“Ugly, Blocky & Stale” or Innovative? Adding a Campus Building: A Collision of Cultures

By Steven Hurtt, UMCP/Architecture*

On seeing the proposal for the new hotel in what is now called the University of Maryland’s “Innovation District,” I had the same reaction as the campus’s student newspaper, the Diamondback, reported late in the Fall Semester quoting senior English major, Kelly Trimble: “It looks ugly,” she said.

The hotel as it would be seen from campus looking across the Engineering Fields. Courtesy: Facilities Management

The hotel as it would be seen from campus looking across the Engineering
Fields. Courtesy: Facilities Management


Fitting In

Her more extended statement hit the crux of the issue dead on. “It’s just really blocky and our campus is really beautiful, and if we start building architecture that’s really stale like that – that doesn’t have the type of architecture that we have on campus – it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Many people call our Maryland campus beautiful, rarely saying the same about a single building. Most everyone intuitively knows that for a campus, it’s how it all adds up that really matters, each building contributing to the look of the whole. But it’s not so with a proposed hotel. Why not? Is the hotel’s lack of “good fit” accidental or intentional? If intentional, why? And is that the best idea over the long term?

The University has long hoped to have a medium size, quality, hotel-convention facility somewhere near the east face of campus. It appears to have finally attracted one, a good thing. In presenting it to the campus, President Loh has called its glassy, blocky look a symbol of “innovation.” Innovation is likewise the new moniker for what, just a few years back, was envisioned as the East Campus College Town. Now renamed, it is touted as the “Innovation District” to be, the hotel a first and symbolic step in a “new vision.”

Apparently “not fitting in” is a matter of clear intention. But is that the right thing to do? If not, why not? There are really several questions. First, how does the beauty of a campus, the image conveyed by its built environment, come about, and how is it maintained over time? What should the role of those who hold the temporary power of a campus’s highest offices be with regard to those characteristics, both on the campus proper and areas like the “Innovation District,” which is also part of the extended campus?

Many U.S. campuses possess an exceptional beauty that mainly results from their visual coherence and consistency, their pedestrian-dominant quality, the complementarity of their landscapes and buildings. At UVA, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Duke and many others, it has been a founders vision, made specific in word and image, then followed by an allegiance to that founding vision which acquired the power of myth. One thinks of Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Cornell, Leland Stanford, James B. Duke….

For other campuses, coherence has been primarily the result of historical circumstance: the adoption of a particular architectural style at a moment in time of significant growth and again followed by a commitment to sustain that image. Many campuses are dominated by one of three such styles, Collegiate Gothic, Neo-Classical, or Georgian. There are stylistically “Modern” versions as well, such as IIT and the Air Force Academy. In all such cases, there is deliberate intention and a constancy that rarely wavers.

When I came to the UMCP campus in 1990 as dean of the School of Architecture, my reaction to it was like Kelly Trimble’s. I thought it quite attractive, cohesive, no great buildings, nice landscape. A beauty resting first on the complementarity of buildings and landscape; most dramatically evident in McKeldin Mall, Chapel Lawn, Fraternity Row, and the Engineering Fields, but subtly present other places too. Next, the coherence of the buildings: while sporting a diversity of styles and scales, they clearly shared common features.

I got involved with Facilities Management in various ways. I soon discovered that, despite the overall coherence of the campus, there were no written design guidelines and not much to design review. However, there were three important unwritten standards: 1) Reddish brick; 2) No flat roofs (although extremely low slopes were accepted); 3) Traditional near or in the central campus, less so further away. Not bad, but might we do better?

A reading of George Calcott’s book on the history of the University tells part of the story of how Maryland got the more traditional look that is its primary image. Among his many contributions to the growth of this University, President Curly Byrd promoted the idea that American History at Maryland, including a regional focus, would be among its most superior academic fields of study, and he sought a campus that would be both grand in its plan and embrace the historical architecture of its region, particularly its Georgian and Colonial era buildings of locally made brick. Byrd’s era was the same one that promoted grand city and campus plans nationwide – the National Mall as we know it among them. It was also the era that honored our nation’s forefathers by discovering and preserving the physical symbols of their lives and activities: Independence Hall, Monticello, and Williamsburg. The architecture of our campus can be thought to convey through associated meanings the foundational ideas of our nationhood. Hence, allegiance to Byrd’s “vision” and subsequent allegiance to it, however vaguely promoted or monitored.

After several years of experience with our campus planning processes, I made a number of recommendations on how they might be improved. Several were adopted: 1) conduct design studies of sub-districts of the campus at a scale between the individual building and the master plan; 2) create design guidelines for these various sub-districts, and 3) establish a design review committee.

Why not just design review, why bother with design guidelines? There are several reasons. First, without guidelines, design review is prone to degenerate into little more than an opinion fest dominated by current “trends” and strongly influenced by seductive imagery and either the most authoritative or the most charismatic person in the room.

Secondly, design guidelines help the various architects selected for different campus projects. Often new to the campus, they are not compensated for the hard work of creating design guidelines for themselves. Such efforts require the close scrutiny and codification of numerous landscape and architectural patterns. Those patterns exist at three scales, the immediate vicinity, the context of the entire campus, and the broad history of landscape, planning, and architectural design.

With the blessing of the campus administration, design review was adopted with a mandate to also develop design guidelines and this has been accomplished.

A few examples of this process in action include the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center; three additions to Van Munching Hall (Smith Business School); Kim Engineering; and Knight Hall (housing Journalism). Somewhat more conservative in look are the additions to Zoo-Psych and the Health Center. None of these buildings stick out like “sore thumbs.”

The District

CIMG0612 Hotel sign

This brings us to the story of the “Innovation District.” The idea to develop that 32 acre parcel of land including service buildings and others in need of replacement first emerged in a conversation I had with then Vice President of Administration Chuck Sturtz. He supported an Architecture School design studio study of the possibilities. The vision then, just as it is now, was the creation of a better “college town.” When schemes demonstrating the possibilities were presented to a group led by then-President Mote, he grasped the vision and opportunity and said, “We have to do this.” That goal emerged in the next campus Strategic Plan.

Shortly afterward an opportunity was lost. That opportunity was to develop a coherent plan for the area, not based on immediate need, but the kind of general vision Curly Byrd exercised: the guiding idea, a plan, illustration of what it could be at best, and a set of design guidelines. Instead, faith was placed in the wisdom of the market and the result was a developer’s vision, not truly the vision of the campus. A recession destroyed that market-driven vision. But something did come of it.

With considerable rancor and the consternation of a few about what the unrestrained results emerging from the developer might be, design guidelines did emerge. Late in coming, compromised by developer resistance and administrative reluctance, the process nevertheless provided a forum for debate and some resolution. Most fundamental of these was, to what degree, how much and where should the then-called “East Campus College Town,” now “Innovation District,” project an image clearly related to the campus or one entirely distinct from it? Arguments on both sides were made. Some argued for the “new,” the unrestrained, that the area should look nothing like the campus. Others countered that, “We don’t want K Street or Bethesda.” As the impacts of various possibilities began to be understood, discussion became more nuanced.

A good plan would need to make crossing Route 1 safer. The proposed light-rail Purple Line needed accommodation and provided great opportunity if handled correctly. Iconic vistas, such as views of Memorial Chapel, could be protected and extended. Old Town could be better connected. The area is big. Build out would take time. Many buildings would be the likely result. Styles of these buildings might reasonable differ. That being so, how best to achieve a quality image for the campus? Most of us finally agreed that the most memorable, beautiful and enduring thing that could be done was to celebrate and improve upon the “image” and “presence” of the University by extending and elaborating its “face” along the perimeters of the new “district” as well as in areas already projecting a positive campus image such as Fraternity Row.

It was an expanded design review group that had taken on the task of reviewing the developer’s proposals. But while design guidance was given and guidelines developed, there was little support for them. The developer promised much and acquiesced little. The upper administration showed disinterest at best.

Here we are again, to fit in or stand out? To symbolize the modern, the innovative, however briefly, or to symbolize the enduring? Note that nearby is a cluster of delicate campus buildings of merit and historical distinction, Turner Lab, Rossborough, and the Armory. The “ugly” hotel will stand in stark contrast.

Among the illustrations used in selling the new hotel to the campus community are views of a wonderful terrace at its highest level. It was at a thirteen story height, now I think reduced to ten, but still very high up and affording views of the campus. But, what about the opposite view, the view from campus? Do we want to look across the Engineering Fields and see a blocky, glassy façade, a nighttime view of randomly lit hotel rooms? Do we risk a view from the steps of Memorial Chapel that might include a huge hotel logo sign? Do we want such a thing competing in the night sky with the flood-lit Chapel’s portico and tower with its little blinking red light on top?

Broader Questions

This is not just about a hotel on one campus. There are broader questions for those who hold high office in an institution of higher education. What is their role? How is that role best applied to the campus, to a special place such as the Innovation District? Certainly, they must be innovators. Just as certainly they must also be guardians and transmitters of culture and tradition. We need them to exercise great wisdom in striking a balance between symbols of continuity while accommodating change, symbols of tradition that likewise nurture innovation.

The vision for a campus, the image it projects, inevitably changes over time, but a campus need not undergo radical change with each change in the few people who temporarily exercise the authority of its highest offices.

*Steven Hurtt is a Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. From 1990 until 2004 he served as dean of the School and served on numerous campus planning and design review committees at diverse levels through 2008.

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