Sunday, June 20, 2010

June AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The recently completed John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes is a lightning rod in the escalating debate that has pitted athletics against academics on the University of Oregon campus. The building’s expense, over-the-top luxury, and exclusivity further contribute to the perception of many faculty and students that the priorities of the University and its well-heeled donors are misplaced, particularly since Oregon has slipped to 46th in the nation for per capita public spending on higher education. Given this backdrop, it’s no surprise that the exceptional architecture of the Jaqua Center is itself controversial.

The controversy is why I eagerly anticipated the June AIA-SWO chapter meeting. I wanted to understand the motivations that led to a non-contextual response fraught with symbolism, intended or otherwise. Our speaker, Robert Snyder of ZGF Architects, conducted tours of the Jaqua Center and described the project’s design process. As project architect, Robert provided an insider’s perspective that enhanced my understanding of the building and its genesis.(1)

Robert Snyder of ZGF Architects leads a tour of the Jaqua Center (my photo)

Particularly noteworthy was the extent of the client’s involvement in the design of the Jaqua Center. Like many others, I assumed that Nike founder Phil Knight was the project’s primary patron and overseer. In fact, it was Knight’s confidant and Nike special assistant Howard Slusher who played the commanding role in shaping and approving design decisions for the building. He asked for and the Department of Athletics received a place where “learning is cool.” He worked closely with ZGF and its team on the concept of a “library in a garden” and the selection of the Center’s prominent site along Franklin Boulevard. The project bears Slusher's stamp and not Phil Knight's.(2)

ZGF rewarded Slusher’s confidence with a masterfully detailed, state-of-the-art academic services building for the University’s 520 student athletes. The Center’s first-class amenities include a 114-seat auditorium (the Harrington 3 Auditorium), 35 tutor rooms, 25 faculty/advising offices, a conference room, a flexible classroom, a computer lab, a graphics lab, 3D teaching labs, a library, a student lounge, a tutor lounge, a staff lounge, study carrels for all freshmen athletes, and dedicated parking. The facility is unrivaled among its NCAA Division 1-A peers.

Jaqua Center: View toward southeast from Agate Street (my photo)

Architecturally speaking, the Jaqua Center is a coolly elegant exercise in minimalist abstraction, an exquisite, 3-story, 40,000 square foot glass cube. Its undifferentiated facades of remarkably flat, clear glass respond, chameleon-like, to the subtleties of the changing light at different times of the day. The reflecting pool that surrounds the Center furthers the impression of an ethereal, dematerializing pavilion.

The glass and stainless steel scrim sandwich (my photo)

The building’s envelope is actually a ventilated double skin. The fa├žade comprises two layers of glass separated by a 5-foot gap. Between the planes of glass is a scrim of stainless steel mesh. The double skin is a thermal blanket that insulates during cold weather and helps to cool (via stack-effect ventilation) when it is warm. The layered facade is also an effective noise insulator: the din of heavy traffic along Franklin Boulevard is barely perceptible inside the building.

Social hour in the University of Oregon's John E. Jaqua Center for Student Athletes (photo by Paul Dustrud, AIA)

The interior spaces of the Jaqua Center are light-filled, dynamic, and hip. Tributes to athletes who excelled on the field of competition, in the classroom, and beyond adorn the floor and walls of a spacious, 3-story atrium. These embellishments include etched oak blocks celebrating the achievements of former student athletes ("A Few Who Just Did It") and a huge Albert Einstein mosaic made from hundreds of pictures of faculty, classroom activities, sporting events, and campus scenery.

Other graphic features include:

  • A stairwell containing the names of over 5,000 letter winners who graduated from the University of Oregon between 1945 and 2010

  • The Distinguished Professor Wall in the Harrington 3 Auditorium, a backlit, water jet-cut frieze bearing the names of notable professors

  • Etched caricatures of Phil and Penny Knight on the mirrors of the women’s and men’s second-floor restrooms, respectively (creepy!)

  • The Coaches Intake Grate, an air intake at the south entrance that includes the names of all the head coaches from the beginning of the University of Oregon’s history of athletic competition
(L-R) Kristina Lang, Jean Duffett, Michael Fifield, me, and Paul Edlund (photo by Paul Dustrud, AIA)

Robert Snyder commented on the opportunity afforded by a sympathetic and generous client to reach deep into the well of inspiration to create a singular piece of architecture. ZGF was able to thoroughly explore the integration of craft, messages, and storytelling into the design of the Jaqua Center. Robert noted that the extraordinary level of craftsmanship evident in the building was largely the product of Willamette Valley artisans. The bar was set very high, but in Robert's opinion everyone involved with the project exceeded expectations.

Fireplace seating next to Allan Bros. "Camp 13" coffee shop (photo by Paul Dustrud, AIA)

As 2010 AIA-SWO President Michael Fifield observed, Robert’s presentation was an occasion to consider a variety of issues regarding campus design, the role of object buildings in the landscape versus regionalism and/or more contextual responses. There are lessons here that are applicable to other projects in the city and on the University of Oregon campus.

Michael takes exception to the fact that the Jaqua Center (together with the Matthew Knight Arena) will henceforth occupy one of the few prominent “gateway” sites announcing the presence of the University of Oregon. He has no quarrel with ZGF over the internal logic of the design itself; like me, he admires the Center as a piece of architecture on its own terms. His issue is with whether it adequately fulfills the obligations of a University building sited at a crucial threshold between the campus and the surrounding city.(3)

A rapt audience listens to ZGF's Robert Snyder in the Harrington 3 Room (photo by Paul Dustrud, AIA)

ZGF clearly envisioned the Jaqua Center as an object building, a freestanding pavilion cloistered in a garden. The Center pays no heed to the campus morphology; genuflection is not in its DNA. Its response to its immediate context is to pretend it does not exist. The building is aloof, indifferent to its surroundings. Worse yet, the design of the Jaqua Center suggests that its patron and design team were unsympathetic to another context: the sociocultural dynamic of the athletics versus academics debate.

The Jaqua Center is burdened with unfortunate symbolism. It speaks an architectural language foreign to the rest of the campus. The building is at once undeniably beautiful and redolent with arrogance. Its elevation on a raised (albeit squat) plinth sets apart a realm of the sacred (an athletics acropolis) from that of the profane (the messy vitality and mundane concerns of the rest of the University). It’s too easy to read the reflecting pool as a moat that further isolates and protects the Center from the hoi polloi. No wonder many on campus are at times resentful of the largesse lavished by Nike upon the privileged student-athlete caste.

What was ZGF thinking? This is a fair question to ask. It’s clear that the design choices were deliberate and made without apology.
Penny Knight looks on as you wash your hands in the men's restroom (my photo)

In an opinion piece published in the Register Guard at the time of the Jaqua Center’s opening, Otto Poticha, FAIA lamented the gnashing of teeth over the building’s benefactor, its excesses, and its purpose:

"A comparison could be made to the efforts of the Medici family, the church, the monarchy and the early industrialists. They shared their creativity, influence and resources to give the world some of the best art, architecture and sculpture ever made. They supported the artists and set the bar high for future generations.

"Those who didn’t support religion, power or industrial development could argue that the uses of those palaces, offices and cathedrals were excessive and inappropriate. But these gifts mattered, and what we learned from them and experienced from them mattered more than who inhabited them.

"If these benefactors and artists had listened to critics or feared controversy, what a loss to the world it would have been."

I love Otto but I’m not sure that I can agree with him. I find it difficult to divorce a project from the culture within which it arose, no matter how commendable its architecture might be. I can make a case that the Medici family, the church, the monarchy, and early industrialists had little reason to fear controversy because they possessed the wealth and power to suppress criticism. Is great architecture truly so if it was achieved at the expense of those under the thumb of its patrons?

Today’s Medici – the Phil Knights and Howard Slushers of the world – cannot so easily avoid the scrutiny of stakeholders, whose numbers often extend well beyond a project’s direct beneficiaries. Incessant criticism during the design process may indeed frustrate or discourage clients and their architects from pursuing excellence. Regardless, successful navigation of the gantlet of obstacles that any substantial project must confront is a necessary prerequisite to greatness. A future computation of the Jaqua Center’s success will always take into account its proud flouting of campus conventions and the rancor of its critics.

Jaqua Center: South elevation (my photo)

If it’s not apparent already, I have mixed feelings about the project. Being a huge Duck fan, I am happy to see Oregon’s student athletes receive the facilities and support necessary to help them excel both in the classroom and on the competitive field. Robert Snyder and the rest of the ZGF design team have crafted a gem.(4) We’re fortunate to have it here in Eugene as an inspired example of architecture. On the other hand, the John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes betrays a lack of sensitivity that assures it a place at the center of the athletics versus academics tussle.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *
I wasn’t the only AIA-SWO member that wanted to learn more about the Jaqua Center: 80 members and associates attended the June meeting. Once again, Michael Fifield hit a home run by organizing a provocative, design-focused program for which there was an enthusiastic audience.

Continuing the UO athletics theme, the July AIA-SWO chapter meeting will take place at PK Park, the new home of the resurrected Ducks baseball team. The July 14 event – a home game for the Eugene Emeralds, PK Park’s co-tenants – is our annual joint picnic with members of the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute and the Willamette Valley Section of the American Society of Landscape Architects. I hope to see you all there. Play ball!

(1) Eugene Sandoval was ZGF’s partner in charge of design for the Jaqua Center. He is widely regarded as one of contemporary Portland’s foremost design talents.

(2) Further evidence of Howard Slusher’s influence upon the design: Slusher reportedly visited Apple’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City and was immediately enamored of the elegantly detailed, transparent cube designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Lo and behold, ZGF subsequently drew up plans for a geometrically precise, iconic glass cube.

(3) Michael was chair of the University’s Campus Planning Committee when the project’s proponents first advanced the idea of placing the Jaqua Center where it stands today. Michael objected to the absence of effective mechanisms in the Campus Plan to govern and shape the design of the Agate Street gateway to the University at Franklin Boulevard.

(4) In addition to the Jaqua Center, Robert described several other current or recently-completed ZGF projects. These were the Indigo Tower in Portland, the Port of Portland headquarters, and The Cascade, a mixed-use development in Salt Lake City.

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