Cityscape

New Alumni Center in a Class by Itself

The Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. At left is the top half of the meeting hall, with its round stained-glass window. At right is the office wing. The foreground grassy area has skylights set into it that bring light to offices below ground.
The Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. At left is the top half of the meeting hall, with its round stained-glass window. At right is the office wing. The foreground grassy area has skylights set into it that bring light to offices below ground. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

At first, the sight of the new cluster of buildings at the University of Maryland provoked a broad smile. That's good.

And then, as I walked closer and thought about it, the smile turned into a good long laugh. That's bad.

Even good-humored laughs generally are not what serious architects are after, and certainly not what Hugh Newell Jacobsen had in mind when designing the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, his first project on the College Park campus of his alma mater.

What made me laugh out loud was the completely idiosyncratic way the new complex -- a big Palladian barn of a building and a row of extra-large townhouse-like offices with a Federal-era look -- stands out from the definitively rough-and-ready context.

The site, after all, amounted to an architectural tabula rasa. It was a disheveled, empty lot surrounded by 51,500-seat Byrd Stadium, a huge surface parking lot and a covered parking garage, the old Cole Field House with its vaulted metal roof, tennis courts with chain-link fences and the rambling assortment of brick rectangles that make up the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

An architect could have put almost anything on such a site because there were almost no contextual constraints. Titanium billows, steel zigs and zags, tumbling blocks of concrete -- dramatic modernist gestures of almost any sort -- would have more or less fit the bill.

Jacobsen, however, decided to be Jacobsen at his most conservative. One of his strengths from the late 1950s forward has been an uncanny ability to make strong contemporary buildings fit into historic urban districts. For his return to College Park, where he still vividly remembers the art class in which he first acquired his enthusiasm for architecture, Jacobsen decided to bring the old city to this odd edge of the campus.

That turned out to have been quite a radical thing to do. It is why Jacobsen's design, with its overtones of domesticity and hints of 18th-century urbanity, stands out in this pell-mell setting as much as the most outrageously sculptural "iconic" building possibly could have done.

The site was the last of three that the architect worked with during the six-year design process, and you get the feeling it was his least favorite. "The only way to rival Byrd Stadium would be to build another stadium," Jacobsen said last week from Paris (where, since his splendid remodeling in the early 1980s of the 18th-century hotel Talleyrand for the U.S. Embassy, he always seems to have an ongoing project or two).

His Maryland complex is all politeness and elegance, mixed perhaps with a certain hauteur. His design projects a reformist -- and gently sarcastic -- intent. Unable to impose order on the site as a whole, Jacobsen attempted to create an island of serenity amid the mess. This is the way things should be, his buildings insist.

Although the stadium is impossible to ignore, the architect did his best to divert attention from it. A major portion of the new complex is a fenced garden with formal parterres -- the architect refers to it as his "French" garden -- shielded on the stadium side by a row of closely spaced cypresses.

And on game days, when crowds approach the big Byrd from that vast parking lot, many fans are forced to pass between the alumni center's barn and townhouses. Along the way, they are offered a great view down into the peaceful garden. "Down, they are supposed to look down!" Jacobsen exhorted from Paris.


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