UC San Diego’s John Muir College and Modernist Architecture

Photograph by Darren Bradley

UC San Diego’s John Muir College exemplifies a unique collaboration between San Diego's architecture firms Mosher & Drew, Frank L. Hope Associates, Liebhardt Weston, Richard George Wheeler Associates, the office of Dale Naegle as well as landscape architects Wimmer & Yamada joining together to create something very special.

By Keith York
Photograph by Darren Bradley

Long before Stanley Gould’s (of Risley and Gould) 1961 master plan for the Graduate School of Science and Engineering; and UC San Diego hiring Robert E. Alexander (in 1963) as Consulting Architect; an earlier modernist, Irving Gill, designed the Director's Office (in 1910), a crisp, unadorned, clean structure for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In essence, the campus grew up with 20th century modernism as did the region as a whole.

Originally recognized as Second College (First College became Revelle College and Third College was later changed to Thurgood Marshall), UC San Diego’s John Muir College was designed under the supervision of Consulting Architects Robert E. Alexander and A. Quincy Jones. In his role as local team leader, or Executive Architect, for the campus in 1965 Robert Mosher led a team of San Diego based firms including Frank L. Hope Associates, Liebhardt Weston and Richard George Wheeler Associates. Dale Naegle would join the effort later in designing the college’s residential and dining buildings.

The earliest designs provided to Alexander by Mosher were met with resistance and thus began a rollercoaster of designs, politics, and relationships that would give birth to one of the strongest, most cohesive architectural programs within the University of California system. Alexander’s “fascist plan” was in peril from the beginning as the campus worried about its impact on the student population – then witnessing campus uprisings across the US and Canada, according to Mosher.

Mosher continued, “The principal feature of this Plan was what Alexander referred to as the “Champs Elysées”, a monumental pedestrian mall stretching from the northern edge of the campus to a point at the southern edge, very near the present intersection of Torrey Pines road and La Jolla Village Drive, a distance of nearly 1-1/3 miles. The mall would have followed the ridge that old Highway 101 formerly occupied. At the mid-point of this mall, approximately where Thurgood Marshall College is now sited, the Plan called for an immense central plaza, measuring 500’ by 700’, rivaling the Piazza San Marco, in scale and around which were to be clustered buildings, called the Communications Center…In the center of the grand plaza, there was to be an amphitheater seating 6000; and from the center of the amphitheater, a 360-foot-high communications/navigation bell tower was to rise. This tower would have been more than one third the height of the Eiffel tower.

The twelve colleges, as programmed in the Academic Master Plan, were to be located as individual separated clusters of buildings, evenly placed along each side of the Champs Elysées. The Plan required, in Alexander’s words, “that each of the twelve colleges would by physically distinct,” and different in character. Each, as delineated on the Master Plan, showed a different pattern of buildings, some large and formal, some smaller and informal. No consistency of scale, design or character was implied; in fact, these characteristics were discouraged.

On the positive side, one of the most compelling elements of the proposed Master Plan was the landscaping component, which called for informal treatment at the campus edges and more refined landscaping on the campus interior. The San Diego firm of Wimmer Yamada ASLA was retained to be the permanent Consulting Landscape Architects, to insure continuity and harmony in both the landscape and paving elements, such as roads, walks, terraces and courtyards. Had this landscape policy been followed throughout the entire development of the campus, the resulting landscape design would have created a unifying character that would have helped to produce a greater sense of place…

…Alexander recognized that the selection of individual architects for each building within a college could very well result, to a degree, in undesirable visual chaos. Therefore, he proposed that, after each college had been master-planned by the Consulting Architect, in this case himself, all of the executive architect assignments be made simultaneously for all of the buildings in the college.

Robert Alexander resigned his position as Consulting Architect during the summer of 1965 after William Pereira’s request to move his library design from where the Campus Master Plan placed it. Additionally, Robert Mosher, meeting with the campus architect, members of Alexander’s staff and UC San Diego faculty members had agreed to move in a more “humanist planning direction” and away from the 1963 plan.

Robert Mosher, in his new role Muir College’s Executive Architect, and his team of architects began meeting soon thereafter. According to Mosher, Alexander’s plan “was shelved and I was instructed to make a fresh start… The executive architects began the work of designing their separate buildings, for which I established the relationship of each to the others within the complex, the material and color palette, and the design of the fenestration to be used on each of the academic buildings. The fenestration for the residence halls required a different treatment because of the differing nature of their internal needs.”

Mosher continued, “The purpose of this coordination was to achieve as much continuity of design as possible, given the requirements of the five building programs. The buildings were to be comfortably related to one another, be visually compatible, and create informal garden spaces, courtyards and walkways, which would invite people to linger there and enjoy their passage through the campus. Wimmer and Yamada produced a landscape plan that supported and enhanced the informal environment we were seeking. The… Architects were cooperative. Each made a conscientious effort to contribute to the sense of place that I hoped to achieve – an informal, humanistic environment…

According to The UCSD Master Plan Study and its Antecedents, “carob trees in formal rows were to be planted along all major pedestrian malls and roads... the eucalyptus trees were described as being ‘of inferior material.” In addition to landscape design, uniformity throughout the campus would be expressed through building materials (concrete), color, paving, outdoor furniture and graphics.”

Unity within each college would be achieved by an executive architect master planning each. Alexander approved of each college having a distinct program as long as each followed one of four “forms”: and Open form would have the maximum variety in building forms (see Revelle College); the Cube form would be characterized by square building forms of varying height; the Tower form would utilize north-south oriented buildings mimicking an “Italian hill town”; and lastly the Cloister type was “recommended for east of the ridge, where the interior court would be similar to Christ Church, Oxford in scale.”

During the summer of 1965, the Regents of the University of California appointed A. Quincy Jones (Jones and Emmons) as Consulting Architect. At that same time William Pereira offered “A Master Plan for University Center” to the Regents, which justified his library siting and the new campus center, or University Center, just south of his Central Library plan.

While there is some debate over whether or not Mosher’s plan followed Alexander’s “tower” form, he did follow Alexander’s proposed method for achieving unity with the college by leading a team of (San Diego based) architects to design the buildings: Electrophysics Research (later Applied Physics and Mathematics by Robert Mosher), Biology Building (Liebhardt & Weston), Humanities and Social Sciences (Richard George Wheeler and Associates headed by designer Gayne Wimer), McGill Hall (Frank L. Hope & Associates led by designer Fred R. Livingstone), as well as Muir Commons, Muir College Apartments, Tioga Hall, and Tenaya Hall all by architect Dale Naegle.

While not under supervision of Mosher, the construction of neighboring buildings Mandeville Arts Center (A. Quincy Jones) and the campus Gymnasium and Natatorium (Liebhardt & Weston) complete Muir College.

While the design of Mandeville Center for the Arts began as early as 1968, the project was not completed until 1975. Siting of the structure within Jones’ 1966 Campus Master Plan revision interrupted Robert Alexander’s north-south axis as well as altering the focus of the campus from the sciences to a more balanced curriculum.

According to Cory Buckner (in the text A. Quincy Jones), “the structure is of reinforced concrete, except for the second-floor studio space, which is heavy timber with a plaster-and-wood siding on the exterior. The roof of the auditorium is a steel truss with metal decking that can adapt to a variety of stage and audience configurations."

Buckner’s research uncovered Jones’ own thoughts on the building as well. The building would “include ‘People Spaces’ that could relate indoor and outdoor areas for student and faculty work and that could also serve for exhibits, music recitals, meditation and outdoor functions.” Jones, in Mandeville Center Festival Program, stated his design approach by “creating a facility that would encourage an open community, provide opportunity for fortuitous encounter, be person-scaled and considerate of the user; one that would welcome all, be subservient to human activity, meet the needs we could perceive, be open to surprise…”

A Walking Tour of UC San Diego's John Muir College

Applied Physics and Mathematics (1969)
Originally built as the Electrophysics Research Building by Muir College consulting architect Robert Mosher (Mosher & Drew) in 1964, this fine example of local modernism anchors visitors’ east entrance. Concrete brutalism yields to Joseph Yamada’s (Wimmer and Yamada) landscape design that weaves through the campus.

Biology Building (1969)
Though Frederick Liebhardt (Liebhardt & Weston) struggled initially with Mosher's architectural program for Muir College, the design challenge yielded this stunning concrete structure in 1969. Frederick Liebhardt and Eugene Weston III would continue their relationship with UC San Diego by building a total of eight structures for the campus.

Humanities and Social Sciences (1969)
Richard George Wheeler¹s partner, designer Gayne Wimer, represented one of San Diego’s largest architectural firms with this imaginative design. Also fitting within Mosher’s architectural program, the concrete structure extends into the landscape and connecting it to the campus’s neighboring structures.

McGill Hall (1969)
Frank L. Hope and Associates’ long-time staff designer Fred R. Livingstone collaborated with Mosher, UCSD and the team of architects to design this beautiful, yet restrained, structure.

Muir Commons (1969)
In the heart of the college, Muir Commons, acts as a hub at center of Muir’s residential architecture which also includes Tioga Hall, Tenaya Halls and Muir College Apartments. Reflecting a more informal spirit than neighboring concrete towers, Dale Naegle’s design may be the warmest structure to the visitor and student alike.

Muir College Apartments (1969)
While the neighboring Tioga and Tenaya Halls stand tall, Dale Naegle¹s apartment designs for the campus melds with the southwest portion of the campus just across the landscaped plaza from the Commons.

Tioga Hall (1969)
One of two bold, almost brutalist, designs by Dale Naegle for multi-story student housing that worked well with Mosher¹s architectural program for the Muir campus. After driving south past the Salk Institute on Torrey Pines Road, passersby can’t help but reflect on the amount of exposed concrete in the surrounding area.

Tenaya Hall (1969)
Standing tall next to its sister building, Tioga Hall, also by architect Dale Naegle, Tenaya initially offered stunning views over the Muir College campus (and west to the ocean) and ease of access for students to a number of services and their classrooms.

Mandeville Arts Center (1975)
Following Robert E. Alexander¹s exit as the campus’ consulting architect, widely recognized Los Angeles based modernist A. Quincy Jones (Jones & Emmons) was hired. Among the many byproducts of Jones’ work UC San Diego is this delightful center for the arts.

Gymnasium and Natatorium (1965)
Winning local designs awards from the San Diego chapter of the AIA, Eugene Weston III¹s (Liebhardt & Weston) design for a cluster of playing fields, indoor swimming and a full-size gymnasium punctuate a visitor¹s journey between Muir College and Revelle College.

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