Within and Without

March 16, 2012 — Features

If you catch the CLU campus looking and feeling like an all-outdoor space, or maybe a great green indoors, the credit goes to a coastal climate and CLU’s first architect.

By Carol Keochekian ’81 and Kevin Matthews

Jefferson A. Elmendorf, the architect of CLU’s original Centrum – not just the structure that now houses a café, but the seven barrel-roofed buildings in shouting distance of it – died Nov. 30 at the age of 85.

Maybe that ends an era for CLU, or maybe not. According to the master plan approved under founding president Orville Dahl, the Centrum was supposed to become a shopping center with professional suites, a sort of bucolic strip mall that would serve (and employ) students while raising revenue for the campus. Higher learning was to move uphill from the chicken coops that Elmendorf converted for the new college, with a chapel and a conference center at the summit of Mount Clef and academic buildings nearby.

Since that vision was never realized, you could make the case that Elmendorf’s impact on CLU has steadily faded.

The early building frenzy that he led definitely came to an end. Sounds of heavy machinery, hammers and saws were rarely heard again until Pearson Library’s construction in the 1980s. Then came the largest construction boom in campus history, which continues today with at least one building dedication or groundbreaking in each of the past 12 years.

Still, if you stop to consider what Elmendorf was up to, as the architectural guidelines that are today in effect explicitly do, then you may come to an opposite conclusion about the extent of his influence on the campus today. From the Swenson Center up the academic corridor, and on across Olsen Road, many echoes linger of the Centrum complex dedicated in 1962.

The most noticeable feature of the original buildings is the barrel-vault roofs made of poured concrete. Donald DeMars ’64, who designed Pearson Library, wrote that the scalloped forms “were chosen by Elmendorf because they did not require vertical structural support, thus allowing large, open and uncluttered interior classroom spaces.” These interiors enjoy natural light reflected from the rows of lunettes underneath the rooftops, which jut far out from walls of glass to prevent heat from gathering indoors.

The rooftops were also the architect’s way of projecting Dahl’s vision of an optimistic, futuristic campus fit for the Space Age. Elmendorf took his direct inspiration from photographs in an architectural journal of new buildings in Mexico, according to Ernst F. Tonsing’s California Lutheran University, College of Our Dreams: the First Fifty Years 1959–2009.

The concrete half-cylinders were not common at the time, recalls Jack Samuelson of Samuelson Brothers, one of the contractors for the emerging college. His firm had never made them before.

“The walls were built first, and then forms were placed on top of the plate lines [walls],” Samuelson said. “Concrete was then poured into the forms to about five inches thick. The roof was poured in sections, and once the concrete set, the forms were moved to the next section.”

What was the effect of this trouble, over the years? You’ll know if you’ve ever made eye contact from yards off with someone standing in the Centrum Café. More recently, it is possible to look right through the William Rolland Stadium complex to the goalposts and the hills beyond.

“Transparency” is one of the watchwords of the architectural design guidelines that were approved in 1999 and are still in use. Citing the need for continuity with older structures on campus, the guidelines endorse extensive use of glass, as well as interior and clerestory windows, allowing people to see one another and be seen. Entryways of academic buildings are supposed to be inviting and lead to indoor and outdoor gathering spaces. Usually clothed in glass and framed by brick, they present, as the guidelines put it, “a clear entry and public face to the campus.

Think of the two grand entryways that showcase stairwells in the Spies-Bornemann Center for Education and Technology, completed in 2002. They are set off from the brick and stucco by more than two stories of glass and feature shade-making protrusions.

In a way this is Elmendorf all over again, albeit with updated materials and straight lines. The newer residence halls, the Soiland Humanities, Swenson and Gilbert Centers, and even Rolland Stadium exhibit variations on this pattern, although they don’t all include the whole checklist of features.

A direct connection between indoors and outdoors is important in sunny Thousand Oaks, because faculty members and students constantly meet and do their work in both kinds of spaces. The architectural guidelines pick up on this, starting with the premise that community is integral to campus life. Landscaping and building design are meant to promote interaction and collaboration, providing meeting and working spaces. CLU senior project manager Valerie Crooks points to the Swenson Center’s patios as “a good example of expanding gathering areas to the outdoors.”

Crooks, who has managed campus construction projects including Trinity Hall and Rolland Stadium, said that Soiland Humanities Center (1999) and Samuelson Chapel (1991) have become touchstones for subsequent building designs. The rounded façade of Lundring Events Center borrows from the chapel, she said. Because of the importance of the chapel, she added, care is taken not to allow new structures to overshadow it architecturally.

“We want to make sure all buildings look somewhat the same—have a tie—but also have an element that differentiates them,” Crooks said. So Trinity Hall mirrors the design of Grace Hall, but also adds a third color to the exterior.

Though it’s a very notable feature at CLU, transparency is not appropriate for all of the buildings on campus. Elmendorf also designed the ornamental grillwork that obscures the view of windows at Mount Clef Hall and the magazine editor’s hiding place in Pederson Administration Building. A repeating “bubble” motif, which the Samuelson brothers produced by slicing PVC pipe into circles and then gluing the rings together, served as an inexpensive means of filtering light. It also seems to complete the suggestion of tubular forms on the nearby Centrum complex roofs. Crooks said that the design was ahead of its time in promoting sustainability.

While continuing to build green facilities and to seek LEED certification for them, as it did successfully with the Swenson Center, CLU will stick to architectural guidelines that owe a lot to Elmendorf. Expect more large entryways of clear, pale green or frit glass, light-colored stucco, brick, flat roofs for the buildings in the academic corridor, and sloped roofs for buildings around the perimeter.

We like the open feeling, even if we’re not sure we’d call this the Space Age.

Actually, we’re not sure whether to call it new.