At nowhere else but a college campus can you find such a clash of architectural style trying to meld into a collective whole. When planned, these distinctive buildings can act wonderfully together. Anyone sitting on a shady spot on the Diag lawn can attest to the magnificent enclosure provided by a hodgepodge of architectural flavors. When unplanned, the ideas of separate architects come together like oil and vinegar. Just one glance at the bend that turns East Huron Street to Washtenaw Avenue will shed light on to what I am talking about. Neither pedestrian-friendly nor attractive, the space between the Life Sciences Institute and the new Biomedical Science Research Building is just plain uncomfortable. It is kind of like salmon and chocolate, each good in their own respect yet positively absurd in combination. The University hired an acclaimed architecture firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, to try and sort out these ingredients before they became a problem, but what they got instead was a giant pot of stew.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
The Biomedical Science Research Building on East Huron Street is not conducive to pedestrian traffic. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

In 1997, then University President Lee Bollinger handed the campus master plan over to VSBA, and for good reason. They are the pioneers of architectural information dissection and have recently had success on many college campuses. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are the icons of the architectural postmodernism that took place in the ’70s. Still revered as guides for a major revolution in architectural thought and criticism, their work has become virtually invisible – even when it is everywhere. Here at the University, the Venturi Effect is not some physics law about tunneling air; it is the fact that everything VSBA tried to accomplish for this campus ends up thwarted.

This phenomenon first occurred during the 1998 renovation to Michigan Stadium. In typical postmodern fashion, the Michigan fight song was erected on the stadium rim – dubbed “The Halo” – along with cartoonish pictures of football helmets as symbols of Michigan pride. Despised by most fans and patrons, it was quickly taken down. Not that surprising due to the fact that postmodernism has been dead for decades, but it was a sign of things to come for Venturi at Michigan.

Dare to walk through from the Power Center to Palmer Field and you will find the work of VSBA. Even without the hazardous construction, one would never guess that VSBA had actually planned that space. The Life Sciences complex cowers over the sidewalk and crowds pedestrians into oncoming traffic. Bridges seem offer solace from the traffic but finding where they start is like finding the end of a rainbow. With no pedestrian crosswalk, the road curvature makes it lethal to even think of going anywhere but down a sidewalk that really goes to nowhere that anyone would want to go. I never would have thought a shiny, pink building faAade would actually scare me – but it does. Even when driving, the new traffic signal makes it a cumbersome route.

VSBA was hired to develop a campus plan and had focused on that specific area to bridge central campus to the medical campus. Yet with all their investigations and site-plan diagramming, something went awry. There was already leftover space between the two hubs, and VSBA tried to extract elements into the space and create vibrant interstitial areas. By considering everything from the sports field behind Alice Lloyd and Mosher Jordan to the roadway’s chain link fence, VSBA’s joint effort with the architects at Smith Group to create a life sciences complex as connector became muddled. The ingredients were just not right to make a delicious souffle, and forcing the matter just made it worse.

Across the street, the new Polshek Partnership’s design of the Biomedical Science Research Building adds more confusion to the mix. Slapping VSBA’s ideals of symbol and diagram in the face, the Polshek building is a cool, contemporary vision of technology and style. Standing alone, it has all the right elements: state-of-the-art double layer glass faAade thermal system, ultra-morphic glass aesthetic and a Gehry-esque undulating auditorium. Yet all that architectural style only faces one very strange direction. Visible solely to 25 mph traffic and people playing ultimate Frisbee at Palmer Field, the building’s glamour seems unwarranted for its audience. The front is hidden from the rest of campus by the uninteresting Life Sciences Building and University power plant, and its visible, plain rear faces the residential valley heading toward North Campus. Again, the intentions of VSBA go unseen as the connection between Central Campus, and the medical campus is still unrealized and actually worsened.

There is one more chance for VSBA to make a perceptible difference on Michigan’s campus. With their master campus plan, VSBA made evaluations and recommendation options as part of what they called a Law School Architectural Programming Study. Although it is more possible for a more digestible public space in the Law Quad, I doubt that VSBA’s suggestions will have any impact on the final design. Rockstar architect Renzo Piano has taken over as the architect of the Law School expansion, and he isn’t likely going to listen to anyone, especially once fellow postmodernist colleagues Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The Michigan Venturi Effect will probably continue, but no one will notice.


Austin wants VSBA to design his dream house. Share your thought on architecture with him at adingwal@umich.edu.

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