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

By Kathy Day

When UCSD officials began planning for the 50


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.

Sutro’s historical view is detailed succinctly in the 22-page introduction that walks a reader through the fledgling days of the development of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where the campus found its “philosophical and aesthetic roots,” and its days as home to a Marine Corps firing range and the spot where soldiers were set to defend the coastline during World War II.

He touches on the visions that consulting architects wanted to lay over the land, from Robert Alexander’s original master plan for 12 colleges linked by a north-south pedestrian “boulevard” to a 2004 update of the 1989 plan that outlines what’s to come through 2020.

Sutro’s work ventures the societal influences that have shaped the campus and looks at what he calls a sampling “of a century’s worth of modern architecture … from modest wood buildings to brutalist concrete structures and sleek designs in steel and glass.”

It is the “modernist aesthetic that unifies the campus,” he wrote, and one of the few places in San Diego without the “historical-revival styles” of other UC campuses or San Diego’s other two university campuses.

Sutro looks at the challenges of building on a hilly site that created struggles between “nature (the site) and man, science and engineering.” In the book he calls it “the spirited quest for innovative ideas.”

Unlike iconic campuses like Harvard or Yale, he said, “you have to look at UCSD as a whole versus the ‘main gate’ ” type of campus. “It is distinctive in a different way.”

But to find out its character, you should take the time to join a tour or walk the neighborhoods of UCSD. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

If you go


Free UCSD architectural tours


2 p.m. Sept. 18, Oct. 16 and Nov. 13


90-minute bus tours start at South Gilman Pavilion; limited to 19 people due to bus size

Reservations required:

Leave a message at (858) 534-4414 or

The Campus Guide: University of California San Diego

The 224–page guide by Dirk Sutro is available at and the UCSD bookstore, for about $30. It includes a brief history of the campus and 10 walking tours with maps, photos and descriptions of what you’ll see.

Sutro, communications manager for UCSD’s music department since 2005, said he first wrote about architecture as a reporter at the Daily Transcript in the early 1980s when he noticed there was not much coverage of downtown San Diego’s four new buildings. So he started writing about them.

After that, Sutro wrote a column for the old San Diego Tribune that he says he talked his way into. He went on to the Los Angeles Times and then became editor of San Diego Home/Garden magazine. In 2002 he wrote, “Guide to San Diego Architecture From Mission to Modern,” a neighborhood-by-neighborhood compendium highlighting historic and well-known homes and buildings throughout the city.

There’s been a theme in his career as a writer, he said. “I’ve always been a fan of the creative arts – architecture, jazz, music, landscape architecture.”

In particular, he added, he’s been fascinated with art that doesn’t get attention and intrigued by “what artists do and what they think … although they don’t always talk in comprehensible language.”

Did you know …

• A UCSD engineer helped design Scripps Crossing, the pedestrian bridge that crosses La Jolla Shores Drive?

• The campus has its own central utilities plant and cogeneration plant tucked in the center of campus?

• There really is an OceanView Terrace on campus that is a student dining hall?

• There is a 72-foot-tall, suspended sculpture in the atrium lobby of the Leichtag Biomedical Research building?