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The making of the modern campus
Moshe Safdie's design for the new Eleanor Roosevelt College campus reflects the need to create a common bond among students.
by Peter Jensen

The Great Hall

 
     

STANDING ON A ROOFTOP PLAZA at UCSD's new Eleanor Roosevelt College campus, architect Moshe Safdie gazed at a cluster of balloons flying 30 feet overhead. The bright multicolored orbs, pushed almost sideways by a strong sea breeze, tugged madly at a single string tied to a railing. As if deciding to take the balloons home, Safdie began to furl the long tether around his broad hand.

Few in the crowd of well-wishers at the campus's pre-opening celebration last August seemed to notice the tanned man with a bushy white mustache in the act of either claiming a festive prize for his grandchildren or removing a garish party favor from his clean-lined work. But as Safdie drew the balloons closer, the architect and his campus design seemed to be proving that "the architecture of interaction" was off to a good and lively start.

Since his breakthrough design for Habitat, the famed stacked-cube apartments at Montreal Expo 1967 built when Safdie was in his 20s, the architect has championed his theories of creating vital urban spaces. Now he is head of a Boston firm with 65 architects and five full-time model makers working from Safdie's concepts and sketches. He is celebrated for his designs of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, major public libraries in Salt Lake City and Vancouver, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and dozens of other acclaimed buildings and urban plans around the world. His work is clean-lined but warm, especially in its focus on communal spaces. He is obsessed with "finding the truth, which is the complete opposite of freedom from rules."

Eleanor Roosevelt College was Safdie's first opportunity to design an entire campus. It was a challenge: The budget was tight for a 12-acre site (final cost was $106 million). It had to house 1,240 students on a campus complete with recreation areas, meeting and study areas, dining hall and administrative offices. Most important, the college had to foster a new sense of home after years of sharing facilities with other colleges on campus. Since being created as UCSD's Fifth College in 1988, it had never had its own dining hall. Students affectionately called its aging, barrack-like residence halls "Camp Snoopy."

In the late 1990s, a new ERC campus seemed a commission tailor-made for Safdie, the urbane architect with a love of community vigor as well as academic rigor. Safdie taught at Harvard for years, and ERC provost, Ann Craig, recalls the great value the architect placed on "the role of the colleges in the undergraduate experience here on campus."

Campus Architect M. Boone Hellmann agreed. After a long screening and selection process mandated by UC policy, the University's selection committee chose Safdie, and Hellmann felt "we had an opportunity to create a new paradigm for colleges."
Provost Craig, student leaders, Hellmann and others began giving Safdie their input as he brought early designs to the table: the program phase, in architectural parlance.

"Did ERC's program shape the architecture?" asked Craig rhetorically as the sound of cement trucks pouring the college's sidewalks roared outside her new office last September. "Yes! Did architecture shape the program? Yes!" For Craig and her ERC colleagues, this meant finally moving into a cluster of buildings that lived up to the college's promise of being a "close-knit community," one in which "the global perspective begins at home," especially by providing a home for the college's regular world-culture themes, convocations, as well as living quarters for most of its first- and second-year students. Craig refers to ERC life as an "international menu," one that includes the University's longest core course: six quarters of a rigorous academic challenge known as "The Making of the Modern World."

The first hurdle was a high one. UCSD's campuswide master plan originally called for five clumps of buildings at ERC, each around a courtyard, on a sloping site. A massive parking garage was also required, and original plans showed it rising several stories above ground level.

Planning sketch

"But I felt that [the college] cannot be five places as opposed to one place," Safdie recalled during a post-construction lecture last October at UCSD. "You must take the public spaces defined in the program . . . and just like the ancient plans of every Greek city, plug them into the main public paths of the college. They cannot just be anywhere. They have to sustain and animate the life within the college. And the way to do that is to have an extremely prominent path of movement."

Safdie believes there is a strong connection between movement and place of assembly. It led him and his design team, which included his daughter Taal Safdie and son-in-law, Ricardo Rabines, who have their own architecture firm in San Diego, to conclude that there should be one very large space. Safdie wanted a Common or Green "on the scale of spaces like Harvard Yard; large enough that it can become ceremonial."

As the design evolved, student council member Gloria Wang and other ERC students told planners what they liked and didn't like about ERC's days in Camp Snoopy. The Safdie team listened intently.

"It was the smallness of the buildings and our own little lounges that drew us together," Wang, now in newspaper publishing, said. "It was something unique about Roosevelt. And the huge lawn at Camp Snoopy, where people would go to nap, study, play volleyball. The biggest obstacle was not having our own dining facility." During design review, Wang and other students were consulted on many matters such as the location of the main Green, restrooms, paths and lounges.

"They did redesign," she said. "We saw changes."

The finished design for Eleanor Roosevelt College shows a remarkable variety of buildings and spaces, indoors and out. They may seem quite dense but none is over four stories and all welcome sunlight and fresh breezes. Housing is always adjacent to larger neighboring areas such as main promenades, rooftop plazas, The Green and the amphitheatre-like steps of Cafe Ventanas. The density reminds Taal Safdie and Rabines of a "Mediterranean village," full of places where informal interaction can occur.

"The experience of the promenade between the provost's office and the Great Hall," said Rabines as he bent over the plan in his San Diego office, "is very different from a streetscape with cars. This is where tension and the closeness of the buildings comes into play. It's a canyon feeling: tight and very cozy. Fun! Completely friendly. These are not residual spaces left over after we designed the buildings, they are designed spaces."

This promenade also passes ERC's new International House, home to an all-colleges program with 240 spaces, half international and half U.S. students. The Great Hall is intended to be International House's "living room": a classic, large-but-comfortable space for casual meetings, conversation, English tutoring, coffee, or a gathering of many residents for a cultural-theme night.

ERC's main entry points are at Ridge Walk on the northeast corner, and at Great Hall on the south edge. Both the main promenade and The Green run north-south to channel sunlight - not shadows"into most of the campus. Connecting and cutting through these two main "canyons" are a host of smaller east-west walks and mini-canyons between the three main housing units. These units consist of residence halls for freshmen (along the western edge), apartments for second-year students and the International House apartments. These shared-apartment living spaces include sizable common kitchens and living rooms.

A close look at the campus reveals a curvaceous energy in both the buildings and open spaces. Students going to and from their meals, meetings and rooms encounter a number of surprises, especially as they walk along the main curve running west from the Ridge Walk entry toward Cafe Ventanas.

"The curves did a few things for us," says Taal Safdie. "They create movement, both in the views and as you walk along. Curves make views change, so things reveal themselves, but not immediately. As you come to the end of the main curve at the west edge of Cafe Ventanas, for example, it breaks away and ...your whole view is cut through a little gap that looks toward the ocean. If the spaces had been rectangular, they would have been much more static."

Planning sketch

Construction costs were a major challenge, and contractor Rudolph and Sletten, the design team and the University went through rounds of painful "value engineering" together. The dreadful euphemism means, simply, "eliminate it." A planned pedestrian bridge over Scholars Drive North, the one street with automobile traffic cutting through the college, had to be erased. Metal framing gave way to conventional wood or "stick" construction. Sidewalks textured with thousands of European-style pavers became plain concrete.

"Now that we see it finished," says Taal Safdie, "we're still pleased. We don't dwell on what's missing."

"There is no fat," adds Rabines. "It is very, very lean."
Yet despite the compromises, ERC saved most of its signature details and central design ideas, including metal sunshades, metal banding set into the exterior stucco walls, the sinking of the 1,000-car garage almost entirely below grade and extensive landscaping. Most important, perhaps, ERC got its two great cornerstones: the soaring, ribbed roofs and glass walls of the Great Hall and Cafe Ventanas, each an unforgettable new landmark on campus.
"They're swooping," says Taal Safdie. "They're the anchors of the public spaces - the outdoor streets and plazas. Their shape comes from overlooking these spaces. We wanted them to feel like they are opening up, looking onto open, outdoor rooms, like big eyes. At the same time their shapes are very visible from afar, so they work both ways."

"Moshe wanted their shapes to contrast with the other ones on campus," adds Rabines. "They carry on a theme of debate, liberalism, openness. The shape is about light and gathering and celebration."

ERC also provided the basic necessity of 1,240 beds, and its student quarters are as innovative as the public areas. For first- and second-year students, Safdie created small buildings where living groups of 11 have a rooftop terrace or patio, easy access and a "living room" lounge for the building. The lounge with its picture window is like a front porch opening onto The Green. It encourages inter-group socializing, drop-in friends and cooking together.

The names of the buildings continue a tradition from ERC's Camp Snoopy, and reflect the college's unique sense of community and international spirit: Mesa Verde Hall, Geneva Hall, Kathmandu House, Cuzco House, Asante House, Oceania Hall, several "Earth Halls," Middle Earth (a study lounge and mail center), and a long string of freshman residences named for the continents - Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and North America.

The buildings are energy efficient thanks in good part
to San Diego's benign climate. Hellmann tells the story of a student's mother on move-in day asking housing director Mark Cunningham why the air conditioner wasn't working even though she'd "turned the dial up to five." Cunningham pointed to the window and said, "That's your air conditioning - you're now in San Diego." Summer or winter, UCSD's temperate coastal climate seldom requires either cooling or heating, but when temperatures drop the residences do have basic heating.

As move-in day drew near, Cunningham and staff generated some of their own heat. The catch phrase for the job became "All in?" This is a card-game term Cunningham had seen on a televised poker tournament special that means, "push all your chips to the center of the table." The work pace rose to a frenzy. At 8:30 on the night before the students arrived, the last concrete in front of a residence building was poured. The beds were ready. Caution tape fluttered around several common areas and worksites, but ERC's new campus was "all in" and ready to welcome its students for their first night.

And what of Safdie's balloons? Once he'd reeled them to his hand like a kite on a line, he let them slowly out again. It would not be a repeat of the time in 1967, when he tried to remove a pink-and-lime play sculpture in the Montreal Habitat plaza. "Safdie sneaked onto the site in the middle of the night and tried to roll it away," Larissa MacFarquhar reported in The New Yorker, "but he was caught by security guards. Even after Habitat was finished and Safdie had moved his family into one of its apartments, he continued to patrol the building. He would spot gold-anodized ashtrays in the lobby and try to get them replaced with something more tasteful."

Safdie stepped back from the railing near ERC's Great Hall and rejoined his daughter Taal, son-in-law Ricardo and two grandchildren at a table on the rooftop plaza while the guests dispersed. UCSD catering crews were respectful of Safdie's and the family's last reverie. An event manager waited until almost everyone else had gone home, then politely mentioned that it was time to go. Safdie and his closest design collaborators rose and walked slowly through the new campus one more time before their most important clients, the ERC students, would claim the campus as their new home.

Peter Jensen is a freelance writer whose stories appear regularly in Sunset, Coastal Living, and other magazines. He lives in Del Mar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moshe Safdie
Moshe Safdie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Campus cafe

Campus textures

A close look at the campus reveals a curvaceous energy in both the buildings and open spaces.