Ford Alumni Center (all photos by me)
The makeover of the University of Oregon’s eastern gateway along Franklin Boulevard is now complete. Opened this past May, the Cheryl Ramberg Ford & Allyn Ford Alumni Center unites with the Jaqua Academic Center and the Matthew Knight Arena to form a gleaming, modern triptych. In so doing, the Ford Alumni Center further recasts the University as innovative, forward-thinking, and world-class.
Home to the UO Alumni Association, UO Foundation, and the university’s Office of Development, the Ford Alumni Center is the culmination of a decades-long effort by the UO to construct a multifaceted facility that serves as a welcoming front door to the campus. In this capacity the building provides much-needed event and gathering space for alumni, campus activities, and the Eugene/Springfield community. It serves as an introduction to the university, a starting point for student orientation, and campus tours.
View from northeast
What it does not do is serve solely as a repository for the history and accomplishments of Oregon grads. Instead, the Center extends the branding of the UO as trend-setters pioneered by its Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Ducks aren’t hidebound by tradition—like the high-flying football squad, they’re future-focused visionaries and achievers.
As constructed, the $33.6 million Center accommodates 60,000 square feet within a four-story metal and glass enclosure designed by TVA Architects. Opsis Architecture served as executive architect and was responsible for the interior architecture. The design secured LEED Gold certification by virtue of its energy efficiency and low environmental impact.
My wife and I visited the Ford Alumni Center this past Saturday, a splendidly sunny summer afternoon. Both of us left with the same favorable impression: TVA, Opsis, and interactive media designers Second Story Interactive Studio, Inc. have melded architectural form, details, and technology to craft an integrated and singular experience. The core of that experience is the threading of quintessentially Oregon motifs throughout. This is a building that rewards inspection and appreciation of the whole.
The alumni center shares with the neighboring Matthew Knight Arena the same vocabulary and palette of metal panels and glass. This comes as no surprise because TVA designed the exterior of both structures. Oriented perpendicular to the major axis of the arena’s elliptical plan form, the center provides a geometric foil and datum. It shapes an entry plaza oriented toward Franklin Boulevard shared by the two buildings. It greets westbound motorists along the busy thoroughfare by presenting a broad and glassy façade to the plaza.
View looking southeast; the Matthew Knight Arena is in the background
The center barely skirts interpretation as a mere annex to the much larger arena. Some might question whether the alumni center should be associated so closely in both expression and proximity to a lavish coliseum purpose-built for activities ancillary to the university’s principal mission. Is this yet further evidence of an institution beholden to the big business of college athletics?
That issue notwithstanding, the smaller building more than holds its own. Its exterior is well-proportioned and detailed. There is a legible hierarchy to the application of curtain wall and other fenestration. Contrasting volumes satisfyingly project and recede. Had TVA not been responsible for both facilities, I suspect the designers of the alumni center might have struggled to develop a scheme as lucid and unforced. This may be why the UO directed Opsis, originally charged with complete design responsibility, to instead assign exterior design duties to TVA.
Inside, a generous atrium completely bisects the center and immediately draws your attention skyward through all four floors. The atrium is flanked by meeting venues (including the Lee Barlow Giustina Ballroom), the Tykeson Family Hall Interpretive Center, and office spaces. An open, inviting stair wends its way between the floors, its foot cascading waterfall-like toward the entrance. Bridges with glass guardrails cross the atrium offering elevated prospects. On the west wall a filigree of wood slats casts patterns of shadows that constantly change as the sun travels across the sky.
Overall, the effect is quite purposefully akin to a journey through the woods of the Cascade foothills.
"Oregon Cascades" media panels
By way of contrast with the atrium, the adjacent Tykeson Interpretive Center reminds me of the darker forest understory. Its nine interactive “Oregon Cascades” floor-to-ceiling media panels suggest the massive trunks of our region’s forests. Designed by Second Story, the panels deliver personal stories, historical data, and archival footage to visitors who navigate through interconnected “story streams.”
Allusions to water abound: I’ve already mentioned the cascading stair, which appears to flow downstream as it descends toward the interactive “Alumni Table.” The table’s touch-screen interface, which lets you access a database containing over 210,000 University alumni, resembles the effect of placing your fingers in a gently flowing stream. Glass light fixtures suspended from the ceiling clearly call to mind glistening raindrops.
"Coming & Going Fish" by Rick Bartow
"Contemplari Natura" by Tallmadge Doyle
The center also features an impressive collection of art commissioned specifically for the project. All of the pieces extend the forest and water metaphors. My favorites include “Coming & Going Fish,” a sculpture by Rick Bartow, and “Contemplari Natura,” a collection of copper plate etchings by Tallmadge Doyle.
What I find most compelling about the building’s interior design is the light hand with which the design team wove the forest and water allegory. The application is not so overt that it precludes other possible interpretations. It fully engages the building, utilizing everything in the architect’s toolkit: space, light, and materials.
Quoted in the Winter 2009 Oregon Quarterly, Second Story’s creative director Brad Johnson compared the UO to “a bedrock channel through which each student progresses and then departs; just as the riverbed of the university changes the course of each student’s life, so too does each student subtly leave his or her mark on the university itself, collectively carving out a canyon of shared experience and memory.”
As executed, the Cheryl Ramberg Ford & Allyn Ford Alumni Center is a spatial and material depiction of that shared experience. However, it is not a staid reliquary; instead, it is a dynamic and interactive channel. The building underscores the qualities that make the University of Oregon story unique. It breaks the mold, being as much future-focused as it is nostalgic. I like it.