In architecture, they have a saying: “Form follows Function.” Lately, when I look at our campus, I get the feeling that Form is trailing somewhere off in the distance. More likely it fell off a cliff and Function went on its merry way.
“Help me!” cried Form.
Somewhere a remote shotgun blast echoed as Form was put out of its misery.
Put simply, our campus is ugly.
It seems ironic that it is set amidst the most beautiful backdrop in the UC system. Cornered between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, it is as if the regents of the 1950s whipped the natural landscape hard enough to raise a giant welt in the shape of a chemistry building.
Some of the ugliness even predates the university. The College of Creative Studies is housed in an old marine barrack. It is supposed to be home to UCSB’s best and brightest students. The rest of us are taking bets as to when it will fall over.
The campus is beginning to show its age. In one of my classrooms, the chalkboard is falling off the wall. In another, the seats have collapsed. In the winter I scan the ceiling before I sit down to make sure the roof doesn’t leak.
There are newer, prettier buildings. HSSB has a particularly pleasant look to it. No one can complain about Kohn Hall or even the Materials Research Lab. A few roses have sprung from this bed of thorns. Renovation efforts persist on the rest of the campus.
Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that no amount of paint will suddenly make Ellison or Broida Hall attractive. Although I must commend the work done recently on Webb Hall — the new shade of yellow is a perfect complement to the aging inspection notices in the elevator.
But after two years here, I have come to embrace this ugliness. It is a sort of quiet cool that only our campus seems to have perfected. Our oldest, most hideous buildings play host to our most prestigious departments.
Our top-ranked film studies department is housed in Ellison Hall. Our number one linguistics department has offices in Phelps, along with Nobel Prize winner Walter Kohn, who was displaced, along with other physics professors, from hideous Broida Hall. Broida is currently all but inaccessible while construction crews attempt to transform it from revolting to merely unattractive.
Let’s not forget the Chemistry building. Admittedly it looks much nicer with the addition of the new Physical Sciences North. It brings to mind a daisy springing from a dung heap. Somewhere in the pile lurks another Nobel Prize.
Yes, the ugliness is a clever disguise. Some have named us the number two public research university in the United States; a figure supported by the whopping $124.3 million dollars in grants received last year. I like to think it gives us a kind of mystique — the kind of intrigue induced when the nerdy friend you’ve known for years turns out to be a black belt in tae kwon do or the bodybuilder down the street suddenly reveals that he has a degree in advanced astrophysics.
We can take pleasure in the fact that we have lain to waste all those who have judged us by appearances.
So I look at the fractured chalkboard in my classroom with some sense of amusement these days. Some of the best work in history has been done in rooms like these at even older and more dilapidated schools.
And I think to myself, perhaps it’s our turn.
In the meantime, I divert myself with the thought that the Chemistry building might burn quietly to the ground some blissful weekend. I won’t hold my breath, but if it happens, I’ll be there with marshmallows and a coat hanger.
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus’s science and technology editor. His features appear every other week. For the record, he does not own a lighter.