New Alumni Center in a Class by Itself

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.

Iconography aside, the complex, dedicated in late September, is distinguished by thoughtful planning and lovingly executed details, as one would expect from Jacobsen.

For good practical and aesthetic reasons, he divided the two main functions -- administrative offices and large-scale meeting facilities -- into two parts. Arranged in an L with an arched entryway for both buildings at the corner, the "barn" and the "houses" have distinct identities but read as parts of a whole.

The two buildings form a comforting armature for the garden. The architect also took advantage of a 17-foot change in grade to provide that excellent garden view -- the roof of the circular entryway serves as a splendid viewing platform. (With its pea-pebble surfaces, benches, fountain and flowers, the garden is a real attraction, but it has been locked down whenever I have passed by. One hopes that will change.)

To further heighten the contrast between the two facilities, Jacobsen sheathed the offices in ordinary common-bond brick ( the material of the College Park campus) and the meeting hall in a stuccolike precast concrete. And he shaped the two differently.

The "townhouses" are what you might anticipate from that word -- Jacobsen says he was inspired by a noble row in Baltimore. But in their College Park incarnation the houses are swollen in size, as if fed the architectural equivalent of steroids. To break down the scale of what is a medium-size office building, Jacobsen laid it out in a staggered pattern of projecting and receding units, and changed brick colors alternatively from red to a red that has a whitewashed look.

On the other hand, with its long proportions, gently pitched roof, pedimented end facades, simple rustication lines and elementary cornice, the meeting hall looks like a nice, though low-budget, neoclassical barn.

Inside, predictably, it is just one of those big banquet halls. Well, not altogether. The high pitched ceiling gives the space some distinction, as does the natural light streaming in from the parade of 12-foot-high windows on both longitudinal sides. Jacobsen also gave the high walls some scale with wainscot-like incisions, white on gray.

On sunny days, a big stained-glass rose window in the south facade casts the colorful impression of the university's emblem on the floor and tables inside. "You can tell the time by the way it moves across the space throughout the day," said Peter Kozloski, Jacobsen's project manager.

Uniting outside with inside is something of a Jacobsen obsession. It's evident here in ways both spectacular, such as the circular skylights above the lobby, and mundane, like the all-glass walls of perimeter rooms that allow natural light to penetrate to the middle of the office building. A long exterior wall of floor-to-ceiling glass provides visitors to the university's alumni Hall of Fame with a swell view of the garden just outside. (Not incidentally, a plaque honoring Jacobsen hangs on the hall's wall.)

The privately financed $26.5 million alumni center serves many purposes -- since its dedication, it has been used for weddings, undergraduate meetings, a Nobel Prize celebration and, most important, all sorts of alumni events. The main point, when you get down to it, is money.

Like many public universities, Maryland is faced with declining state support in proportion to increasing needs. As places to focus alumni participation, alumni centers have proven effective in raising alumni awareness and dollars. "This building is a testament to what Maryland alumni can do," said Danita D. Nias (Class of 1981), the center's executive director.

That is, of course, literally true in Jacobsen's case. He received his undergraduate degree in 1951, and then it was on to Yale and Louis Kahn -- Jacobsen's acknowledged exemplar. By 1958, he had set up his own shop in Georgetown and began doing the stylish house additions that lured clients from all over the world. As it ultimately worked out, the vast majority of the work was done outside the Washington area, so it is good to have another public building close by to add to the limited list.

But by masking an office building in residential dress, Jacobsen sowed a provocative seed of confusion. ("Who in the world lives there?" passersby must ask themselves all the time.) And while meeting all the functional needs, he created a profoundly contrasting vision to the loud, necessitous chaos all around -- a comforting, somewhat artificial alternative world.

On my third visit, Jacobsen's center still made me smile, and laugh. His alumni center is admirable and smart in lots of ways. It is kind of lovable. It's also plenty strange.

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