Taking a step up
UNLV’s newest building furthers the cause of good architecture
Thu, Sep 11, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Iris Dumuk
To say that the architecture of the UNLV campus is frequently ugly; to say that the buildings there only intermittently work together to create anything like a coherent campus, the sort of unified cloister that so defines American academia; to say that even the quality of the signage on the buildings (three-letter codes displayed in a crushingly bland sans-serif typeface) subtly betrays the lack of care that appears to have gone into making a place to inspire young minds—to say all this is, of course, only to say the obvious.
But in recent years, the architecture at the university has been moving forward. The soaring-roofed Lied Library proudly holds down the center of campus. The bold graphics of the new student union building have put a shot of adrenaline into Maryland Parkway. And now, right next door, Greenspun Hall, home of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, is making its own statement. (Full disclosure: the Weekly is owned by Greenspun Media Group.)
The building, designed by the firm of celebrated New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, is really three buildings, totaling 120,000 square feet of clearly defined labs, classrooms, faculty offices and broadcasting facilities for the myriad programs that make up the college, including journalism, social work, environmental studies, communication studies, public administration and criminal justice. The building is clad in a combination of tawny brick, silver-gray panels and red sandstone—the latter echoes sandstone elements in the neighboring student union and the curving sandstone face of the Lee and Thomas Beam Music Center, farther north along Maryland.
For years UNLV officials have talked about transforming Maryland into a vibrant “Midtown” in the heart of the city, with the university on one side of the street and a more urban development of shops and restaurants and housing on the other. It’s fitting then that a building housing an urban-affairs program would be tasked with the job of making the strongest link between the edge of the campus and the city it serves.
Though it occupies a prime piece of real estate at the corner of Maryland Parkway and University Avenue, Greenspun Hall certainly has its work cut out for it. Across Maryland Parkway is the squat concrete block of Rebel Books and a dull suburban-esque shopping plaza. Across University is an In-N-Out. To the north is a long strip of parking lot. But rather than shy away from engaging with this tricky urban mess, the architects wisely push the building right up to the sidewalk on Maryland—from the street it commands your attention, especially given that much of the other UNLV buildings nearby are set back from the street. A red sandstone slab rises above the five-story buildings to serve as a beacon for the whole campus. Engraved in the slab are the letters “UNLV,” in a classy serif typeface that speaks, with no postmodern affect, of stability, permanence and the deep roots of an institution that asks to be taken seriously. (The standard sans-serif typeface bearing the name “Greenspun Hall” is engraved elsewhere on the building, but unobtrusively.)
The buildings are arranged along the edges of a large, central courtyard, which is reached from street level via two main sets of monumental staircases. The staircases, echoing in spirit the massive flights of stairs that front America’s great 19th-century museums (think Rocky), serve a similar purpose here, to elevate us from the street and welcome us into a temple of culture and learning.
One set of stairs is positioned diagonally at the southeast corner of the building, at the corner of Maryland and University, while the other anchors the northwest corner, spilling down toward the campus bookstore and student union. The courtyard is topped by an enormous steel canopy, fitted with solar panels.
The success of the courtyard will depend on how often students use it, but if the space suffers from any noticeable flaw now, it’s in the steel used for the canopy and the tall columns that hold it up. Where the rough-hewn textures of the building walls, particularly that rich red sandstone, look warm, the steel columns and canopy are too cold, too stark and too cheap. For all its airy ambition, what should be the building’s soaring high point is more leaden than it should be.
Still, if future buildings on both sides of Maryland can meet the street with the same easy strength as Greenspun Hall, then Midtown may one day not only be a source of pride for UNLV students and faculty, but the rest of us, too.