Gaucho Modern

UCSB looks back at the school's often-overlooked role in campus modernism

A campus planning–focused exhibition at the University of California, Santa Barbara highlights the tasteful, vernacular elements inherent in the undersung planning work of Charles Luckman and William L. Pereira. (Tony Mastres)

UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change was a fascinating exhibition at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Art, Design, & Architecture Museum (ADA) that used master plans, drawings, photographs, and models to chart the profound changes in urban planning and public architecture design that took place at the university.

The exhibition also challenged several long-standing myths that plague California’s post–World War II urban planning legacy, including the persistent idea that many of the era’s plans were designed to remain static over time.

For one, the exhibition, curated by ADA reference archivist Julia Larson, was a subtle homage to two of the most prominent but largely forgotten regional urban thinkers of the postwar era—William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman—who together in 1953 crafted a cinnamon-hued urban design language for the university imbued with elements of vernacular modernism.

Their initial approach—dubbed the “Campus Standard” plan—was eclectic but extremely tasteful. In early buildings like the Ortega Dining Commons and Anacapa Residences, Ennis House–inspired concrete block piers mixed with hipped roofs, adobe-style stucco massing, and expressive modernist design elements to create solid, stark buildings that instantly rendered the barren site sophisticated.

The remaining grounds were exposed to ocean wind, because the site’s topsoil had initially been scraped away. In response, the first buildings by Pereira & Luckman were laid out in slender, interlocking L-shapes, each squat structure separated by concrete breezeblock walls and new plantings that curbed windblown dust.

When Pereira & Luckman dissolved their partnership in 1958, Luckman and his new office, Charles Luckman Associates (CLA), stayed on at UCSB as campus planners and executive architects. The new firm updated the Campus Standard plan in 1963 in preparation for a period of profound expansion; among these updates were new rules for taller and denser buildings. Although the updated guidelines CLA crafted were extremely particular, they also lent themselves well to adaptation. Again, hipped roofs, an almost classical use of columns, awnings, and screens, as well as thin-shell concrete spans soon became emblematic of a grown-up Southern California modernism, and an aesthetic touchstone for the state’s public and educational facilities.



Luckman’s seminal work at UCSB distilled several of the contemporaneous aesthetic trends coursing through American design into a coherent sensibility for the state’s burgeoning university system.

For example, Harold Frank Hall, built in 1967, stands out as a key example of this cohesive but open-ended style. The gridded, six-story complex is anchored by a long, low volume that features dentil-topped arcades; the taller, attached building is wrapped in sculptural concrete window hoods that bring geometric patterning to the campus skyline.

As detailed in ADA’s exhibition, Luckman’s vision is significant because the system CLA refined uses the humble markers of small-scale architecture to designate entrances, create shared qualities between structures, and frame views of the campus and surrounding landscape to the benefit of larger buildings. That modern architecture of the time espoused these qualities is often forgotten in the glimmer of the more abstract and singular Palm Springs–style Modernism that is so popular today.

Because of this and other efforts across California’s public universities, UCSB’s campus planning and architecture stand alongside the state’s cookie-cutter suburbs as some of the chief products of its post–World War II economic and social transformations. That is partially by design, as Pereira, Luckman, and others worked in both planning and design across the state during this era—pursuing new visions in different arenas.

In presenting this pioneering body of work and its ability to adapt over time, the exhibition also provided a unique lesson about the potential of midcentury urban planning to gracefully absorb change, a quality readymade in some other designs. A key lesson is that Luckman’s plans continue to succeed today because they were built on the campus’s earlier visions; accommodations were made for history, height, and size, concerns that would only increase in coming decades and are now ever-present.

Lastly, UCSB Campus Architecture was a timely analysis—with the current century fully underway, the UC system is once again set to expand. Across the state, university campuses are making changes to boost enrollment and housing offerings. UCSB itself is slated to add 5,000 students and housing for 1,600 students and faculty to its campus over the next eight years.

We can only hope that a century from now, a new exhibition probing these contemporary approaches will be as rich and fruitful as UCSB Campus Architecture.

UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change
Art, Design & Architecture Museum
University of California, Santa Barbara
January 13 – December 2, 2018

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