Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, July 2, 1997

Pride of Place: 7/2/97

Balancing act: The quest for
architectural harmony in the
university’s second hundred years

BY MICHAEL CANNELL

On May 14, 1887, Leland Stanford laid the cornerstone for the university built in his son's memory. Pulleys lowered the waist-high block into place, and an encircling throng of workers and dignitaries watched him trowel the mortar that sealed it. Jane Stanford stood nearby in a black Victorian dress.

In collaboration with the preeminent landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the Stanfords built a lowslung compound of courtyards in imitation of the rustic local missions.

It was the genesis of a distinct Stanford style characterized by terra cotta roofs, carved sandstone arcades that shade scholars from the California sun, and palm trees hovering like verdant clouds over the courtyards ­ a composition Olmsted called "gloria in excelsis."

More than a century later, campus officials are trying to restore the spirit of the original plan. Like other universities that suffered decades of unchecked development, Stanford is searching its institutional soul for the appropriate way to graft new architecture onto old. Provosts and deans everywhere face the same dilemma: Should they freeze their architectural heritage under glass, like a campus version of Williamsburg, Virginia? Or solicit the best current design ideas?

There are no easy answers. Harvard provoked an uproar a few years ago by slicing the Freshman Union, with its oaken dining hall designed in 1902 by McKim Mead & White, into a warren of offices, in part because some faculty members considered it too elitist.

For David Neuman, Stanford's resident architect, the graceful solution is to add discreet contemporary architecture that helps to restore Stanford's original plan. It is a strategy not based on aesthetics alone, but rooted in a belief that the 19th-century plan best serves 21st-century scholarship by enhancing its sense of place.

"A disorderly campus affects everyone, if only subliminally," says Neuman. "Without order, you've lost the physical opportunity for chance encounters and the collegial atmosphere that encourages collaboration and creativity. You've lost the sense of the university as a whole moving in a coherent way."

Muddling the plan

The conventional 19th-century design ­ the one initially proposed by Olmsted ­ would have been a picturesque, park-like campus in the leafy style of Yale or Princeton. Stanford demurred. He invoked the formal Beaux-Arts layout he had seen in Paris, its geometric arrangement of enclosed courtyards and broad vistas extending by suggestion to the horizon.

The genius of Stanford's plan lay in its expandability. Stanford was a builder by bent, and he expected linked courtyards to proliferate outward over the years in strict observance of the east-west axis established by the main quadrangle ­ not unlike his railroad's lateral advance across the Western landscape.

The first person to muddle his orderly pattern of manicured paths and arcades was his wife, Jane, who violated its spirit almost immediately after his death in 1893 by adding four detached, freestanding buildings along Palm Drive. (The library and gymnasium collapsed in the 1906 earthquake; the chemistry building and museum still stand.) The new main library inflicted further damage in 1919 by obstructing the east-west axis ­ Stanford's organizing spine. What's more, it injected a whiff of New England collegiate Gothic into the Romanesque surroundings. Even venerable Hoover Tower shows how departments, like warring fiefdoms, were all too free to build self-serving monuments that upstage their neighbors. "Inevitably, as universities expand and balkanize, the plan grows less unified," says art history Professor Paul Turner, author of a study on the history of American campus planning.

The violation of Stanford's vision continued in the years following the Second World War, when an upstart generation of modern architects rejected Beaux-Arts planning as the tired remains of a bygone era. Isolated buildings ­ and groups of buildings ­ sprang up without any relation to the main quad, or to one another. Their red-tile roofs paid superficial deference to old Stanford but, like most modern buildings, they claimed the right to stand in splendid isolation.

The final blow came in 1988, when the business school's annex, Littlefield Center, intruded on the grassy loop at the campus end of Palm Drive ­ Stanford's version of the Champs Élysées. It was one violation too many, and the trustees began looking for a resident architect capable of restoring order.

In 1989, they hired Neuman, who, at 43, had proven himself a commanding planner. In the mid-80s, he transformed a drab UC-Irvine campus by launching a construction spree designed by some of postmodernism's most flamboyant practitioners, including Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi. Like them or not, Neuman showed considerable political skill handling the superstars of architecture while navigating the minefields of academia.

Although he came of age with postmodernism ­ a movement that treated pediments and porticos as playthings plundered from history's attic ­ Neuman has launched a thoughtful campaign to update Stanford without degrading its pride of place. Surrounded by models and renderings in his Serra Street office, Neuman periodically covers his blue eyes with his palms as he discusses the need to redress the design misdemeanors of recent campus history.

"There came the notion that every building has the right to set its own course," he says. "The campus became like Houston."

Neuman arrived in time to lead a $1 billion campaign that will reshape much of the campus. This year is the busiest of a construction boom that started after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and will include the science and engineering quad, a new art museum wing, a renovated library, two new graduate dorms and extensive seismic strengthening.

"Not long ago we looked like a down-at-the-heels, bedraggled place," says Ruth Halperin, a past member of the trustees' land and buildings committee. "We're more sophisticated now, in part because David Neuman brought us along. We have a sense of responsibility. We know we're building for the ages."

No time for niceties

Stanford's architectural degradation was a product of its academic success. There seemed to be no time for the niceties of architecture as Stanford grew into a big-league research institute with departments Leland Stanford never could have dreamed of. Thirty years ago, at the dawn of the digital age, applied mathematics spawned an onrushing confederacy of computer and engineering fields accommodated in a dispersion of hastily erected quarters. The "temporary" barracks endured for decades.

When Jean-Claude Latombe, director of the robotics lab, arrived in 1987, he was assigned an office in Cedar Hall, one of many motley one-story workplaces he likens to vacation bungalows. "They were very friendly, but they didn't give you any sense of working within a university," Latombe says. The isolation inhibited teamwork. "The bungalows discouraged contact among students working on complementary problems," Latombe says.

Just a year earlier, Silicon Valley pioneer Bill Hewlett had revived Leland Stanford's long-deferred expectation of a second quad aligned with the first by donating $40 million in honor of the university's centennial to help reunite the sciences in their own courtyard. Work on four science buildings already had started when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake closed some 50 campus buildings and delayed new construction.

Fortunately, Hewlett's partner, the late David Packard, rescued the plan from what would have been 20 years of arduous incremental fundraising. After seeing the decaying electrical engineering labs during the 1993 dedication of the Green Earth Sciences building, Packard asked President Gerhard Casper how much was needed to complete the quad. He and Hewlett pledged $77.4 million to fund 70 percent of the new quad ­ the largest single monetary gift in Stanford's history.

But donations are frittered away if ineptly employed. Stanford too often has fueled campus sprawl by hiring architects based solely on their portfolios. By the time the trustees saw problematic designs, it was often too late. David Neuman was determined to prevent such surprises by initiating formal competitions in which several carefully selected architects submitted models and renderings to a jury chaired by Casper.

By all accounts, Casper was more than an attending functionary. In one early meeting, Casper asked Neuman to have the county transit agency remove a bus shelter from the head of the oval so that idling buses would no longer obstruct the view up Palm Drive. "He has a European sensitivity to the importance of architecture," says James Polshek, architect of the new museum wing.

In the past, top-tier architects have been reluctant to work at Stanford because of the constraints of history. If Neuman succeeds in restoring the university's early flavor, it will be because he shrewdly recruited people like Polshek, Antoine Predock, Robert A. M. Stern and James Ingo Freed ­ architects adept at gracefully weaving contemporary designs into their surroundings.

Nonetheless, Neuman did set down basic rules. By outlawing glass facades, Neuman discouraged bombastic departures from the campus style. Nor would he permit the postmodern practice of replicating old forms in unsuitably large sizes. Instead, he mandated stone veneers with distinct windows and pronounced rooflines to give off patterns of light and shade. "We want buildings that are of Stanford, not just at Stanford," he says.

Neuman did not, however, ask for slavish historicism or a literal replication of the old quad. "That would be a falsehood," says Thomas Seligman, director of the Stanford Art Museum. "We want our new building to resonate with the old, but we made a clear and conscious decision not to recreate the old in some artificial way."

On the contrary, Neuman encouraged the architects to explore personal variations on historical themes ­ to use the old quad as a jumping off point.

The best example of Neuman's progressive historicism lies in the new extension to the Center for Integrated Systems. The building was designed by Antoine Predock, an Albuquerque architect with a reputation for New Age structures that rise organically from the Southwest's desert landscape.

Mesa Verde meets Silicon Valley

The CIS extension faithfully obeys Neuman's rules of scale and material, but it has a glowering, fortress-like presence unlike anything on campus. A deep barrel-vaulted entrance and slit windows pierce an austere facade clad in pinkish Delhi sandstone pockmarked with fossils. Its reddish copper-tile roof floats nine inches above the walls ­ just high enough to admit light through a ribbon of glass. Think of it as a provocative cross between Mesa Verde and Silicon Valley. "Predock fine-tunes the building's form and materials, its details and proportions, to create a building that fits in with the Stanford context while charting a new course of its own," wrote Alan Hess, a critic for the San Jose Mercury News.

Predock's CIS extension resides south of Serra Street, diagonally across from its companion piece, the five-story Gates Computer Science Building, a $38.5 million cutting-edge facility named for Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who donated $6 million for its construction. For all its high-tech amenities, the Gates building, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, is politely wardrobed in an overhanging red-tile roof and old-fashioned casement windows recessed to suggest the old quad's hefty block walls. A three-story arch embedded in the rusticated limestone facade marks the entrance with a ceremonial flourish.

Few campus buildings have been so eagerly anticipated. Computing's diverse branches ­ artificial intelligence, robotics, computer graphics, database management, etc. ­ finally reside under one roof. Their proximity should foster cross-pollination.

"This building is too new yet to have its own special history and patina," says former Engineering Dean James Gibbons, "but it won't take the students and faculty too long to rectify that."

Stern shrewdly encouraged casual interaction by providing a spacious, sunlit central stairwell that climbs to a top-floor terrace. Whiteboards posted in gathering areas near elevators and bulletin boards darken daily with scrawled algorithms as passersby pause for spontaneous brainstorming. Faculty offices open onto central laboratories that invite participation. Within three months, the robots outside Jean-Claude Latombe's door acquired from various tenants the ability to track moving targets.

"Demonstrations used to seem confidential," says Latombe. "Now people come out of their offices to make suggestions."

The CIS extension and Gates anchor the north side of what will be a new quad consolidating the scattered science and engineering facilities. "It has been a 10-year dream of ours to draw electrical engineering and computer science ­ the hardware and the software ­ together in an environment surrounded by such things as the biological sciences and medicine," Gibbons says.

The winning entry for the new quad came from James Ingo Freed, I. M. Pei's longtime partner. After decades of anonymous service, Freed emerged from Pei's shadow with recent works like the new main library in San Francisco and the U.S. Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., one of the most lauded public buildings of recent times.

Freed won Stanford's most sought-after job largely because he struck a balance between current needs and remembered grandeur. Under his scheme, three modest buildings with similar pitched roofs and subdued facades house electrical engineering, advanced materials research and statistics. Freed considers them less important than the space they enclose. "The buildings don't have to stand out," Freed says. "They don't have to stand up and scream. All they have to do is tie things together." His fourth building, a lecture hall, is the ensemble's sculptural front man. Its curved, gently cantilevered panels of gray metal trimmed in copper beckon pedestrians like a Broadway marquee. "The whole fabric of the campus has become so loose," Freed says. "The teaching facility signals that something special is happening here."

Happily, the quad creates more open space than it consumes. Where the Physics Tank now stands Freed will unfurl a palm-lined walkway connecting the quads much as Leland Stanford suggested in drawings from the 1880s. The debauched east-west axis, Neuman says, will "be much more prominent, much more sacred."

The new quad breaks precedent in one key respect. While the inner quad is a desert sanctuary traversed by students rushing to classes, the new quad will be a grassy oasis, a place to linger under a dappled canopy of stone pines with soaring trunks that echo an encircling arcade. For hard-wired students increasingly accustomed to congregating online, the quad will be an outdoor parlor with shaded benches and sweet-scented locust trees. "Faculty and students want a respite from labs and classrooms," Neuman says. "They want to sit outside and enjoy the California climate. Many of them came here for that very reason."

No one can predict how Stanford's future inhabitants will regard today's additions. Every generation reacts against what preceded it. But whatever future critics may say, the campus is now growing with greater fidelity to the founder's vision. After decades of haphazard development, the campus landscape is once again an extension of its architecture.

As they pass among flower beds and arches, sunlit tiles and shaded arcades, students will see that the smallest details help to express the whole. As a place restored, Stanford can be an example to those who would look beyond the ubiquitous influence of cars and other small-scale conveniences. The Stanford of the 21st century might not be perfect, but it does suggest that all the glories of 19th-century landscape design can live again. And that is an exciting prospect. SR

Michael Cannell is an author living in New York City. His first book, I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism, a biography of the noted architect, was published in 1995 by Crown. This article first appeared in the September-October 1996 issue of Stanford Today.