Ivy-less Irvine: The Modern Style of UC Irvine’s Campus Architecture and William Pereira’s Vision of “Perfection”

Since coming to UCI, you’ve probably participated in — or at least overheard — a conversation that complained about UCI’s architecture. Or… maybe that’s just me, being a kind of snobby Humanities/Arts student.

But all discipline aside, I think we have all experienced confusion and inconvenience when attempting to get to the second floor of Humanities Hall or Social Sciences Tower. We’ve seen photos of the austere but reputable stone and ivy walls that tower over UC Berkeley or Stanford’s campuses and wondered “What was UCI thinking?”

Last week, these questions finally had some answers. “The California Modern, Irvine Style: Campus Architecture, City Planning and the Legacy of William Pereira” symposium broke down the history and impact of our campus’s deceptively plain architecture and puts us all in the realm of Pereira’s “master plan.”

Several speakers and lecturers, including architect Alan Hess, detailed Pereira’s personal history and his role in creating Irvine as we know it today. When UCI first came to be, Irvine didn’t even exist, so Pereira had to start from scratch. Literally. building from the ground-up.

UCI Art Professor Jesse Colin Jackson gave snippets of this history and then delved into his “Turning 50” installation, which involves photographs he took as he walked to each building on campus in the order that they were constructed. He picked up on the nuances of Pereira’s innovative modern style, taking motifs from brutalist aesthetic but inserting his own cutting edge ideas for the future of design and life in Irvine.

During the lunch hour, Film and Media Studies Professor Peter Krapp presented the finalists of the One-Minute Student Film Festival, in which any student could submit a minute-long video celebrating UCI’s architecture in honor of the 50th Anniversary. The winning video, a series of time lapses from locations across campus, demonstrated the rapid campus life with fixed-buildings serving as the touchstones for knowledge for all generations of Anteaters.

However, stepping out of the academic and design-specific lectures, Great Park Gallery curator Grace Kook-Anderson stirred the audience with a touching personal story about her family’s migration from San Francisco to Irvine and their quest to find beauty and heart in this typically mundane suburb. She shared that she loved San Francisco’s youthful spirit, that there was always something to do, somewhere to go and from these outings, an endless opportunity to learn. Kook-Anderson hoped that Irvine, a large college town in Southern California, could offer this same energy for her and her family.

Needless to say, Irvine is not San Francisco.

But does that necessarily mean we still can’t find tokens of education, innovation and free-thinking? That’s what Kook-Anderson set out to discover. Her journey of finding her place in this sprawling suburbia echoes that of all new Anteaters, especially those unfamiliar with Orange County life.

When Pereira planned UC Irvine he essentially tried to plan Irvine as well. The perfect city. In the late 50s and into the 1960s, this need for perfection — a quiet, safe place — propagated across American society. The world was a dangerous, scary place. How can we reduce these anxieties, block out any threats? Pereira’s “master plan,” his model for a new kind of city, one with large complexes and housing units, with parks and shopping centers for encouraging togetherness, was his attempt at constructing perfection.

Fast-forward fifty years later, and most students at UCI would hardly describe Irvine as “perfect”.

It’s curious, how people create themselves around their place and how simultaneously people create places for themselves. And how what was created for one intention can evolve over time, as societal attitudes and cultures inevitably change. People and ideology are, obviously, not fixed. But, as the winners of the one-minute film festival show, buildings are. How can buildings evolve as those who inhabit them evolve?

This is the question that Pereira could not foresee. That his idea of a perfect city would not last forever.