Even though I have been a North Campusite who has trekked to the beloved Art and Architecture Building for many years, that “other” campus has always given me an odd feeling. For those accustomed to Central Campus, walking through the North Campus Quad is like visiting a Twilight Zone version of the Diag. These two Michigan campuses share common features – a bell tower, a union, a big library, a couple of dorms – and yet something feels strange about the northern counterpart. But what?
I searched for an answer and immediately accused the reclusive engineering students, but I soon realized they are not to blame. Curiously, neither are the musicians or the Bursley folk. I then thought North Campus’ peculiar aura could be due to its architecture. The campus features some pretty crazy brick concoctions like Charles Moore’s Lurie Tower, Eero Saarinen’s Music School and the Duderstadt Center, whose design came from the offices of Albert Kahn. These facilities look like an outdated ’80s movie that attempts to depict the future. Still, an ugly building may induce nausea, but not goosebumps. There had to be another reason that North Campus was so creepy.
For years, that question plagued my mind. The solution remained elusive until one quiet night it came to me: North Campus feels strange because it is so eerily vacant and lacks any energetic vitality. It’s not the people, it’s not even the buildings, it’s the lack of people and it’s the wide open spaces.
Central Campus has the benefit of location, situated adjacent to urban Ann Arbor while North Campus is about a 10-minute drive from most everywhere. This fact also partially accounts for how spread out North Campus is – parking lots take up space. Constrained by the University’s original 40 acres, the Diag is framed by an enclosure of structures necessarily nestled together.
Conversely, North Campus buildings are fragments that dissipate into the trees and do not shape the spaces in between.
In recent years, however, North Campus has been losing some of its X-Files vibe.
First, there was the North Campus Redux two years ago, a plan championed by Architecture and Urban Planning Dean Doug Kelbaugh. The Redux project recognized that the campus has an “anemic and incomplete sense of place.” When coupled with its distant location, this lack of identity means that although North Campus is “home to a student population as large as that of Yale University, there are few reasons for people to voluntarily visit or spend time there.”
Next came the new Computer Science Building, giving the North Campus Quad a better sense of enclosure. Complete with an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of materials that work surprisingly well together, this engineering building triumphantly conquered and renegotiated the hill that was once the Quad’s only northeast boundary. The building’s southern glass atrium space houses a sensational spiral staircase that spills the building’s inhabitants out into the North Quad lawn on a nice day. Although the “Northern Diag” is still tremendously overscaled, it now reads as an actual space. Before it was a lopsided accumulation of buildings.
Then came the Walgreen Drama Center, a building that is fueling the critical density and making North Campus seem normal. With such progress, I began to think that eerie feeling of emptiness I once had while traversing through Pierpont Commons might soon be unwarranted. The only remaining eerie feeling is the notion that the panda’s eyes on the Panda Express logo in the food court in Pierpont Commons keep following me, but that’s between me and the panda.
The improvement couldn’t last, though. Just when I thought that North Campus was coming up roses, Arthur Miller Theatre proved me wrong. I had seen the building’s design renderings and eagerly waited with anticipation for the glowing, phosphorescent cube to be completed. During construction, I gazed at the steel structure and imagined the cool, clean building that would emerge. The design is simple and elegant, but its realization is not.
The glass cube was supposed to provide an ephemeral translucency that exhibits the material coolness coveted by contemporary architectural theory. Although the idea is sweet, the installed glass appears cloudy and opaque, homogenous and flat. In addition, mechanical equipment clumsily protrudes from the roof of the connecting Walgreen Center, interrupting the cube’s simple geometry. The design relied on its materials to take the Arthur Miller Theatre into a realm of cool they couldn’t reach alone.
An awesome, glowing cube is designed to be cool. But it isn’t. And so, failing that, all other design attempts to be trendy seem just plain dumb. For example, the staircase is disjointed and unnecessarily large for the atrium’s simple centerpiece. The interior’s exposed concrete provides a giant surface with a stylish texture but minimal integration. The exterior letters on the cube say “Theatre” twice, once merely larger than the other. In a gracefully coherent building with successful materials, these features would be architecturally hip. In Arthur Miller Theatre, they merely exacerbate the notion that the building is trying hard to be cool and cutting-edge but not succeeding.
North Campus continues to improve, and Arthur Miller Theatre could have been a giant leap forward. I guess North Campus will always provide me with a disturbing unease, if not from its peculiar void of vitality but from the glass box that has disappointed me so.