Stanford Report Online

Neuman leaves landscape built on clarity, 'sense of place'


It takes some imagination to conjure up an image of the Stanford that greeted architect David Neuman when he arrived here in March 1989. The Quad and Memorial Church were impressive, but Palm Drive had as many potholes as palm trees, Serra Street was clogged with automobiles from Via Ortega to Lasuen Street, and the classic order envisaged by landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted was buried beneath layers of asphalt.

After nearly 15 years, Neuman is departing Stanford to become architect for the University of Virginia; he is leaving behind a campus that, though it boasts luminous new architecture, has been not so much reinvented as it has been regained. Through the construction of the Science and Engineering Quad and a dozen smaller projects, the campus' original east-west axis is clearly visible again, like a once-cluttered room swept clean. Once degraded, the Stanford campus of the 21st century is now one that suggests "all the glories of 19th-century landscape design can live again," architecture critic Michael Cannell wrote in 1997.

The campus transformation over recent years was "the product of great imagination and determination -- due to a substantial extent to David Neuman," said President Emeritus Gerhard Casper. "His effect on the campus is very hard to overstate."

"From the day [Neuman] walked in and started talking about how things should be done, there's been a significant change in the visibility and impact of the campus," said Herb Fong, grounds services manager.

The sandstone buildings in the Quad and Memorial Church initially attracted Neuman, who came to Stanford from the University of California-Irvine. But it was two controversial buildings -- the Gilbert Biological Sciences Building, with curving green windows, and the Littlefield Management Center -- that got him the job, he said. In an architectural guide he later co-wrote, Neuman described the latter building as not only "violating" Olmsted's plan but also "awkwardly banging" into the older business school building.

University trustees, disturbed at the lack of clear oversight over the siting and design of campus buildings, took action. Neuman, who has a master's degree in architecture as well as a master's degree in American studies, became the first university architect since Charles Coolidge worked with Leland and Jane Stanford in the 1880s and 1890s.

Overseeing campus design, with an initial emphasis on the northwest campus plan, was intended to be the major challenge of his job, Neuman said. The Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989, which struck six months after he took the job, changed everything, he said.

Neuman was in the Department of Computer Science, then housed in Margaret Jacks Hall, vigorously debating where a new computer science building should be built when the earthquake struck. (After the shaking stopped, Professor Nils J. Nilsson, then chair of the department, told him, "We won't ever argue with you again, if you can command that authority," Neuman recalled.)

After the quake, all new building stopped while the architect directed his attention to negotiating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and working through repairs to more than 100 damaged campus buildings.

Any university architect who had to deal with the restoration of the campus after a fairly substantial earthquake would forever be remembered in history, Casper said. Neuman made use of Loma Prieta to make improvements.

Casper became president in 1992, but even before he assumed the office, the two had discussions about campus architecture, Neuman said. "I have to say we formed a good relationship," he added.

One of their first projects was to renew Palm Drive, which was so poorly maintained, it looked almost like a farm road, Neuman said. Palm Drive had never really been finished, and Neuman went looking for the roots of the original design in Olmsted's plans. Once completed, the granite curbs installed along Palm Drive make a line that varies less than an inch along their length, creating a nearly perfect frame for the vista of the foothills and Memorial Church.

It was an incredibly important project, Neuman said. "It wasn't a building, it was infrastructure -- something people use every day." It was also an awakening of how much things had deteriorated. It wasn't just that the potholes in the street were gone, it was that the whole sense of presence of Palm Drive had been restored, he said.

As work on Serra Mall and other projects followed, "piece after piece, people started to see that it not only looked better but worked better. We have a simple, well-ordered original plan," he said. "We didn't need to reinvent; we needed to go back and implement it."

The university also started work on what Neuman termed an "amazing set of projects," major restorations and new buildings influenced by President Casper's requirement that there be design competitions for every major project on campus. The last decade brought the work of architects including James Ingo Freed (Science and Engineering Quad), Robert A. M. Stern (Gates Building) and Sir Norman Foster (Center for Clinical Sciences Research and Clark Center).

"As important as the buildings are individually, the campus is a real gestalt," Neuman said last week. "The architecture sits in that, but that place has to be there. If you took away the landscape and you took away the order of this place and just kept the same buildings, it wouldn't be Stanford."

One of the things he has appreciated is the teamwork and collaboration between his office and the operations unit, he said. "The work that operations does is incredibly important," he said. Campus planning is not just about putting something in place, it's maintaining it, he said. "It's what it will look like in 10 weeks or 10 years. That's not just the design. That's working on the landscape, replanting the oaks, maintaining the palm trees, cleaning the sidewalks. If that didn't happen, we wouldn't have the same sense of place."

Neuman's departure is a big loss, but he has left the university equipped for the future, said Ruth Todd, associate architect. "One of the things that David always said is, 'What's the plan? There needs to be a vision to move forward.' He was always very busy, but there has been a vision in his head that he communicates to staff, so that we understand that vision and implement and communicate it with others."

It's extremely hard to leave, Neuman said. Although he already is at work at the University of Virginia, he returned last week to work on the conceptual plan for the campus center. He was still packing last Friday (arranging among other things, for the shipment of his cockatiel, Leland, to Virginia).

He accepted the offer to go to the University of Virginia, where the third U.S. president designed buildings in the 180-year-old academic complex, because, "well, it's Jefferson," he said. There are plenty of challenges as well. The university plans to build a new sports and performing arts center, extending the academic core. There also are plans for medical school construction along the conceptual model of the Clark Center, he said. Additionally, Neuman has an adjunct faculty position at the university's School of Architecture.

"In American campus planning, the University of Virginia is the paradigm. Not that Stanford isn't incredible. I couldn't resist the temptation." Also, he said, he remembered "what my friend John Gardner used to say: You need to repot yourself periodically in order to continue to be creative and stay young."

David Neuman