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What University Should You Choose

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Building a Home for Academia

As a campus established in 1919, the University of California, Los Angeles, gained the opportunity to create a new educational tradition. With the construction of each new building, the growing campus distinguished its own identity, creating environments modeled after conceived ideals of the college experience. Now over ninety years old, UCLA has an architectural style that commands respect for its academic history and at the same time, encourages students to create their own future. Through buildings like Kerckhoff Hall, open spaces like Dickson Court, and repeated elements like the lampposts all over campus, UCLA is able to convey its vision for the student that it is built to serve.

Kerckhoff Hall’s blend of the past and the modern gives students both context and inspiration. Built in 1931, it stands out as the only Collegiate Gothic building on campus. The pointed Gothic arches, large orb and torch lamps, stained glass windows, stone spires, balconies, and intimidating brick façade all bring to mind not only magical movie settings, but also an impression of age and prestige. Coats of arms are carved over certain entrances; the four-leaf quatrefoil, a Gothic pattern, also appears in stone. All of these elements add to the sense that Kerckhoff is part of a centuries-old tradition, a sense that is justified considering the long history of academia.

Upon entering the main entrance, one can see that the interior of the building does not betray this initial impression. Beside a stairway, Gothic arches continue their presence. A floor of rectangular stone slabs, in different sizes and dark shades of gray and maroon, seem to be arranged in a random pattern. The glass doors match the Kerckhoff windows, and everything is framed in mahogany wood—the doors, the bench, and the displays.

However, here is where the austerity ends. The evidence that Kerckhoff was not meant to be a complete imitation of a Gothic cathedral lies in its ornamentation. Although not filled in the noisy manner of horror vacui, it extensively incorporates extraneous elements for the sole purpose of decoration. For example, the iron-framed double doors at the entrance may be plain and simple—but the arch above it is decorated with bent iron. Curved in the form of climbing vines and foliage, the style is distinctively that of the Art Nouveau movement of the 1890s. These same curves, especially the spiral reminiscent of a conch shell, appear in many of the lamps that line the internal hallways, as well as a bench on the second floor. The stair railing has a slightly different pattern, less “natural” and more abstract, but still manages to incorporate the conch-shell spiral. Outside, the lamps are even more decorative—in the arched hallway of its east entrance, elaborate iron lamps hang from chains. Not only do these lamps incorporate densely spiraled vines, they even display iron flowers at their crown. (Interestingly, these lamps also incorporate the Gothic quatrefoil as a “charm” at their tip, integrating both the old and the new in one piece.) Finally, if the curlicue vines that ornament the building is not enough to determine the presence of Art Nouveau, the Coffee House on the second floor displays an emblazoned Art Nouveau font across its wooden internal entrance: “Est. 1975” in playful, curly letters.

Nevertheless, modern elements within Kerckhoff’s Gothic theme are not restricted to Art Nouveau. The light fixtures on the topmost three floors, as well as some hallways of the bottom three floors, sharply contrast with the previously mentioned lamps. These lights, less elaborate and more geometric, fit the description of “Machine Age” design. Even more noticeably, the dozens of artwork adorning the building are all modern abstract paintings, sculptures, and photographs.

The apparently purposeful juxtaposition of the modern and the Gothic leads me to believe that while Kerckhoff Hall is built to look like an Old World building with all of its prestige, the interior is meant to emphasize an embrace of the modern. One can see how such a theme is appropriate. Perhaps the architect’s decision to refrain from dwelling on the past is based on an understanding that moving an entire building from another culture and time will not serve the needs of the present. As Heskett notes, it would be “a dangerous and senseless anachronism that only reflects an insecure striving for good old days[…]” After all, Kerckhoff is no cathedral, having been dedicated as the student union from the very start; today, it remains a secular place of student administration. Those who are not directly part of the leadership groups that it houses still walk through Kerckhoff everyday, whether to hold organizational meetings, work on media projects, grab a cup of coffee, or simply to walk through to Ackerman. Kerckhoff fulfills the role of a home for modern students, empowering them to organize and act. In order to guide them through such an active learning process, the design of the building encourages students to be both proud of their past and ecstatic for the future.

An important point to note about Kerckhoff is that although its designers might have had these themes in mind, people often find ways to interact with a building that the designers could not have foreseen. According to Heskett, “Although designers may […] devise forms with defined purposes and effects in mind, the perception of those forms, and the functional or symbolic values attributed to them by users and observers, will be conditional, influenced by attitudes to the purposes for which products are applied, and the framework in which they are used.” In other words, it is up to plain human experience to determine the exact role that a building will serve. With this in mind, it should not be too much of a surprise to observe that the south entrance of Kerckhoff, surrounded on either side by a stone column with a large sphere, is a favored gathering place for Muslim students. Groups, and sometimes single students, bring their mats here to pray. Such an interaction with the building is very fitting, as it shows that Kerckhoff, and indeed UCLA as a whole, projects a secular attitude that makes it home to a diverse array of students, each using the campus creatively to fit their own needs.

Another landmark that actively strives to make students feel at home on campus is Dickson Court. It is a fairly small area, surrounded by three streets and Perloff Hall. Crosswalks run from north to south, and diagonally through the four corners of the plaza, creating comfortable paths for students to walk to their classes. Although most students see Dickson Court as an area to walk to through, it also provides a grassy “sunken garden” enclosed by short walls so that it is easily recognizable as a “place” and not just a walkway.

Dickson Court’s simple, geometric style reminds me of the “Machine Aesthetic” of the 1920s, in which “abstract and geometric forms were linked to a philosophy of functionalism”. There are barely any extraneous details that do not contribute to its three main functions: 1) to provide a walkway, 2) to provide a scenic environment to chat or study, and 3) to be an outdoor stage. The pathways, the trees, the yellow bushes, and the lampposts—these main components are arranged in a simple and comprehensive way conducive to these functions. In creating the study space, the scattered trees create shade, and at the same time, prevent any sport from being played extensively. In creating the event location, Perloff Hall has a columned entrance facing Dickson Court that serves as a stage for speakers, performances, and ceremonies. Those who are watching the event are not restricted to Dickson Court, as it is designed to be an open area that can be viewed from the surrounding buildings; Dodd and Haines, both part of the original campus and consistent in the Italian Romanesque style, rise above the courtyard as balcony seats for events transpiring below. Dickson Court’s proximity to the street also makes it accessible to those outside the campus, and offers and link to the community.

The only elements that do not seem calculated for functional purposes are the recognizable pattern of bricks that identify the courtyard as part of the campus, and the aesthetically curved paths at the north and south ends of the courtyard. Otherwise, there is no evidence of the “piling up of decorative effect […],pillaging stylistic canons of past cultures” that Heskett condemns. Instead, the elegance and simplicity of the garden is fully modern, and while not exactly rejecting display, is aesthetic in its efficiency.

Once again, it is useful to note that while the designer may have had one thing in mind, a created place can easily take a life of its own, working beyond original intentions. There is a tree in Dickson Court that has branched from the bottom of its trunk into what seems to be two separate, low-lying trees. Its low height and sturdiness makes the tree tempting to climb, and accordingly, students often do clamber on top to read, gain a better view of an event, or simply for fun. Judging from earlier pictures of Dickson Court, it seems that half of the curved path at the south end has been cleared to make way for this tree—but although unintentionally placed, the low-lying tree contributes to the image of the picturesque college experience that many students envision having.

The college snapshot of Dickson Court is indeed attractive—an enclosed courtyard that captures students in transition, students studying under tree shades, students meeting and laughing with friends. It is no wonder then, especially considering the short distance from Hollywood, that television crews are often spotted filming here, and that Dickson Court, among other parts of UCLA, have appeared on television and movies in representation of “the college campus.” Clearly, the designers have succeeded in selling their concept of an ideal learning environment.

Kerckhoff Hall and Dickson Court are distinctive parts of the UCLA campus that are designed to be highly visible. However, elements of the campus that are less visible also contribute to the overall atmosphere, and also unwittingly shapes students into what the designer perceives a “student” to be. An example of a repeated element that students encounter daily but rarely notice is the lamppost. The post itself is fairly simple, with vertical ridges running straight down. Special care is given to the lamppost so that it is congruent with the rest of campus; painted brown to match the tree trunks, soil, and other objects in the surroundings such as a brown bench, it is designed to be invisible in the day, and elegantly demure in the night. Strategically placed in along walkways, such as that along Dickson Court, or before building entrances, such as those in front of Kerckhoff, the lamps allow us to access these locations at night. On the other hand, the lamps do not flood the campus to create permanent daylight, but are rather more reminiscent of torches that allow one to see while still being highly cognizant of the darkness. As a result, those who are on campus at night might feel like storybook scholars, walking toward libraries and labs after dusk in the name of academic inquiry.

Despite its inconspicuous nature, it is interesting to observe that the lampposts are not without ornament. The lamp bulb is crowned with what looks like the top of an Arabian lamp, and is fringed with a golden netted pattern. It is also ornamented with a flower pattern just before its base, another detail that serves no purpose for its function. The lamppost’s apparently useless ornamentation might be analyzed by Heskett’s observations: “A plain, functional form generally signified the often harsh necessities of work, and asuch was and as such was tolerated in its place, but art, in the form of decoration and ornament, represented for many people a deep aspiration for a better life.” If not a better life, then an alternative life, one that is slightly exotic as offered by the lamp’s appearance, and one that is once again consistent with the image of an ancient campus.

From Kerckhoff Hall, Dickson Court, and the repeated lampposts, one can see that UCLA is a learning environment that embeds into its design the images of ideal students: the tolerant leader, drawing from the past and looking toward the future; the daily learner, relaxing in the grass while clasping a book; the scholar, trudging through the night to sources of knowledge. Students walking across UCLA to make use of its myriad of environments may feel a sense of belonging without knowing why, without thinking that not every college campus has been designed with such care and attention to detail. States Heskett, “It is perhaps a statement of the obvious, but worth emphasizing, that the forms or structures of the immediate world we inhabit are overwhelmingly the outcome of human design […] They result from the decisions and choices of human beings.” UCLA has been specifically designed as a learning environment from the start, but it is easy to forget someone had to work very hard to create for us the perfect college experience.

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