UC-Merced

National Architecture Week: Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy in Public Architecture

By Thomas E. Lollini, FAIA, for National Architecture Week #ArchWeek15

Mr. Lollini is campus architect for the University of California at Merced and recipient, along with Thomas E. Luebke, of the AIA 2015 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.

I am both honored and humbled at receiving the AIA’s Thomas Jefferson Award.  Honored by the recognition of my efforts to bring public institutions, public interests and professional talent to bear on challenges facing our universities, our cities and our planet.  Humbled that nearly a third of registered architects work for public entities, often laboring in obscurity, as clients and design advocates.

My personal path to becoming a public architect is clearer in hindsight as an evolution of my own thinking about design as an instrument of public good.  Growing up in Detroit and attending University of Michigan when freeway were dividing neighborhoods, and historic preservation and environmental protection were novel concepts, inspired me to see both cities and the university campus as ecological systems in which the built and natural systems collectively defined each place’s unique character over time.

My personal path to becoming a public architect is clearer in hindsight as an evolution of my own thinking about design as an instrument of public good.

Studying with Jahn Gehl in Denmark opened my eyes to “the space between the buildings” as the social fabric that defines and binds communities. Subsequently designing new towns in North Africa and China, I came to appreciate the importance of “public” buildings, infrastructure and spaces as expressions of place, climate and culture. And our design advocacy efforts on San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Civic Center prodded the city to remake these public spaces and reclaim the City’s history and character. In these experiences, I learned the value of the Architect’s voice in public decision-making.

Designing new towns in North Africa and China, I came to appreciate the importance of “public” buildings, infrastructure and spaces as expressions of place, climate and culture.

I think Jefferson intuitively understood all this, which might explain why he listed creation of the University of Virginia along with the Declaration of Independence on his three-point public service resume on his tombstone. His presidency didn’t even make that list. The University of Virginia’s design defined America’s vision of education and cultural development as distinct from the European models, as much as the Declaration defined our unique principles of governance.

Universities are often conceived as model cities, so by the time I arrived at UC Berkeley, declared “the Athens of the West” in the 1898 planning competition, I could see the possibilities of campus and community working together to rethink their relationship.  Using design as a common language, we began the creative conversations that led to cooperative investment in building a better campus and a better city.

UCM_SSM 1.17_North East Elevation

Photo Credit: Sharon Riesdorph

 

At UC Merced, the opportunity to create a model 21st century research university in such a challenging environment was the commission of a lifetime. The administrators, architects, staff and colleagues that I have worked with will tell you that I bring a very strong point of view to the work we do together.  You see, I feel it is when we are fully committed to our design and sustainability goals, and set them high, that the outcome exceeds our expectations.  As for showing the way toward saving the planet?  If not us, who? If not now, when?

Jefferson understood the value of public placemaking and I believe there is honor and satisfaction in being a public architect, but only if you bring your creative passion for design to job.