Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Ugliest Building on Campus

Note: Prompted by a comment by Pedantic Prof, I have just fact-checked the holy hell out of my own post. Results are here.


Thesis statement: the ugliest building on campus is almost always the Humanities building.  And if it's not, then Humanities is usually in the top 3 ugliest.

Historiann mentions her building in her post today on why national reputation for scholarship may (::gasp!::) be even better than a winning team. Yet in spite of this, which gets the better facilities?  Here's her aside about her own building:
Let’s just say that although Clark is a notorious eyesore and menace to the health, safety, and comfort of its denizens (who include faculty, students, and staff, as it is a building with both classrooms and departmental offices), we didn’t get a $250 million renovation.  All we got was an exterior paint job (which helped to a surprising degree), a new HVAC system (because the old one kept flooding faculty offices!), and new carpeting in some corridors that looks like it was a remainder from the Carpet Barn.
 Yup, sounds about right. And it's not just Baa Ram U., is it? Humanities buildings seem to have been designed by someone conducting an experiment on how architecture can drain your will to live. Permit me to illustrate with a tale from the horrific humanities building where I was a grad student. It will sound like one of those academic urban legends, and that's what I thought it was, even though I was there... until I saw the actual historic documentation of the original plans.  Fer reals.  So, here goes:

Way back in the 60s, the University of State decided that they were going to build an impressive building according to the model of the time. It was going to be of the most modern concrete! It would have its own underground parking! There would be a plaza out front, and a skyscraper tower with commanding views of the town and beyond! Yay!!! So they dug the foundations, and the two underground garage floors, and built the plaza, and the mezzanine, and got to work on the first tier of the skyscraper above.

Except... they didn't consult a geologist, so it came as a huge surprise when the building began to twist and move down the hill because the rock below turned out to be not strong enough to support even one story of concrete skyscraper.

What to do?  Why, cap off the one-story "tower" and convert the underground levels into faculty and grad student offices, of course!

Now, capping off the tower helped, but it didn't completely solve the problem.  No, siree. See, the thing was already pretty heavy.  So ever since that time, it's been ever so slowly continuing to twist and move.  This has resulted in (among other things):
  • Torqued elevator shafts: you could count on getting stuck between floors at least once during the course of the semester.
  • Twisted supports for the acoustic tiling on the ceilings, and wildly canted floors, even two stories underground.
  • Freakish plumbing: my office mate had a urinal shoot water outwards at him (right before class!), and one memorable summer, all the sprinklers on the T.A. floor turned on, soaking everything.
  • One result of the soaking was that the threadbare carpet rotted away. Once it dried out, the cut away the rotten bits and patched it. No mold/mildew abatement was ever done.
And, of course, we all grew into pale troll-people.

And, of course, it continues to be ass-ugly.

So, how about you? Share your architectural horror stories in the comments below! And bonus points to people who don't know who I am who can identify (in code, please) the building I describe above.

30 comments:

Tonya Krouse said...

I work on a campus where the entirety of the architecture is - I kid you not - "brutalist." (Well, I guess the newer buildings are "neo-brutalist.")

As I sit in our humanities building, I am typing at a desk from 1972 that actually cut me badly enough that I bled copious amounts last year. I also have a chair for students to sit in that dates from sometime around the early 80s (I would guess) that has many unfortunate stains.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Brutalist architecture can actually be pretty, if done right -- the idea is to pour the concrete into wood molds so you have wood grain patterns in concrete, then blend in a lot of glass for a light/heavy contrast.

Unfortunately, most of what we get is a bastardized brutalism, which is just concrete with all the prettiness cut out to save money.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

But seriously: your desk cut you?

squadratomagico said...

That's pretty hard to top. But I will try: The worst two things about my department building are that none of the windows open (stale air!) and yet somehow they leak awfully. The water piles up on the floor, and then dribbles through the ceiling tiles to the floors below. And since my office is on the side of the building that tends to get the full impact of driving rain, when there are winds, my space is one of the very worst for puddles. We have special absorptive thingies we have to put down on the floor every time it rains, but I've still had to throw out three rugs so far. And once, I was on leave and hadn't come in for a while, the water reached about 5" deep all the way across the room. I joke I could have raised waterfowl in there.

Some time ago, a new Humanities building was put up, and my department was invited to move there. I don't know exactly when, as it was before my time. We refused to move, apparently because even when the building was new, it was clear that it was unhealthy -- even though it was new construction, they used some kind of known toxic materials that were associated with asbestos or something. Right after it opened, they had to immediately retrofit a new building. Then three years ago, it became clear that the building was unhealthy in another way: a strikingly high percentage of women working in the building -- mainly staff who were there all the time -- developed cancers. It was declared a "cancer cluster" and there were rumors of class action; the building was closed for a short time as studies were done. Ultimately, they linked it to the magnetic elevator, which was not properly insulated. I'm not sure if there was a lawsuit, or if it was somehow settled out of court.
I guess in this case, the water leakage is the better part of valor.

Janice said...

Our building is essentially a corridor between the classroom/library building and the administrative tower. The main floor gets called "The Bowling Alley" and gets frighteningly chilly. My office, on the floor above, is a box with a 10" wide window running floor to ceiling but you can only open a small square at the bottom. It's wall-to-wall linoleum, mismatched due to damage caused by floods every few years when the decommissioned pipes from the old bathroom in the former dean's office, one floor up, somehow spring a catastrophic leak.

Feel sorry for the English department in their digs halfway up the tower - the flood from a vandalism event in another bathroom that struck their floors a few years back took out dozens of offices.

At least my desk is new and my desk chair's pretty comfy.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

My department is in the basement of one of the oldest dorms on campus. I've been told that there have been leaks in the past due to heavy rain, but so far, I've been spared. (Knock on wood.) There are a lot of cockroaches -- the dining hall is in the same building.

The upside is that I have a bigger office than everyone in my department except the dean, whose office is next door to mine. My desk is from the 1950s, but it looks kind of retro chic. Plus, I have the best decorated office in the building. (Of course, that's due to my super-awesome Shakespeare art collection.)

The building itself, though, is ug-ly. I try to be the good thing deep in the heart of the building that makes it beautiful on the inside.

Anonymous said...

our main building has been trying to commit suicide for years now, flinging pieces of itself upon the ground, though thus far avoiding pedestrians. Most of it is underground, and rain leaks through its plaza to the rooms below. When I first came to work here, I called maintenance about a growing puddle on the floor and was told "oh, the carpet'll soak that right up." We're in the middle of a department review now, and on updating our departmental document I pulled up a nearly 20-year old strategic plan that mentions this building will be torn down in 6 or 7 years, that is, more than ten years ago....

Tonya Krouse said...

Notorious: the most our buildings can say for themselves is that they look like they're sweating when it rains. I guess that's something :) And yes, my desk CUT me. Brutalism, indeed :)

sophylou said...

If the building in question is at a university whose mascot's name rhymes with Mucky, I've been in it, as a kid, during summer music camp years ago.

Anonymous said...

Kinesiology could compete with you here. Ancient gymnasiums long since replaced by athletic cathedrals that have been converted to classrooms, offices, labs, and gym space for PE classes. Always hot, always with four-to-eight legged creatures, and so ehow always a lot of mustard yellow brick and brown (probably asbestos) tile.

When I moved out of my grad office (hooray!) a friend moved in and the new collection of office mates rearranged. They found standing water under a filing cabinet we had never moved in the previous three years. Oy.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

These are fantastic stories -- Luckily I haven't had water issues in my current building. The asbestos, however, is like schrödinger's cat -- simultaneously there and not there, depending on which question you ask ("can you replace my broken window" vs. "should I call the EPA?")

Sophylou, that's not my building, but I know the one you're talking about -- the one with the hallways designed to twist and turn and dead-end, and one second-floor doorway leading out into open air, yes? I always thought it looked like the headquarters of our robot overlords in the not-too-distant dystopian future. And it may win the prize for *the* ugliest and least user-friendly humanities building. I had a friend who had an office that was so cold in the winter that she wore a full ski suit while sitting at her desk.

sophylou said...

It's been a long time and I don't remember the hallways etc. so much as feeling like there was a lot of plastic sheeting and drippiness that made it feel like we were in the building where the pod people were being manufactured. Also, classrooms that seemed awfully strangely shaped.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

But it *is* the one that looks like it's squatting menacingly over part of campus, right?

sophylou said...

Yes, definitely the menacing scary robot-overlord-HQ-looking building.

My dad (a retired prof himself) has been taking history courses at said university and says the professors do complain about the building...

wildacademicwoman said...

I love my building! I'm a first-year PhD student in education, and the building was renovated a few years ago. All the classrooms have huge glass windows that overlook the river, which is perfect now that it's fall and the leaves are turning color. At my MS institution, however, I graduated just as the college moved into a brand new building. Before that, the department's faculty offices had doors that opened to the outside (not that big of a deal in California, but still not nice), and I'm pretty sure the old buildings were not 100% earthquake safe.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Wildacademic, I've seen those doors that open to the outside. Honestly, I think that would make me nervous, sort of in the same way that sitting without a wall at my back does.

3rd time's the charm said...

My undergrad was in a music building in a southern swamp region. The building has a central open-air atrium with two more on the sides. All of the hallways are in the open, so the climate control is massively taxed most of the year. The practice rooms are upstairs from the rehearsal rooms, so instruments are continually taken from 70 degree practice rooms to 95+ degree humid halls. And it rains a lot. People's immune systems go to hell by the second month of every fall and get whacked again in the spring when the pollen kicks in all over the building. Good times.

sophylou said...

I taught for a couple of years in southern California. My office was on the 6th floor, so I took the elevator a fair amount, and on the 2nd floor the elevator opened to... an open-air terrace area, so you were basically outside once you stepped off the elevator. Never failed to startle me. It just felt wrong.

Noelle said...

. . . this sounds very much like the origin story of the humanities building at the University of State I'm about to graduate from. The name of this edifice you speak of wouldn't happen to start with a W and end with a vowel, would it? (On the one hand, my department is in the basement--on the other hand, that's the only place in the building that actually looks pretty nice.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Noelle, you hit the nail on the head. I spent five years in the sub-basement of that edifice, right across from the men's room -- a rather grim place -- before I moved to the interdisciplinary program across J-Street (still no windows, but at least I was aboveground!)

Lucy said...

I had no idea I was in such good and abundant company! My department is on a floor which was tacked on to an (old) building as an afterthought; "That exists?" is a common student response to being told the location of my office. The floor is open to wind and weather via a door to the roof that won't shut, and most of the offices are on an inner corridor that is entirely windowless. Most of the staircases in the building (not all) do reach this floor, which is fortunate given the condition of the elevators. Still, I'm feeling suddenly fortunate by comparison with those coping with puddles, violent desks, and/or torqued elevator shafts.

Historiann said...

Heh. These stories are great, if horrifyingly familiar. Thanks for the link! (I would have found your post sooner, but I've been out of town at a conference.)

I hope everyone is rested and ready to do battle Monday morning with their work spaces!

Celia said...

Our Humanities building was expanded and rehabbed about six years ago, and barring the "new" roof that leaked from day one (lowest bid; contractor now on a black list), it's pretty lovely. But before said overhaul, it was awful: sewage flooding, no air-conditioning, and fuses that tripped if two people turned on electric kettles at the same time.
My colleague had the worst experience when he arrived: the previous tenant of the office had left the window open, and yellow-jackets had formed a nest in the corner of the room. Since only one staff member on campus was authorized to use the chemicals needed to kill the beasts, my colleague had to wait weeks for help. Occasionally he would come down to my office to sit and work because, as he put it, "the natives are restless."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Celia, that is truly horrifying.

Noelle, you may wish to know that, in 2004 (or was it 2005) I received a letter from (I think) campus legal counsel asking me if I had had any number of cancers or upper respiratory ailments. Apparently the building had quite a cancer cluster.

On the other hand, my M.A. adviser spent his entire career in that building *and* smoked several packs a day, and only just recently passed away, well into his 80s.

H said...

SPAM alert above.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, H -- deleted.

Beth S. said...

Wow -- and I thought it was bad when my underground classroom in a midwestern Humanities building started "raining" on students during class because some combination of cold pipes, warm air, and humidity.

MsMcD said...

I love these stories! My current office is wonderful! But it's the new building on campus (2 years old). I'm lucky I never had to work in the department's previous abode- a metallic prefab building that housed undergraduates in a housing shortage many, many years ago. Each of the "offices" held two professors but also had a bathroom. Some of the offices were freezing cold because of AC that wouldn't turn off, and others were brutally hot because of the radiators that wouldn't turn off. When one person worked on his computer in one office, the office next door would lose power. And there were bits of wall that kept falling off, so you could look into each others' offices. They are finally tearing down the building, and the University has asked the professors who were in that building to record their fond memories and take a group picture in front of the building.

pedanticprof said...

I work within the building you mention, the name of which begins with a W and is opposite a building beginning with S. The parking-lot story is, somewhat sadly, an urban legend. I don't know what plans you perused, but one of our emeriti was on the original planning committee and he hates hearing the parking-garage story. According to said emeritus, the story of why the funds ran out and a new design had be sought (before the foundations were laid) is because an administrator had neglected to make a bid for matching federal funds for the project. This is sadder than the urban legend...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Pedantic Prof, I hadn't heard that second part of the story! As to the first part, I did not look at the architect's plans; what I read was a newspaper article (from the late 60s) from a neighboring small city that discussed the plans and was illustrated with a lovely artist's rendering of how the building would look when complete. Up until the moment I saw that, I was also entirely convinced that this was another academic urban legend, like the one about that one university library (the actual university varies with the telling) that was sinking from the weight of the books. The whole W story seems too *perfectly* awful to be true.

To be fair, I don't recall specifically whether the article mentioned the parking garage (which was the most popular part of the telling of the story). But if you want the reference to my source material, send me an e-mail, and I'll give you what I remember.