think of it in the context that the landscape is the fabric and the glue that holds the campus together.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dirk, in going through your book about the Campus Guide for the University of California San Diego, seeing all the buildings and seeing the development, it almost seemed to me as if the landscape became more of a factor for architects who came closer to our time. In the beginning, they all seemed to be rather sort of minimalist, concrete Modern – mid-century Modern buildings. Now, it seems when architects build, they’re taking more into consideration of where they’re building and the environment.

SUTRO: Well, I’m a writer, I’m not an architect, and I’m looking for stories so I think, you know, I think one of the great stories there is kind of this epic battle between man and nature. And if you look at the history of planning there, like Boone mentioned, some of the early buildings were what people called Brutalist and the first master plan was what one might call Brutalist because the scale of it was huge. It was centered around a gigantic plaza and ampitheater and a radio tower that would’ve been the campus icon. That plan barely got underway before they decided to locate the library more to the center of the campus because it made more sense to have the library at the center of the campus and, thus, in my mind began a series of these kind of epic battles to plan and then something intruded in the way of practicality or the terrain of the site, which is not flat like some other campuses. It’s very – it changes a lot. It’s got ravines, it’s got gullies, it’s got mesas, it’s got low areas, and there’s a series of plans imposed on the one hand and then those plans get altered by what really happens driven by the terrain there. And I – that just fascinated me.

CAVANAUGH: You know, when we talk about the landscape of UCSD, we can’t – we have to start talking about the Stuart Collection. Mathieu Gregoire, project manager for the Stuart Collection, tell us a little bit about how the environment of UCSD has been transformed by the art projects that are – and the art that’s been commissioned by the Stuart Collection.

GREGOIRE: The Stuart Collection is the artist – the Stuart Collection’s unique in the sense that it’s not – it doesn’t consist of works that have been purchased or placed by others. And so the artists are always brought in and they respond, and they have the full 1200 acres to respond to. It’s a very open-ended process.

CAVANAUGH: How unique is that on college campuses? Can you think of another that actually does that or has had a tradition of doing that?

GREGOIRE: Very, very few. And the standard is really to collect art and the standard is more attached to individual buildings. A building will go up and there will be an art commissioned in there or in front of there. But the Stuart Collection came in actually probably fortuitously about halfway through this history, this 50-year history, around the early 1980s. Mary Beebe arrived to direct the collection. The collection was originally conceived by a wonderful man named James Stuart DeSilva. Stuart was his middle name.


GREGOIRE: He was a local businessman who lived in the neighborhood and used to walk the campus and connected up with some of the art faculty at the time. David Antin, Newton Harrison, Allan Kaprow, and conceived this notion of funding, through his foundation, the Stuart Foundation, a collaboration with the University of California, the regents, giving the Stuart Foundation the ability to place and to commission sculpture on the UCSD campus with the approval of the chancellor.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder, what is the mission, if there is indeed a mission, of the Stuart Collection? What is the guiding light, so to speak?

GREGOIRE: The guiding light is to bring important artists of our time, artists who are not necessarily focused on being commissioned as public artists, artists who inhabit the full spectrum of contemporary art and give them the ability to think freely and to invent unique situations that are products of their work but perhaps unique products that are totally responsive to a particular situation. And so when they come, they see what’s on the campus, they see the landscape areas, they see the buildings, they see the students, they see – they interact with people and come up with ideas in a very open-ended way. And we then, Mary Beebe and myself, work with the artists and our advisory board to develop ideas that free the artist from having to deal with the nuts and bolts of sort of fabrication. So that’s one thing, I think, that we could say is really unique to the Stuart Collection, is that the artists are not responsible for delivery, the actual, physical delivery of their work. We deal with that. The artist is almost like a design architect and we act as an executive architect in the creation of their work.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to be talking about some of the important buildings on the UCSD campus and more about the Stuart Collection. Some of the works have become absolutely iconic on the campus. And we’d also like to invite our audience to talk about what buildings they’ve enjoyed at UCSD, what works of art have been meaningful for them, perhaps what works of art they didn’t necessarily care for very much. Give us a call with your questions, your comments, at 1-888-895-5727. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about public art and architecture on the University of California at San Diego campus. UCSD is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. My guests are Boone Hellmann. He is the UC San Diego campus architect. Dirk Sutro, author of the new UCSD Campus Guide. And Mathieu Gregoire is the project manager of UCSD's Stuart Collection. And we’re inviting you to join the conversation if you’d like to comment on the architecture and public art on the UCSD campus. Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. I know some folklore and some pranks have developed around some of the campus art from year to year. I want to ask you, though, how does the architecture and the public art commissions, how do they flow together? Which starts first, the art or the architecture?

GREGOIRE: Well, in almost – I would say in every case it’s the architecture starts first. The architecture exists, and I think there are 18 works in the Stuart Collection now and all but one of them were conceived in response to a given situation, in response to a site. Early on, it was much more in response to landscape. Later, more recently, the works have responded to architecture and even now inhabit interior spaces. And so all but one have been conceived in response to a real space. And I think that gives an artist the ability to not just see a set of plans but understand how people inhabit a space, and work in a much more direct way. And so I’d say that’s been the paradigm more than anything else.

CAVANAUGH: For people who are unfamiliar with the UCSD campus, Mathieu, tell us – just run down some of the more famous public art commissions on the campus that people might recognize.

GREGOIRE: Well, I guess the most famous has to be the first one, which was the Sun God, which is a piece by Nikki de Saint Phalle, the renowned French artist who died not long ago, actually moved to La Jolla for the last ten years of her life. And it is probably, among all the sculptures, the most traditional in terms of it being a sculpture, an object in a landscape. But it has become embedded in a way that is really extraordinary because it is completely part of the life of the campus. There’s a festival that has been sort of organized in the springtime. This is one of the biggest campus student events of the year called the Sun God Festival, and it’s become a kind of mascot to the campus. At the other end of the spectrum from that might be just down the hill right next to it in the eucalyptus grove there are two works, one by Bob Irwin, which is a tall, blue fence-like structure that is completely dependent on the environment, on what the light is doing, what the trees are doing, whether it’s a cloudy day or a sunny day, and is just completely embedded in that sort of artificial forest. And then there are these…

CAVANAUGH: That’s the Flowing V drapes, yes.



GREGOIRE: Yes, those blue sort of, sort of blue-violet vees…


GREGOIRE: …that go through there elevated up above. Lots of people walk through there, don’t even know that they’re there. And then near it, which is even more camouflaged, is Terry Allen’s piece, The Trees, which are lead-covered eucalyptus trees, just trees that have been identified in that forest, in that artificial forest, that eucalyptus grove, which is planted on a grid, as Boone said, for railroad ties by the Santa Fe Railroad. And you might just notice it because you hear something, and what you hear is a poem or a piece of music that has been composed for that piece by other artists. Other artists have been commissioned to have their work broadcast through these trees and those works have been reviewed by Terry Allen and incorporated in the piece. And there’s also a tree right in front of the Geisel Library, which was an interesting story where it was originally – It was relocated as a result of the renovation.

HELLMANN: That’s right.

GREGOIRE: The very beautiful renovation of the library, which was able to maintain the library’s signature sort of autonomy and identity but doubled the size of it by working through the spaces below, under the landscape.

HELLMANN: Can I make a comment to that?

CAVANAUGH: Please do.

HELLMANN: As Mathieu was indicating that, that one tree stands alone at sort of the beginning of what we call Library Walk in front of the Geisel Library. And the agreement with the Stuart Collection is that if we have any of our projects that potentially will displace the art, we have to confer with them and make sure that we deal with it appropriately. But in this case, Terry Allen was very interested to be part of the new Library Walk and part of the solution with the library expansion, what ultimately happened was that there was design that basically is subterranean that is over 260,000 square feet but the result of that was it meant that we would be taking out a large number of the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the library. And William Pereira’s idea for the library in part was sort of this tree house that exists in the trees. But by definition of this new expansion we put in—and there’s a whole story behind that as well because there was a faction that didn’t want it to go subterranean. But it meant we had to take the trees out. And as a result, in concert with the Terry Allen piece, Terry Allen’s tree exists there, it’s a denuded tree, there’s no leaves on it, but it’s covered with lead and to me it’s really neat because it’s sort of a monument, if you will, or a gesture towards what was there once before, but that collaboration, I think, is very exciting about what happens between the architecture and the landscape and the Stuart Collection which I think is very unique to the UC San Diego campus.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as Mathieu was talking to us about some of the iconic public art on campus, the iconic building perhaps or one of the most iconic buildings is the Geisel Library that is on the cover of this new Campus Guide. And I wonder, Dirk, if you could tell us a little bit about the – not only the Geisel building and its heroic sort of presence on the campus but other structures that you would also say are really the signature on the UCSD campus.

SUTRO: Well, in retrospect, looking back on writing the book, I was pretty ignorant of what the campus had when I began. And what I found out is the campus has what I think of as the most compact collection of great modern buildings that I’ve really seen anywhere. And among my favorites are the buildings, the collection of buildings, at the Scripps campus, which, if you actually take the time to walk down through there, which you can do. It’s open to the public. You can start up at the very top to the east and walk across the bridge, which was designed by the engineering team Frieder Seible and I think is one of the most spectacular bridges in California if not beyond. You can walk across the bridge then you can go down and meander through this campus, which is a collection of kind of classic, rustic sixties wood buildings that are nestled into the hillside. And one thing that I think is really cool about that campus is that, you know, the buildings are great, they nestle into the trees, but the spaces in between the buildings are just as important as the buildings. So what you really have as you walk down through there is a garden experience overlooking the ocean which is really fantastic. The whole thing really comes together in a wonderful way. I like the buildings at Muir College. I don’t like using terms like Brutalism because I think Brutalism gives an impression that the buildings are completely unapproachable and cold, and they are. They are very imposing. But the more that I studied them and walked through them, I found a lot of things to like about them as well. The Muir College campus was downscaled from what was originally planned so that it became a lot more intimate. And one thing that was added were the shaded, meandering garden-like paths in between the buildings. So I like the buildings because they use what were then cutting edge modern materials like pre-cast concrete panels in really interesting forms but I also like them because they show how spaces between buildings can tie the buildings together in a neighborhood. One of the recent buildings that I really like, and Boone can correct me if I have the wrong name, but I believe it’s the Natural Sciences Building which kind of fronts on Torrey Pines Road, and that building I see as exemplary of a new generation of buildings that I think are establishing an urban edge to the campus. Whereas the campus used to be secluded in this very rustic eucalyptus landscape, now it’s becoming a lot less shy and more bold about its identity. And the cool thing about that building is it has an urban – a very urban side facing the street and you definitely know, here’s the edge of the UC campus, UCSD. You go back on the other side, and it’s very open and inviting to you if you’re on campus. It’s inviting to pedestrians. It has this really cool landscape garden out in the front and it has clear glass that goes all the way down to the ground floor so you can see in and out, you can see signs of life inside the building. People inside the building can see out. And I think that’s a good example of designing in the context and designing a building that both meets the kind of state of the art needs of today but it also meets the need of people who use the campus to feel some connection with the buildings.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And I guess one of the things that you learn going through this new book and just walking on the campus is you can’t emphasize enough how unusual it is to have all of this new, this modern, this architecture, on one college campus. I mean, basically, it’s a evolution of style rather than a multiplicity of different conflicting styles. Would you agree with that?

HELLMANN: I would agree with that completely, Maureen. UC San Diego has – is an incredible university if you consider that it’s only 50 years old and for what it’s accomplished in terms of its local, national and global contributions. And, that said, I was excited about the prospect of the book and for Dirk to write the book from the standpoint that we have the opportunity to quantify and collect a history for the campus in a very short period of time. It’s a truly unique story. It’s not matched and paralleled anywhere else, and while the academic endeavors there have been remarkable, the architectural advances there are also equally remarkable. And it was – it’s the confluence of all those components coming together at one time to create the place that it is.

CAVANAUGH: And I – We must also emphasize that this is a work in progress because not only are new buildings being built but there’s also an addition to the Stuart Collection that’s being planned that just sounds pretty much out of this world, Mathieu. Tell us about this art piece that’s being installed today. I mean, that is in the process of being conceived and installed.

GREGOIRE: Well, imagine a house – Imagine, first of all, what’s happening right now on the campus, this week and last week. It was the beginning of the fall quarter, thousands of students are arriving and many of those students are very, very young, 18, even 17 years old. And they’re coming to live in a place that is different from the home that they grew up in, for the very first time. And it’s a very big place, it’s a huge place, and it’s a very institutional place. Now, imagine one of the biggest buildings, the central building of the engineering campus, the Jacobs School of Engineering, and imagine a house that has, by some mysterious force, a small clapboard house, been sort of lifted up and planted itself on the upper corner of that seven-story building.

HELLMANN: It’s Oz. It’s Oz.

CAVANAUGH: It’s Dorothy’s house.

GREGOIRE: That house is by – is conceived by the artist Do Ho Su, a Korean artist who came to the campus and was looking around and came up with this idea in relation to, you know, his sense of student life, his sense of being himself, in his life, uprooted and having to move across the world and live in different places. And now let’s just finish the story. The house, the house has an interior and the house has spread itself out across the roof in the form of a garden and so there’s a green roof up there, seven floors up. The house is slightly canted and there’s a sort of domestic garden, a little bit like – the model is actually a kind of New England house but if you imagine the front yards and the modest bungalows of, say, North Park here in San Diego, it has that feeling. So it’s this very, very domestic kind of intimate sort of situation that’s been imposed on this extremely institutional context.

CAVANAUGH: And one thing that makes it so public is that it – the way it’s positioned on the top – the way it will be positioned on the top of this building, you can see it from the ground.


CAVANAUGH: I mean, you can just see your little house up there…


CAVANAUGH: …waiting for you to visit.

GREGOIRE: And from up there, from the garden…


GREGOIRE: …you’ll be able to look out across the campus. It’s one of the highest points on campus, and look out at the bedroom communities of La Jolla and northern San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: When might this be completed?

GREGOIRE: Well, we expect to begin construction – actually begin construction at the beginning of 2011…


GREGOIRE: …and have it installed sometime in the summer. We still have some work to do in terms of design and approvals and so on but we’ve done a lot of the work and that’s our expectation.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all for talking with us today. I mean, it shows that this is an accomplishment that UCSD can look at in its first 50 years and something that’s going to go on into the future. Thank you so much, Boone Hellmann.

HELLMANN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Dirk Sutro.

SUTRO: Thank you, and watch for the UCSD By Design lecture series that starts later this month.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve got that. And Mathieu Gregoire, thank you so much.

GREGOIRE: Thanks very much.

CAVANAUGH: Dirk Sutro will be signing copies of his book at the opening of the exhibition Modern UCSD: Celebrating 50 Years of Campus Architecture. That’s at the Geisel Library. It’s next Wednesday, September 29th. And on September 30th, a series of lectures and discussions called “UCSD By Design” begins with Yale University architectural historian Kurt W. Forster. You can find out more by going to Thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.