The Austin Chronicle

UT's Master Plan Disaster?

So Far, School's New Buildings Receive Low Marks

By Mike Clark-Madison, August 29, 1997, News

Welcome to the corner of 26th Street -- which is now Dean (Page) Keeton Street -- and Speedway, which used to be Lampasas Street but is -- for now -- still Speedway. Here at the University of Texas' "geek corner" -- where most of the science and engineering departments are imprisoned, cut off from the rest of campus, in oversized and unfriendly custom-built halls with shockingly ugly interiors -- is where the university's Campus Master Plan was born.

Since 1994, UT has, with much fanfare and expert professional help, sought to correct the planning failures of postwar Longhorn kingpins, the wrongheaded decisions that gave us such tragedies as this corner. The resulting master plan was formally adopted in early 1996, apparently too late to modify the new projects, visible from this corner, on the leading edge of the current UT building boom. Even now, with a plan in place, the advocates of what we once called "UTopia" have their work cut out for them. A look at some of UT's newest buildings reveals that the architectural tastes of the school's Regents may have been considered a higher priority than than the tenets spelled out in the Campus Master Plan.

The most glaring example: Right at the corner of Keeton and Speedway sits the new Louise and James Robert Moffett Molecular Biology Building, not quite finished but close enough. Fairness dictates we divorce our observations of the building from our feelings about its namesake donors, the CEO of Freeport-McMoRan and his wife, he being the most vilified figure in recent Austin history. This is a good thing, because Barton Springs Zone developer Jim Bob has enough bad press without bearing Moffett Hall's sins as well.

The Campus Master Plan loudly calls for a unified aesthetic and functional framework for the campus, derived from the work of Paul Cret, who gave us the Mediterranean Moderne look of the Tower and the walking-scale plan of the original Forty Acres. (The plan's de facto logo is Cret's original drawing for the Tower.) The flip side is revulsion at the campus' many ugly and ill-situated buildings of more recent vintage, a rogue's gallery of 20th-century architecture -- the LBJ Library, the Perry-Castañeda Library, Jester Center, the College of Communication, Robert Lee Moore Hall... you get the point. (The okay newer buildings, like the Fine Arts Complex and the Rec Sports Center, are few and lonely.) Moffett Hall is well within the unfortunate latter tradition, infected by all the hip and hot trends -- in this case Postmodern Pop à la Michael Graves -- and doomed to look dated tomorrow and ridiculous the day after.

Of course, in a site like Moffett, tightly wedged well within the UT campus footprint and adjacent to vintage buildings like old Welch Hall, Experimental Science, and the remains of Anna Hiss Gym, generic good taste is a clearly better approach than attention-seeking postmodern display, but it's too late for that. Sadly, Moffett is at best a blurry reproduction of its sources -- it tries to be loud and proud and witty, but instead comes off as simply tacky, a 200-foot-long Vegas hooker turned to stone.

Building As Leather Queen

To be precise, the Moffett building is not really stone, but rather, cast concrete dyed to match limestone, and sandstone, and granite, and then striped and swirled like seven-layer dip across the self-consciously "monumental" facade, in blobby medallions joining the windows, along the curved and bloated panels that decapitate the entryway, and up the superfluous gables with superfluous portholes, creating in profile the accidental silhouette of Woodsy Owl. (Give a hoot! Don't pollute!) This clashes, needless to say, with the aquamarine (!) window frames, and that color continues inside, in the carpet and on the walls and on fat-assed and closely spaced columns that maintain that special Vegas look, Caesars Palace variant.

And then there are the studs -- these polished black granite pointy things that cover the building, in regular right-angled lines that harmonize poorly with the curved and parfaited surfaces beneath them. The studs extend right up to adjacent buildings like Experimental Science, slated for near-term renovation and hopefully not destined for similar architectural bondage-tart wear. They also cover the interior of the entryway, making entry to Moffett like running a gauntlet, with granite spikes poised to spring out, sword-and-sorcery style, and impale unlucky wayfarers.

So, if we're judging it against the premise of the Campus Master Planning Committee that UT is "an unnecessarily fragmented campus, both functionally and aesthetically, [and] there is a strong resolve to improve on the campus character... developed over the last 30 years," then Moffett gets a big red F, with no extra credit for being "distinctive."

The Moffett Molecular Biology Building

photograph by John Anderson

Across 26th and a couple of blocks toward the drag sits the new Student Services Building (SSB), which helped spawn the Campus Master Plan, and whose grade should perhaps be an incomplete.

As physics professor Austin Gleeson, chair of both the Campus Master Planning Committee and the Faculty Building Advisory Committee, described it in 1995, when the SSB was first unveiled, UT administrators "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. That was the straw that broke the camel's back." Now it's here, and broken back or not, the SSB is still too large and looming for its site, and still has no pedestrian access across 26th, which is actually a six-lane divided arterial where drivers routinely exceed the posted speed by half.

But at least the SSB, unlike Moffett, came from the same head that spawned the Forty Acres -- not as elegant as Cret's buildings, and certainly inconsistent with Cret's premises about building size and location, but not a total rejection either, with its limestone-buff facade punctuated by red terra cotta. And inside the well-appointed interior -- roomy without being monstrous, complete with atrium and artfully inclined exposed escalator -- you'll find something missing from almost any postwar building on the UT campus -- natural light. The building's major tenant, University Health Services, née the Student Health Center, might still be known to all as the "Quack Shack," but perhaps "Quack Manor" would be more apt.

Energy in Action

The walk down Speedway, from Keeton toward the twin monsters of Jester and PCL, takes in a nice cross-section of UT's architecture and encompasses much of the current and proposed construction. Adjacent to Moffett are Experimental Science, mentioned earlier, and Welch Hall, destined for safety improvements after one too many fires in one too many chemistry labs full of hazardous materials. (Former Austin Fire Chief Robin Paulsgrove, weary of seeing his crews' lives at risk, got the Welch rehab put on the fast track.)

Then comes the East Mall and the Tower, and next to it the former Student Services Building (Gebauer Hall), the oldest building on campus (1903), undergoing expensive and protracted restoration to house the Dean of Liberal Arts. Across Speedway you find Taylor Hall, the closest thing on campus to a Bauhaus building -- check out the terra cotta plaques depicting Energy in Action -- and Gregory Gym, the closest thing to a Gothic Revival building. (The newer Gregory extension is blander, but its full-length windows are joined by stylized cast-concrete Longhorn heads, the sort of witty gesture that Moffett fails to pull off.)

Gregory is currently behind a construction fence, its renovation being another high-ticket high point of the UT building boom. The concept drawing outside the gym shows happy students at play, but the renovation is also creating a new broadcast-ready home for the now-very-popular UT volleyball team, which used to labor in Gregory amidst the bad smells and cockroaches.

Which neatly segues into the other half of UT's current construction spree -- the gold-plating of Longhorn athletics, including the addition of now-notorious luxury skyboxes to the newly named Darrell Royal-Memorial Stadium. (Even with the obligatory hyphen, the name will always sound weird until Royal actually dies.) On top of Gregory and Royal-Memorial, UT's sporting set will soon have a new women's softball stadium, east of campus in the Blackland neighborhood, whose violation by UT is a long-running Austin horror story only recently resolved. (The stadium backs up to Leona Street, the Green Line dividing UT East from what remains of Blackland.)

Next to it is the new University Interscholastic League building, which means UIL honchos will get to watch firsthand the mob chaos that comes with high-school tourneys at the stadium and the Erwin Center. (Right now, UIL resides amidst UT's quiet Lake Austin landholdings.) Still to come -- Board of Regents willing (as if) -- are a real soccer-and-track stadium, renovation, and expansion of what is now the Neuhaus-Moncrief Athletic Center next to Memorial, and yet more skyboxes and seats and improvements to Memorial itself, including lowering the football field.

An Appetite for Opulence

There are other new projects on the table, including a new child development building, a new home for the Huntington Art Gallery, and a future Digital Sciences building, along with new student housing and more parking garages (one of which is already near completion) to reduce the astounding amount of acreage wasted at UT on surface parking. These hold some more hope for the future success of the Campus Master Plan, even if the current crop of construction does not.

Of course, today's new tasteless temples and extravagant athletic facilities have nothing to do with the plan, and everything to do with the UT System Board of Regents, whose appetite for monument and tribute and public accolade rivals that of Louis XIV, and of system Chancellor and former UT President Bill Cunningham, whose discomfort with democratic exercises like the master plan process is equally regal in mien. Missing from the scene now, of course, is Cunningham's successor Robert Berdahl, a vocal and enthusiastic champion of the master plan effort.

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1. New student Services Building
2. Moffett Building
3. Gregory Gym
4. Old Student Services/Gebauer Hall
5. Memorial Stadium -- Neuhaus/Moncrief
6. Women's Softball Field