Is This UTopia?

A Long-Overdue University Master Plan is Unveiled

by Mike Clark-Madison The war room for the University of Texas' campus master-planners is on the top floor of the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center, also known as the Undergraduate Library, or UGL, to which at least two generations of students have added the inevitable "Y," and not without cause. Frzom this aerie, the strategists of the new Forty Acres have vantage of the old Forty Acres, with its buff stone and red tile roofs and pervasive sense of architectural grace. But when the chair of the Faculty Building Advisory Committee, Austin Gleeson, takes you into this sanctum, he makes you start at his office in Robert Lee Moore Hall (RLM), the looming nexus of the university's "nerd corner" and on the short list of the city's ugliest buildings, especially on its lemon-yellow inside. The rationale, it seems, is that the worst should come first, and as you move away from RLM and toward the Tower, Gleeson delivers a running disquisition on how the university's much-admired campus planning went terribly wrong, and how the current 14-month, $1.1 million planning process aims to make it right again.

Depending on what god-forsaken hulk at the frontier of campus was your home-away-from-home, you can map your own vector from UT's hellish fringe to its, if not heavenly, at least pleasant interior. There's the communications school at 26th and the Drag, anchored by the infamous Boxcar, a building which after rusting for two decades started to hurl jagged chunks of its metal skin at passing students. There's Jester Center, the largest dorm in the cosmos and probably the closest known human analogue to living in a chicken coop. And there's the LBJ Library and its attached Sid Richardson Hall, a complex that musters a faint smidgen, maybe, of the grandeur it was intended to possess - a building described by one architecture writer, wittily if opaquely, as resembling "a malevolent flat-headed fish squatting in wait on the ocean floor."

Yes, it's pretty much a no-brainer to assert, as did Gleeson and his Campus Master Plan Committee, that today's UT is "an unnecessarily fragmented campus, both functionally and aesthetically. There is a strong resolve to improve on the campus character that has been developed over the last 30 years." Or at least there is now; Gleeson, also the chair of the physics department, recounts how concerned members of the campus community have been making noise for at least a decade about UT's failures as a built environment. This displeasure, diffuse if strongly felt, was crystallized when administrators unveiled their plans for a new Student Services Building, going up right now off of 26th Street. "They wanted to put this huge building up, and expect students to have to go there routinely, and they put it up on this four-lane highway with no pedestrian access," Gleeson says in a clipped East Coast brogue that accentuates his disgust. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Alas, the president of the university at the time was Bill Cunningham, the cultural descendant of a long line of UT kingpins - presidents Stephen Spurr, Lorene Rogers, and Peter Flawn, and Regents chair Frank Erwin - whose fantasies of an independent and omnipotent "multiversity" led to UT's fragmenting in the first place. Now kicked upstairs to the chancellorship of the UT System, Cunningham as president displayed a seemingly innate talent for alienating the majority of the 75,000 or so members of the UT community. "Cunningham preferred to work through a small circle of administrators and never listened to the faculty," Gleeson notes, adding that the advice offered by the Faculty Building Advisory Committee (FBAC) was seldom if ever heeded during Cunningham's tenure.

Gleeson and his committee, along with voices from the student community, from staff, from adjacent neighborhoods, and from the university's own well-regarded School of Architecture, coalesced around the goal of a new master plan about the time Cunningham was taking his leave. The idea percolated until current president Robert Berdahl arrived from the University of Illinois. "When Berdahl got here, they had just completed a master plan at Illinois, so he was incredibly receptive," Gleeson says. One of Berdahl's earliest official acts, in September of 1993, was to appoint the Campus Master Plan Committee; a year later, the University hired A-list architect Cesar Pelli and his firm to create the plan, which is set for approval by the Board of Regents at their January meeting.

The whole idea idea of a master plan - imposing order on a chaotic world and perfecting the human-crafted environment - encapsulates all the ideals and values that make architecture sexy and inspirational and mystical and a fit subject for Ayn Rand. The UT gig, its ample recompense aside, attracted attention from ranks of architects comparable to Pelli in stature. But then, it always has. Until the early 1970s - the point at which ill-conceived modern monoliths started to spring up like mushrooms around the edges of the Forty Acres - UT managed its growth with the help of a succession of consulting architects, many of whom could have been doing something more lucrative and glamorous.

Most of what we see in the original Forty Acres - the portion of campus between 21st and 24th Streets, the Drag and Speedway, formerly Lampasas Street - is the work of two of those consulting architects. The first serious attempt to master-plan the campus - or at least the first attempt to find favor with the Regents - was undertaken around 1910 by Cass Gilbert, who to this day remains a big name in American architectural history. Compared to the early skyscrapers and public monoliths on which his fame rests - the Supreme Court Building in D.C., the Woolworth Building and George Washington Bridge in New York - Gilbert's contributions to the UT campus, of which Battle and Sutton Halls are still standing, were miniatures. But their style - the vaguely Spanish red-tile-roof and limestone look - set the tone for the rest of the core campus. Battle, built in 1911 as the first university library, is the second-oldest building on the main UT campus, the oldest being the pre-Gilbert 1904 Student Services Building, adjacent to the Tower. The latter - which despite its antiquity isn't a particularly "important" building - is currently undergoing major structural renovation, costing more than $250 a square foot, and is destined to be the development wing, where donors are fêted and impressed.

While the buildings themselves proved a powerful influence, Gilbert's actual plan was never really followed, and is completely indiscernible in UT's modern-day footprint. It instead fell to Paul Philippe Cret (pronounced "Cray"), UT's consulting architect from 1930 to 1950, to take the Gilbert look and generalize it into a complete campus, whose virtues have only lately been obscured by the school's latter day sprawl. Cret, a French emigré based in Philadelphia, had a similar pedigree as Gilbert, with prestigious D.C. commissions (the Folger Library) and progressive urban fixtures (Philly's Delaware River Bridge). Unlike his predecessor, he got to work on the same scale in Austin; such campus landmarks as the Tower, the Texas Union, Mary Gearing Hall, and the Texas Memorial Museum are all Cret's handiwork. Even the snorting beasts of the Littlefield Fountain, sculpted by Pompeo Coppini, were sited by Cret in a manner that much displeased their creator. (From the description of what Coppini had in mind, though - laden with hokey symbolism about the reunion of North and South, or somesuch - we all owe Cret an extra debt of gratitude.)

Beyond the structures themselves, Cret created the axis of malls that intersect at the Tower, articulated the desired size and density of future campus buildings, and codified the UT look: a hybrid of Mediterranean influences, classical elements, and Moderne "WPA style," so familiar to Austinites that we forget how unique it is, and how much better it looks than most developments of similar vintage (for example, Dallas' Fair Park). It's no accident that, despite its age and density and far distance from many of UT's major activities, the core of campus is where everyone hangs out. Gleeson notes that, in the standard survey he uses to garner input, he asks respondents to identify what part of campus works best. "By a huge margin, the answer is the original Forty Acres," he says. "It's the most used and dense and still the most successful - it's not only attractive but functional. This portion" - he picks up the miniature cardboard Tower on the master-plan model - "works. This portion" - he picks up Robert Lee Moore Hall - "doesn't work."

The "Cret aesthetic" is the sacred text of the current master-plan effort - its presentation packet is graced by Cret's original drawing for the Tower, and the mid-point status report asserts that "hardly anyone can come to campus and not feel the impact of Cret's careful, well-scaled design." Following this quote are the two most telling words in the whole document: "For contrast, Figure 3 shows the current status of the campus." (Figure 3 is the standard-issue campus map with the little three-letter codes.) The $64 question - or the $1.1 million question - is how the Cret aesthetic can be imposed on the rest of UT's 357 acres. It's easy enough to say that future UT construction should look like it belongs on campus - at present, the war room is papered with photos of architectural details that please the Pelli team, and with drawings that translate this array of porticos, window arrays, grillwork, and roof pitches into design guidelines for future construction. But that still leaves RLM and the Boxcar and the nascent Student Services behemoth.

It is in the latter light that the choice of Pelli makes the most sense, given that the architect's most famous commissions - New York's Museum of Modern Art, or the corporate headquarters for the COMSAT telecom consortium and for high-tech giant Teledyne - aptly symbolize his aesthetic. While a resolute modernist, Pelli's repute within the trade rests more on mixed-purpose developments, integrated structures and landscapes, and the like - exactly the sort of portfolio UT needs. Plus, his co-principal, Fred Clark, is a Texas Ex. "They presented what was undoubtedly the most robust vision of the future," says Gleeson.

Before hiring Pelli, the committee had narrowed down its discontents into a list of main planning considerations. Foremost among them was a desire to regain a sense of campus community, with open and public spaces that would bring the engineering geeks in RLM together with the creative slackers in the nearby Fine Arts Complex, for example. Another main goal was to make better use of existing buildings in the core campus, and meet the university's inexorable space needs with infill, rather than marching across Central Austin over the corpses of once-distant neighborhoods. Other specifications include the creation of the sort of design guidelines currently in progress, improved attention to mobility and infrastructure needs, and much better "wayfinding" around the chaotic campus.

And then there's the following, words many Austinites never thought they'd see printed on UT letterhead: "The campus does not exist as an island in the city, but... depends heavily on residential, commercial and institutional environments around it. The campus must have strong functional connections to its surroundings." When Bob Berdahl moves on to greener pastures, he will be remembered as perhaps the first UT president ever, certainly the first in most students' lifetimes, to notice that there's a big city out there, and that 90% of its residents do not rely on UT to make their lives complete, and that many of them see, in the failings of the UT campus, the arrogance of the university writ large in bricks and mortar. It is, after all, the gross, ugly parts of campus that outsiders have to see every day - the nicer parts are walled off from the Drag, which, with its seemingly endemic crowds, dirt, and miscreance, itself forms a cultural wall between Longhornland and the rest of Austin.

The disjunction between town and gown involves more than just the campus' homeliness; the school's actual location, sitting like Jabba the Hutt atop (or very near) Austin's geographic center, has for years given the city and its citizens fits. When Edwin Waller surveyed Austin back in 1839, what he called "College Hill" was a long way off from the center of town, which petered out into a fringe of farmsteads along North Avenue, today's 15th Street. Even by the time UT was actually established on that site, in 1882, the campus was still some distance from the action, and neighborhoods like Hyde Park that flanked it were considered bona fide suburbs. Such siting is more-or-less typical of big schools in big cities - off to one side, in a separate and easily defined "university district" that, though it may be comparatively central, ain't downtown.

Not only is UT downtown - or at least within the big-D Downtown of current vogue - but its land use patterns would be unconscionable on most other campuses, or for that matter most other city centers. You can, if deemed worthy, drive right up to your building? But you can't go through campus, even though it blocks the city's street grid? There are how many surface parking spaces on campus? 12,000 or more? And maybe 0.5% of them are dedicated to public use, even though the campus contains a clutch of sports and entertainment venues? There's no mass transit within the campus? Not even bike lanes? How many students can live on campus? Less than half of the freshman class? The fact that UT, with its most uncompact ways, occupies the heart of the wannabe-compact city poses a paradox - the university provides Central Austin with many of its Big-Time amenities, but also many of its limitations: the congestion, skewed demographics, upward pressure on rents and downward pressure on neighborhoods and housing stock, and horrendous traffic problems.

All these concerns are clearly understood, if not given primacy, by both UT's planners and the Pelli team; many of the big-news changes in the plan-as-now-conceived would help make the campus not only a better thing but a better place, improving it both as an institution (which matters little to the bulk of Austin citizens) and as a neighborhood (which matters a great deal). For example, the planners seem dead serious about making the UT area as vehicle-free as possible. The plan calls for eliminating traffic entirely on 24th Street and on Speedway; reconfiguring the Guadalupe and 26th Street margins of campus with plazas, ample pedestrian amenities, green fingers and the like, to make them streets instead of highways; and shifting at least half of the current surface parking to new garages at the periphery of campus.

Along with these moves go elaborate revisions and upgrades to the transit situation - new shuttles, better shuttles, real bus stops on campus, people-mover systems within campus (successor to the ill-fated propane-powered trams of several years back, which Gleeson calls "the Disney trains"), a whole new (and probably too extensive, truth be told) infrastructure for bicyclists, all with the light-rail cherry on top. This last move represents at least a small turnaround; when Capital Metro first pitched light rail back in 1991, the plan met with vivid hostility from West Campus businesses and telling silence from most of the UT power structure. The new draft plan includes, in the planners' view, both better routing through the campus area and more useful connections between campus, the Riverside Drive student ghetto, and Bergstrom Airport-to-be.

The campus acreage now devoted to unwanted surface parking, along with a number of the kinda useless open spaces left as remnants from the temple-building of the 1970s and Eighties, is slated by the Pelli people for infill development, which they expect to add 4.7 million gross square feet to the UT physical plant, or a 30% increase over the current total. This is expected to eliminate the need for further land grabs for at least 25 more years, though the school would still pick up odd lots in between its current holdings and may, at some point, still have to move activities out to its satellite holdings like the Pickle Campus (formerly Balcones Research Center), the Brackenridge Tract along Town Lake, and the Whitaker Field sports complex on 51st Street. (Under the plan, which pretty much eliminates the few rec-sports fields remaining on campus, all intramurals would have to be consolidated at Whitaker.)

On the sprawling 3-D model created by the Pelli team - which, for now, seems to be the only real campus-wide map illustrating the plan - the existing structures are white, and the new structures beige; the infill spreads across campus like an inkblot, filling in bunches of odd nooks and crannies that, right now, you scarcely realize are available open space. For example, the space in front of Jester and the Perry-Castañeda Library, on either side of Speedway just north of MLK, is slated to accommodate half a dozen new dorm buildings, a portion of the many thousands of new residential units - double what's available now - that are incorporated into the plan. Another long string of linked low-rise buildings arcs along Waller Creek, skirting the edge of what is now Clark Field. Most of the new buildings, both dorms and otherwise, are much smaller than what currently exists on campus; indeed, Gleeson notes, the Pelli team was sent back to its drafting tables after their first massing study, since none of the buildings they proposed was large enough to hold either the psychology department or the Huntington Art Gallery, both of which are on the short list for new homes.

Actually, aside from the dorm spaces, few if any of the proposed infill structures have a specific purpose in mind; in planning-speak, they are "unprogrammed." "This is the problem with a lot of these new buildings we have," Gleeson says, referring to RLM, et al. "They're all so heavily programmed you can't do anything else with them, which is not how the Cret plan works. All those academic buildings have changed their uses several times and can do so again. That's what we're looking for." Tying much of this together is a sort of superstructure for the campus, a zone-based concept in which different areas, linked to different gateways, perform different functions for different people. To wit, the current pedestrian entrance beside the Union, off the Drag, becomes a much larger walk-in gateway, the prospective student entrance. Campus visitors, who currently are encouraged to enter campus from its desolate eastern side, would instead come up a fully landscaped University Avenue, with a gateway right by the Littlefield Fountain. Staff and faculty would come in at Congress/Speedway and MLK, from which they could easily reach parking garages. And the hoi polloi coming to football games and the like - given that most of those facilities are in the eastern third of campus - would enter through a new Manor Road gateway, which would connect all the way across I-35 and would indeed have its own exit on the Interstate, in lieu of the current 26th Street offramp. (The Texas Department of Transportation apparently thinks this is a great idea.)

The Campus Master Plan appears to have addressed many of the obvious failures and inadequacies of UT's planning heretofore, and its creators are discernibly, and justifiably, proud of themselves. But will it actually happen? One way in which the planners hope to ensure some follow-through and continuity is by writing into the plan a set of instructions - how to pick architects for building projects, how to implement different elements over time, and what dimensions of the plan need further study (traffic patterns being the most manifest). "We can make a plan that will work, and build support for efforts to make it work," says Gleeson. "But it won't work all by itself. This will be an ongoing process; before we can really create this vision, we have a long way to go." n

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle