Dystopian Prison or Futuristic Vision? What We Can Learn from UCSD Architecture

Ricky Zhao / The Triton

About two years ago, I saw something on the UC San Diego meme page that really stuck with me. It was a photo of the Applied Physics and Mathematics (AP&M) building pasted onto the cover of Orwell’s famous dark novel, 1984, with a caption above reading: “why does muir look like a dystopian prison.”

The post exemplified a general sentiment I’ve observed: UCSD’s architecture is enjoyed least by its own students. Visitors are often seen gazing like urban tourists up at our university buildings; my parents and non-UCSD college friends alike have commented that UCSD is both beautiful and futuristic. During my three years here though, discussions about our buildings seem to more often evoke the words “drab,” “ugly,” even “soulless.” And I feel conflicted between these opposing attitudes. Most importantly, I’ve always wondered: What is our architecture trying to say?

Muir College’s towering concrete, Warren Mall’s theme of technological liberation, the fame of Geisel Library—all of our buildings seem to flow with intensity. Their grandeur echoes UCSD’s original master plan, designed by a forward-looking architect from the 1960s named Robert Alexander, who wanted heroic plazas, a 6000-seat amphitheater, and a library “as compelling as a Mayan pyramid.” Today, his vision is sustained by current UCSD professors and architects, who tell us that no matter where you find yourself on campus, UCSD always “looks like the future.” But the ambition of representing the future is often misinterpreted.

In Geisel Library and Muir College, there’s brutalism. Popular in the 1960s, the movement favored using raw concrete and huge panes of glass to convey a sense of honesty about materials inside and out, which can extend to notions of democracy being dependent on transparency. According to the Muir College website, Muir Biology Building and the AP&M building were built intentionally with these Modernist ideas in mind. One can even imagine that the planners of Muir College’s distinctive architecture hoped that by learning about brutalist buildings, we might even learn about uncompromising visions on equality.

Unfortunately, attempts to inspire through modern architecture can backfire. For example, with Muir College’s massive gray blocks, where I see strength and dignity, others have seen cold industrialism. The Muir Biology Building’s tower and spread are imposing, and AP&M’s ridges are grating. It’s not a far trip for the mind from our buildings’ emphasis on impersonal uniformity to a specter of dystopianism—even totalitarianism—as ridiculed by our meme page.

UCSD today would be unrecognizable to its original planners. Still, a few core ideas running through our architecture remain intact—resolve, progress, and “nontradition.” As students who are absorbing the imagined “future” that UCSD expresses, we should lend a critical eye to the built spaces informing our education. Most students have very little say in UCSD’s planning; we cannot participate in multiple yearlong construction projects, so our meaningful interactions have to take the form of personal reflection. What UCSD truly looks like mostly circles a choice of interpretation, a decision about what to see in our environment.

Although we cannot shape our surroundings, our surroundings can shape us. Maybe our shiny Jacobs Hall is meant to remind us of our own ambition, Geisel’s concrete of the permanence of education. You can see our buildings as giant prisons or as computers—even as memes. The truth is, people spent years designing UCSD as an ideal campus for something—a kind of livable message—and I think we’re here to determine what that message is. In addition to teaching us how to obtain a degree, UCSD has quietly been teaching us through its architecture. If you don’t like our buildings now, I hope you take a second look.

Nathaniel Imel is an Assistant Opinion Editor for The Triton.

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