Designs in steel and glass: UCSD tours and guidebook celebrate modern marvels on campus

Dirk Sutro stands outside UCSD’s landmark Geisel Library. Photo Dolores Davies
Dirk Sutro stands outside UCSD’s landmark Geisel Library. Photo Dolores Davies

By Kathy Day

When UCSD officials began planning for the 50

th

anniversary celebrations that marked the past year, it became clear to them that the architecture played a significant role in how the campus has developed. The tale is not all about the buildings and how they fit into the coastal setting, but also about the people whose creative ideas came into play over the years and how the combination has evolved.

Boone Hellmann, associate vice chancellor of design and construction, who also bears the title of campus architect, was charged with the idea of developing a guide to the buildings on campus and asked Dirk Sutro if he would be interested in writing it. Sutro first met Hellmann in the late 1980s when Hellman was new to the job of campus architect and Sutro was writing for the Los Angeles Times.

“In spite of my being a critical, naïve writer toward him and UCSD,” Sutro said, Hellmann was “open-minded” and reached out to him to ask him to write the guide — only the third such guide written about a California university; the others chronicle Stanford and Berkeley.

Sutro said when the effort began officials wanted the guide to be practical, outlining one-hour walks through the campus “neighborhoods” or a one-day walk. So how else to tackle the project but to start walking “through and around” campus, looking at how the buildings respond to the site and taking what he calls an “organic” look at the campus.

“I gained a new appreciation for it,” he said. “It was fun walking through all the neighborhoods and visiting every building on campus.”

The guide served last year as a basis for a special series of two-hour morning tours, with Sutro leading a 60-minute talk before the bus took off around campus. This year, the regular Sunday afternoon campus tours have morphed into architectural tours of 90 minutes, according to John Meyers, one of the docents who will be leading them. But Sutro won’t be involved this year, he added.

In his walks about campus, Sutro said one of the biggest surprises was in the Applied Physics and Math Building on the Muir College campus where he happened upon a rooftop courtyard.

Hellmann, Sutro and a guidebook committee (also including photographers David Hewitt and Anne Garrison) began with a list of 140 buildings and pared it down to 110. There was a "high percentage of agreement" for the final picks. Since the book's publication, new buildings have been finished which will be added when the book is updated.

While Sutro acknowledges he has a few favorites, he frames his discussion in terms of importance because “my tastes encompass every era and every style” of architecture. “When I started, I took the Geisel (Library) for granted.”

Pictured on the book’s cover, it was first called the central library, then University Library and, 1995, was renamed for Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel when his widow, Audrey, donated $20 million.

He revisited the structure and read about architect William Pereira, whom he describes as “an L.A. superstar,” who helped change the vision of how the campus should evolve. Instead of having a 360-foot tower that the original campus master plan sought, the library became the focal image, the logo for the campus, and an inspiration for buildings in movies like “Inception” and “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back,” and has been featured in TV series as well.

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