Boos for the Big House
Architects critique the U-M campus
Published in January, 2009
Last month we asked six local architects to evaluate downtown's newest buildings. This month they turn their eyes to the U-M campus. Campus buildings earned some of our panel's harshest criticism-and their highest praise.
The quarter-billion-dollar expansion of Michigan Stadium crowns Fielding Yost's historic hole in the ground with eighty-three sky box suites and 3,000 club seats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the project that garnered the most vitriol.
John Mouat's first reaction to the stadium renovation is nostalgia for the original Big House. "Twenty years ago, you barely knew it was there," he recalls fondly. "You walked up to it and you didn't really see anything. And then you entered it, and it was this huge bowl! It was really impressive-and unique."
His own firm, Mitchell and Mouat, successfully combined traditional and modern elements in its designs for the Washtenaw County Administration Building and the Fourth and Washington parking structure. But remaking the stadium, Mouat says, was "a no-win situation. If it was radical, people would have fried them. If it was conservative, people would say they're not radical enough. They're trying to bridge that. Whether they'll succeed, I don't know."
When it comes to the stadium, Mouat's willingness to suspend judgment is as good as it gets. "It's hideous, pompous, and pretentious," says Carl Luckenbach, emphasizing each word. "It's brutal monumentalism run rampant." The architect of the Pittsfield and Malletts Creek branch libraries particularly deplores the "appalling pseudo-Colosseum archways on Main Street. You half expect Christians to be fed to the lions during halftime."
"It was a huge, huge mistake to change the design of the stadium," laments retired U-M architecture and urban planning dean Bob Beckley. "And the tragedy is that they had the opportunity to make a distinctive building. While a big part of the old stadium's genius was its lightness, the additions make it look massive and heavy." Beckley pays the project the ultimate M-go-Blue insult: "They're making it look more like the Ohio State
stadium, which can't be their intention-can it?"
Most of the architects also abhor 202 South Thayer. Opened in 2006, the six-floor office building at Thayer and Washington went up literally in the shadow of the likewise almost unanimously abominated Corner House Lofts.
"I find that building very disappointing," says Luckenbach with a glint of anger in his eyes, "but more for what it says about the university than for the building itself. It shows the university doesn't care about its impact on neighborhoods, that it's not high on their priority list-that they may not even have a priority list."
"I don't like that building," concurs Marc Rueter with a slight shudder. Rueter, who has designed dozens of small-scale residential and commercial projects around town, says 202 Thayer "has a real mean streak. There's not enough glazing, and it's unpleasant to walk past."
"It's so ugly you might say the virtue of Corner House Lofts is that it hides that building," laughs Bob Beckley. "But, seriously, it looks like it got lost in committee-like the university kept beating the architects down until they finally said 'Let's just do it, collect our check, and get out of town.'"
Mike Quinn, of nationally known restoration masters Quinn Evans | Architects, can't suppress a sigh when asked about 202 Thayer: "Oh, boy. One of the bad things about Corner House Lofts is that it empowered the university to make a building just as tall right next to it. As for the building, the facade could have been more exciting with more detailing and windows. I find the entire building lacking in vision."
"In general, the university does high-quality projects," says John Mouat. "But not here. This looks like something put up in a hurry with a low budget."
Only Roy Strickland, who directs the U-M's program in urban design, has kind words for 202 Thayer-and even he hopes it will fade from view. "It's a good corner building," he says. "And when North Quad is finished across the street, it's going to move from a foreground to a background building."
Even Carl Luckenbach likes the Biomedical Science Research Building. The nearly half-million-square-foot building hugs the bend where Huron becomes Washtenaw with a glass-sheathed, curving facade that wraps around the "Pringle"-a potato-chip-shaped auditorium.
"I find that building inspiring," says Quinn. "It's elegant, exciting, forward looking, and a great example of a nationally important building right here in Ann Arbor. And the potato chip is fun and delightful."
"It was a pathetic, totally nondescript corner," recalls Marc Rueter, "and now it has one of the university's more successful buildings. I particularly like its transparent glazing so you can read the structure through it."
"The atrium space is a real pleasure to walk through," says Strickland. "The architect [New York's Polshek Parnership] realized people needed an alternative way to move through that block, so he's giving them the choice of walking outside at the edge of the building or walking inside through this atrium-a pretty sophisticated move, in my opinion. And he treats it like a galleria and arranged it like a street, with a cafe with tables and chairs."
Carl Luckenbach again leads the criticism when talk turns to the School of Public Policy's Weill Hall. "That's an ugly building with acute massing problems," he declares. "It's extremely ponderous and looms over the intersection. And I question its neotraditional style with its comfortable images of a bygone era that evoke images of childhood. We have a word for that in my profession-'architectural comfort food.'"
"The main entrance is at State and Hill Street but the parking lot is in the back, so many people are going to come in that way," comments Strickland. "It raises the question [of] what is the relationship between parking and a building's entrances. If you have a parking lot in the back of the building, does it not in effect become the de facto face of the building?"
Bob Beckley, too, is disappointed: "I've not been in it-and I don't want to go in it. They said the building on that site would function as a gateway to Central Campus, but in fact it feels rather unwelcoming because it's just too big."
Only preservationist Mike Quinn defends Weill Hall-he calls it a "generally successful building. I'm impressed with the quality of the detail and with its relationship to the whole. I'm sometimes concerned that the university presses too much volume into its buildings. But although a floor or two less would have been better, because it's a government building I think its monumentality is appropriate."
Opinions cover the critical gamut when it comes to North Quad, the 360,000-square-foot dorm-classroom-office building going up on the old Frieze Building-Ann Arbor High School site.
"It has all the negatives the Weill Building has along with the same monumental mind-set," says Luckenbach, "which makes sense since it's the same architect [Robert Stern]." But Beckley disagrees. "It's turning out better than I thought," he says. "It has some of the same problems as the Weill Building, true, but it solves them better, possibly because Stern was hired after the first architect left."
Rueter also foresees that North Quad "will be far more successful than the Weill Building. It has a nice termination on Thayer with a nice tower at that end."
"I'm hopeful it'll be a success," says Quinn. "The regents rightly rejected the first design as a bad design, but the second design is better."
And John Mouat practically raves about the project. "It's going to be great," he predicts of North Quad. "It's a major, important site in town, and this is a good use of the site."
"It's going to be big, certainly," agrees Strickland, "and with Corner House Lofts, it's going to bring a lot more activity at that end of State Street. Stern's buildings are highly controversial because of their overt associations with the past. But the courtyard building is a very strong type, and it's going to define Huron and State, as well as the opening toward campus, in a highly positive way."
Along with Biomedical Science, the other project that everyone on our panel loves is the $42 million restoration and expansion of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Even the often-dour Luckenbach finds the project "exciting, precisely because it's going to challenge people with a new experience of architecture."
"People are excited by that building," echoes John Mouat, "and rightly so, because it's so radical. But if you look at it in relation to the original building, it's not really radical. In fact, it actually works nicely in the context of the original building."
"When I first saw the drawings, I hated it," admits Rueter. "But when I saw the model, I liked it-a lot. And now that it's almost done, I can say I think I'm going to like that building."
"As a piece of architecture," says Strickland, "that's quite an elegant building, one of the more successful on campus or in town. My only misgiving is that they've moved the main entrance to the new building. It's not uncommon when you have an old building with a new addition for the entrance to move to the new building. But in this case it's a shame, because the old building was such a jewel box. It was such a pleasure to walk up the steps past the columns and into the main hall. It was like entering a different world."
Topping out at twelve stories, and with an estimated cost of $525 million, the new Mott Hospital is financially and physically the biggest structure the university has ever built. Yet when we asked the architects for their thoughts, they were initially stymied. Though the skeleton of the new hospital for women and children is already rising next to the Nichols Arboretum, it's hard to see from outside the Medical Campus.
With the priming of a rendering and a video tour of the hospital, though, the words all but spill forth from four of the six. (John Mouat says he'll "leave it to my esteemed colleagues to weigh in on that one"; Roy Strickland, finishing a building of his own in New York, didn't reply to an emailed query.)
"Mott looks like a half a billion dollars of generic hospital," says Luckenbach with typical acridity. "I saw nothing in the virtual tour to indicate that it will have any architectural interest or distinction. Even the colors are predictably insipid-but then, when was the last time you saw any hospital with any design quality?"
"More beige wall cladding for the Medical Center Campus is not good," agrees Rueter. Still, he says, the design "does have a certain apparent lightness that seems to be a trend for new buildings on the Medical Campus-a nice contrast to the ponderous Kahn-designed main hospital.
"If Mott is half as good as the new Shepley Bulfinch [-designed] Cardiovascular Center, it will be wonderful," Rueter adds. "That building sets the standard for everything else: the entry is sheltered and inviting, the corridors and stairs are open to outside light and views, the interior spaces are gracious and carefully detailed, and it has a fresh, bright interior that is not antiseptic. The sky bridges are among the best I have seen. There is red brick! I could go on."
Coming back to Mott, Beckley says that "the architect and client have attempted to make this institutional building as unlike an institutional building as possible given the constraints of the program, budget, and site. As for its appearance, we'll have to wait and see. The Medical Campus is an island and does little to affront the aesthetic tastes of those who don't use it."
"Like a number of the other recent projects, the university is making an effort to do long-term planning to create a dense campus footprint that is more efficient and green," Mike Quinn says. "The new structure has significant merit as a more human-scaled hospital with a more visually inviting character, even though it will be quite massive. Hopefully it will lead to the desire to explore similar energy-efficient, green-facade improvements on the balance of the hospital complex in future years."
The prospect of a twelve-story hospital right next to the Arb doesn't dismay Quinn in the least. "The Arboretum creates a natural buffer and an interesting edge to the site," he says.
"I doubt if Mott will diminish my pleasure in visiting the Arb," concurs Luckenbach, "even if I can occasionally get a glimpse of it."
Asked what the future holds for campus, Carl Luckenbach is characteristically pessimistic-primarily because of what he calls the university's "schizophrenic building policy. The university seems to have no consistent attitude or philosophy toward building. So you get a building like the Biomedical Science Research Building, which received national awards, and then you get things like the football stadium expansion, which is hideous."
Former dean Beckley, on the other hand, is very optimistic. "It's going to be more livable and more humane," he predicts of the campus of the future. "There's already a real effort to make residence halls places of learning, because, as we've discovered, students learn not just in classrooms but everyplace. More buildings will have coffee shops and Wi-Fi and places to hang out-and more people will hang out. The university will become a more human place, and I'm looking forward to it."
"The university really does have a long-term vision for the future," argues Quinn, who's worked on a number of projects there. "Just think about North Campus. The best thing the university did was open up North Campus in 1956. It gave them a place to expand to in the future."
Strickland, the urban designer, confidently forecasts that "Ann Arbor's future is very strong precisely because it's home to a great university. One of the things this country continues to do well is higher education, and the university will continue to draw people from all over the world.
"And the university is going to grow," he adds, "and as it grows, it'll add faculty plus increasing numbers of students and young people, and people entering their sixties because they'll want to be near the vibrant life of the university-and to the university's hospitals. As the town's population grows, it's going to mean more density and more retail and commercial activity that, if handled well, can continue keep Ann Arbor an exciting town to live and work in-a bright spot in Michigan and a model for other university towns."
[Originally published in January, 2009.]
On February 3, 2009, John Hilton wrote:
"I read the comic pages in the January 2009 edition titled 'Boos for the Big House, Praise for the Pringle,'" Robert Greenough wrote in response to this story. "Reading about architects chewing about the pros and cons of building appearance is as absurd to the general public as listening to wine aficionados discuss wine, or art critics discuss features of modern art. It is highly subjective."
Others joined the subjective debate. "I have heard over and over about people who do not like the design for the new 'Big House,'" emailed Lisa Reach. "While it is a drastic change it does maintain the brick arches that are present on many U of M buildings"-unlike the "garish and hideous new Ross Business School building," one of several campus buildings we omitted for reasons of space.
Toby Citrin spoke up for another overlooked building: "the new structure for the U.M. School of Public Health (where I work). The architect in this case, Jeff Riley of Centerbrook Architects, took a near-impossible task (joining the two very different preexisting buildings) with a new structure providing a grand new entrance, a 'Crossroads Tower' add ing major new space, and various central facilities to bring the School together. The results are stunning."
Stephanie Rieke Miller of the U-M Museum of Art appreciated the praise for UMMA's addition, but noted that Roy Strickland needn't have worried that the museum was changing its main entrance. "In fact, the primary entrance to the museum will remain the ceremonial entryway through the porch of historic Alumni Memorial Hall," Miller emailed. "We look forward to welcoming the entire community to a twenty-four-hour open house celebrating the new UMMA from 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, through 6 p.m. Sunday, March 29, 2009."
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