Erasing Pereira

William Pereira’s meticulous master plan for UC Irvine has not just been ignored—but undone. Our critic, architect Alan Hess, calls for a return to Pereira’s futuristic vision and philosophy.

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What do California’s cultural institutions have against William Pereira?

The Chicago native, seeing Orange County transitioning awkwardly from orchards to housing tracts after World War II, tackled every design and building opportunity that came his way. Two of the architect’s biggest plums: the master-planned city of Irvine and UC Irvine. When President Lyndon Johnson dedicated the university site in 1964, this new campus boldly pointed the way to the future. Pereira’s work made him Orange County’s Pierre L’Enfant, the planner of Washington, D.C.; Christopher Wren, the rebuilder of London after the Great Fire of 1666; and Daniel “Make No Little Plans” Burnham of Chicago, all rolled into one.

Pereira was not just celebrating the Golden State’s newfound power and wealth. He already was predicting the coming need to increase urban density and reduce dependence on the car, to protect the rolling coastal landscape from muddled sprawl, and to conserve energy through passive design—all decades ahead of other thinkers.

Yet today, UC Irvine and LACMA are erasing Pereira’s—and California’s—midcentury legacy. The art museum is blindly plotting to bulldoze its original buildings for a large tar-colored concrete blob. And as its 50th anniversary celebrations get under way, the university is whittling away at the vision Pereira designed for it.

Like the works of other artists who were ahead of their time, Pereira’s have been misunderstood, his iconic concepts unappreciated. Today, he finally is being rediscovered as a major Southern California architect. The first retrospective of his career was mounted last year at the Nevada Museum of Art. And while some of his buildings have been demolished, LAX’s Theme Building was meticulously restored, with widespread popular support, in 2010. But will enough of his buildings remain to be enjoyed?

 

Pereira (1909-1985) was a big-picture guy. He could build for industry and aerospace (campuses for Chrysler in Anaheim, and Rockwell Autonetics—now a federal building—in Laguna Niguel), jet ports (Eddie Martin Terminal), and modernist tourist venues (the Disneyland Hotel, plus an early—and unbuilt—plan for Disneyland). These were elements of the suburban metropolis that developed in postwar Southern California, and Pereira, who’d made L.A. his home since the ’30s, helped define that metropolis for Orange County.

He created landmarks outside the county as well: Los Angeles International Airport, with its spidery, Space Age Theme Building as the crown jewel; San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid, whose sloping sides allow sunlight to penetrate the narrow streets below; CBS Television City, the ultramodern factory for the nation’s newest electronics medium; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which proclaimed to the world that there was more to L.A. culture than surfing and skateboards.
A walk through the UC Irvine campus today still shows us Pereira’s ideas for California’s golden future as seen on the first day of classes in October 1965. But be prepared—our tour also will visit many detours and demolitions that have undermined the architect’s carefully considered plans.

We begin at the threshold between town and gown: the shady terrace between  Langson Library and the  Gateway Study Center, designed by William Pereira Associates in association with Jones & Emmons, and Blurock Ellerbroek Associates. Like ships in port, these two buildings seem to float, slightly above us, on either side. They even look a bit like vessels—notice the broad “decks” (the balconies) circled by railings, and the “gangplanks” (the stairways) leading up to the entries.

His designs reflected these concerns: the slender fins running up and down both buildings are built-in sunshades. Similar precast concrete sunscreens are the architectural signature for the entire original campus. Each academic department has its own distinct sunscreen design. On the Gateway Study Center, they are slender fins that shield occupants from the heat and glare; Pereira was forward-looking in integrating passive solar features such as this. At top and bottom, the fins loop and meet, casting playful shadows on each building’s face as the sun moves across the sky.

We stroll now in the shade of the plaza’s tree canopy—each tree in its own planter box lined up as carefully as pieces on a chessboard—toward Aldrich Park. From here, we gaze into the heart of the campus. The mature urban forest spreading before us is astonishing, considering that this was all a treeless cattle pasture in 1965.

We move easily down the wide steps from one orderly, formal terrace to the next, but we’re about to cross a boundary into open meadows and groves of trees. The smooth, straight trunks of the eucalyptus seem to be a model for the tall slender fins we saw on the Langson Library. Actually, landscape architects Robert Herrick Carter, C. Jacques Hahn, J. Charles Hoffman, and Frederick Lang worked closely with Pereira to make the park’s irregular appearance look natural.

It’s also important to notice what’s not here: an imposing administration building. Pereira left the center of the campus open—just like another famous American architect did at the University of Virginia. Just as Thomas Jefferson wanted his “academical village” to live in balance with nature, so did Pereira.

Let’s walk back through the gateway plaza and turn left along the Outer Ring Road that circles Aldrich Park. It links each of the major academic buildings. On school days, the broad road is crowded with pedestrians. Cars and trucks have always been prohibited; in the ’60s, dividing cars and people was a daring urban planning idea. Just after we pass the  Student Center on the right, we cross an earthen bridge. Walk to one side and notice the elegantly arched tunnel carved through the berm below. This is part of a separate circulation system that allows service vehicles to reach buildings inside the ring without crossing the pedestrian road.
Arriving at  Krieger Hall on the left, we cross one of the radial pathways that extend outward from Aldrich Park like the spokes of a wheel. This is how Pereira planned for rational growth; looking to the right we can see the pedestrian bridge that connects the cluster of  humanities buildings and the  Claire Trevor School of the Arts, which Pereira designed in the ’70s.

But right now, let’s explore  humanities and Krieger halls, and the steps and terraces between them that lead back down to Aldrich Park. This is another example of how Pereira balanced nature and architecture.

To appreciate this radical design, remember that it was common practice in Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s for developers to bulldoze hills into large, flat building pads—obliterating the natural topography. Pereira had a different idea: He kept the natural contours of the land intact and let the buildings “float” above the rolling terrain. But just how do you make large concrete-and-steel structures appear weightless?

First, the buildings never seem to touch the earth. Pereira accomplishes this illusion beautifully by setting the ground floors of each building back slightly, and circling them with wide terrace balconies, so the ground floor is hidden in shadows. You don’t really see how the buildings connect with the earth. Meanwhile, the main parts rise into the sunshine above the floating terraces. The buildings look as if they’re dancing with the undulating landscape.

For the university’s first dozen years, Pereira’s plan inspired other notable architects to build in the same spirit. For example, from Krieger Hall you can just glimpse off in the distance the six-story  Engineering Tower by Kistner, Wright and Wright. Like an Olympic weightlifter, it stands on sinewy, muscular legs, pressing its upper floors high into the air.

Even the smaller-scale student housing units reflect Pereira’s forward-looking vision. Across the bridge and on the other side of the Arts Plaza,   Mesa Court Housing by Pereira and Grillias Savage Alves—the architects of Dana Point Harbor—has cantilevered concrete in its commons building. Beyond the Engineering Tower, the dormitories in  Middle Earth rely on cleanly cut geometrical forms, allowing clerestories for balanced light within, but avoiding the boredom of Bauhaus boxes.

Futuristic buildings, living lightly and respectfully on the earth, blending with nature: This is the core of Pereira’s vision for UC Irvine, and for the future of the American city. But by the ’80s, the university turned its back on this vision. Why? We’ll pause our tour for a little background.

 

Fashions changed. A new style called postmodernism arrived, and it had to cut Pereira’s brand of modernism down to size to succeed.

“In the view of many observers,” said Los Angeles Times architecture critic Leon Whiteson in 1988, UC Irvine buildings were “overscaled and boringly detailed. Campus wags dubbed the modernist concrete boxes that enclose UCI’s inner ring mall ‘a bunch of giant cheese graters.’ ”

Events such as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill took the shine off the spirit of optimism inspired by technological advances. Opinions shifted quickly. By 1972, the same buildings that had been regarded as a grand, positive vision seven years earlier were deemed a fitting backdrop for the dystopian parable of the fourth Planet of the Apes movie, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” which was filmed at UC Irvine.

David J. Neuman succeeded Pereria as campus architect in 1977, and announced that “UCI is growing up. … Its character is changing from a suburban college to an urbane campus with an ambition to be academically and architecturally first-rate.”

Changing course, Neuman brought in international architects, postmodern stars, each of whom went in a different direction, all headed away from Pereira’s holistic plan. Charles Moore, architect of the 1987 University Extension buildings, wrote that the campus “suffers now from the optimism of the 1960s. … But as we all know, the ’60s dream faltered.” Moore’s buildings, among the best of this period, evoked an imaginary Italian hill town’s church and city hall, not Pereira’s exuberant futurism. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s  Graduate School of Business is a handsome import from an Ivy League university, while Robert A. M. Stern’s Studio 4 is a full-blown knock-off from ancient Rome, complete with acroteria, those pointy ears at the corners of the roof.

 

Let’s continue up the hill from Krieger Hall, where we’ll see two of these postmodern monuments,    Ayala Science Library by James Stirling on the right, and McGaugh Hall by Arthur Erickson, on the left of the ring road.

Though Stirling was one of the most original designers of his era, his stout British forms on Ayala Library did not translate well into California stucco. Only Erickson’s McGaugh Hall kept the faith of Pereira’s futurist technological optimism, but today its plastic green panels are fading.

Across from McGaugh Hall we see an even sadder sight: Pereira’s  Steinhaus Hall stripped of its signature facade. When its original 40-year-old sunscreens were replaced during an earthquake retrofit in 2008, there was little support within the administration to restore them; the decades when Pereira’s ideas were dismissed took their toll. The screens were replaced with a plain flat skin of stone and glass, a bland shadow of the original.

This remodeling was partly due to campus officials incorrectly tagging Pereira’s buildings with the least appealing term ever coined for an architectural style: brutalism.

Brutalism isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. Its proponents used raw, unadorned concrete directly, just as earlier modernists had fashioned with raw steel. But UC Irvine’s original buildings were never brutalist. Krieger Hall’s smooth surfaces were sculpted and embedded with color, not roughly hewn. Where brutalist buildings settle solidly on the ground, the Gateway Study Center is lifted up on tapered, springing columns, accenting how it floats above the earth.

But, as I said, fashions keep changing. In the ’80s, postmodernism was seen as the antidote to Pereira’s modernism; today the university thinks postmodernism needs an antidote. It already has demolished a 1986 building by Frank Gehry, once Pereira’s student at the USC School of Architecture. The intentionally raw forms of the now-destroyed Information and Computer Science/Engineering Research Facility had been an early milestone in Gehry’s development as a world-class architect.

Since the early ’90s, current campus architect Rebekah Gladson has led the campus in yet another direction. In the place of Gehry’s building stands  Donald Bren Hall by Esherick, Homsey, Dodge & Davis, from 2006. To see it, walk up the outer ring road from poor Steinhaus Hall, past  Rowland Hall (an original building by architect Kenneth Wing, following Pereira’s lead, but now partly altered) on the left. Donald Bren Hall on the right is one of the more distinguished of the newer buildings, but unlike any of Pereira’s designs. It sits heavily on the ground. Clustered closely together withEngineering Hall and the  California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, it’s more like a traditional mid-rise from a crowded, dense city center than part of an open, futuristic campus in a forest. The dance with the landscape has ended. And so has our tour.

 

It’s true that universities inevitably change over 50 years. New needs, new technology, even new academic fields reshape the way old buildings are used and new ones are designed. But it’s just as true that if you have a good, strong design concept, you should stick with it even as you adapt to new times.

Pereira’s work is not flawless. He pushed boundaries. His vision of corporate and university collaboration became controversial in the radical ’60s. But today the biases that put Pereira’s reputation into a tailspin in the ’80s are themselves being questioned. As a grassroots fight brews over the demolition of Pereira’s LACMA buildings, we can reassess his place in architectural history more easily. I, and others, think he is a major visionary.

Pereira dared to take new planning ideas further than most mainstream architects. At a time when Rachel Carson’s 1962 expose, “Silent Spring,” was beginning to awaken the nation to an awareness of ecology, Pereira advocated for preserving the natural environment by reducing dependence on the auto, defending natural wetlands and hillsides, using passive energy design to shape his buildings, and promoting a rational high-density, pedestrian-oriented town center (which was never built) at the heart of his master-planned university city.

So while cycles of fashions are sure to keep changing, they also are sure to circle back to recognize good ideas. Today Pereira’s aesthetics are in step with the latest trends in architecture: The honeycomb geometry of Krieger Hall’s sunscreens is strikingly similar to the screen facades of the Broad Museum now under construction on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of today’s most celebrated architects.

We expect a university to be efficient and up-to-date. But we also expect a university to preserve our heritage, even when it’s not easy. UC Irvine started in 1965 as a showcase of California’s bright future, but since the ’80s it has abdicated that future in favor of something much more mundane, like an ordinary business park.

 

1960s-era photograph by Ansel Adams

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.
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Comments

  1. Monica Pereira

    July 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Thank you. It seems my father is enjoying a resurgence. He somehow knew the future.

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