There is obviously one Medical Campus, and it is easy to see that the departments of LSA are all in rough proximity. Perhaps less visible is the fact that all residence halls and parking structures are on the periphery of Central Campus. Did you also realize that the public entities of libraries and museums are carefully placed throughout the campus so as not to monopolize any one area? There is a plan for the University, carefully crafted, defined, revised and then redefined to make the flow of the campus both fluid and dynamic. Yesterday, the University Board of Regents was reminded of the University’s plans for Central Campus and the dozen or so current and future projects that are the stepping stones.
When we plan for the future, we plan for perfection. When we live in any place, that place becomes the center of our world. So we dream of an Eden and plan accordingly. After all, who dreams of mediocrity? For cities and towns, the dream of the future resides in their Comprehensive Plan. Localities map out their destinies in five-, 10- or 20-year chunks that outline the path toward improvement. These plans are hard to carry out because they are not fixed and not the law. In the meantime, though, people are trying to live in the city and do their business oblivious to anything but their own plans.
Investors, developers, contractors, residents and businesses owners, as well as transportation authorities, all have ideas for their land that may or may not coincide with the city’s agenda. So the plan gets enacted into law via zoning regulations with building permit procedures along with a planning commission board. Along the path from plan to reality, much of the zest and exciting ideas get diluted. In 20 years, there is no surprise when the city doesn’t look at all like the Eden chartered a score of years prior. Thus, the pattern continues with another 20-year plan for improvement and so on. This is also taking for granted the plan is valid, for many paths to oases often lead to mirages, especially in the city planning world.
Yet while the rest of the country toils in the boring legalities of planned cities, the University is free to plan without bounds and, more importantly, free to carry out those ideals. The University, because it is state-owned, is not chained down by local ordinances or boring processes, and nor are is its plans. Each campus modification must only be approved by the Board of Regents, one body with one interest.
Central Campus is obviously more structured than an archipelago of self-centered buildings, but the intricacies of the campus plan are hard to detect. Since the University has complete control over its own construction, why is the campus not Eden? Why are there still alleys and awkward spaces? Evident programmatic elements like service entries are too easily blamed; the seemingly elegant system of planning paradise is actually harder than it looks.
Guided by three main principles, the Central Campus master plan focuses on innovation, collaboration and excellence. These goals are fine, but highly generic and non-locational. As far as fundamental themes, only one of five talking points actually alludes to location, and that is the notion of adjacency aiding collaboration. The other factors all have good intentions but are hard to visualize in terms of place. It can be difficult to design a University building that is guided by “student life” and “preservation of knowledge.” These elements are virtuous, but impossible to see while walking through the Diag. What is seen and experienced are the figures of buildings and the vacancies between.
Over hundreds of years, the University has evolved so that the campus plan no longer looks toward the future but reconciles the past. Campus planning was not conceived in Ann Arbor until the 1960s, a century and a half after it was established. In the late ’90s, architecture firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates analyzed the campus and projected plans focusing on what was already present. Buildings on the west of the Diag are mainly arts and
and thusly named the Arts and Humanities Corridor, while the east buildings on the Diag hold the Science Corridor. Reacting to what exists leaves us with trends for the future, but doesn’t help mold a better future. For example, the Science Corridor leads us north through the Life Sciences Complex and finally to the Medical Campus. This transition, though nice on paper, is still awkward and cumbersome. Also, there is a Performing Arts Corridor that leads us from Rackham to the west, and continues into downtown Ann Arbor. This is not visible at the pedestrian level, but merely a label trying to describe what is already present, in hope to guide the future.
Lastly, the layering of architects on the campus adds to the piecemeal nature of the campus and detracts from the overall plan. University Planner for Plant Extensions Operations Sue Gott is doing a tremendous job of trying to bring together the portions of the campus into one coherent whole. Yet when individual projects are looked at, the plan dissipates because each architect interprets it differently. Add to that the fact that a separate architect was hired to redefine the campus, and the many hands at work often are at odds – such as when entrances do not fully correspond to paths and paths are obscured by buildings.
For years, I was oblivious of the paths through the School of Social Work and School of Education buildings; I still get lost if I try to cut through the Law Quad to Rick’s. For me, that area is not the best solution of planning, although it is supposedly elegantly planned as the Social Science Corridor and will be boasting new public policy, law and business buildings to that end. Although the campus tries to be perfect, it still has to wade through perceptions, history and designers to get there. These issues are not bureaucratic like city planning, but mainly just annoying nuances of any plan. But I must admit, I truly believe that Ann Arbor’s campus is one of the best, not counting Eden.
Dingwall is the Daily’s architecture critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.