Brick by Brick

A flurry of new buildings brings a new look to campus. What do they say about USC’s efforts to brand itself?

By Sonali Seth and Allen Pham

On a sunny Thursday afternoon in August, the Trojan Marching Band led an extravagant procession of thousands across Jefferson Boulevard. Making their way down a brick-lined paseo in the behemoth complex, several gasped in awe at the sight of the massive clock tower, the draped cloth covering the statue of Hecuba and the grandeur of the central plaza.

After years of meetings, development and construction, it was finally time to introduce the University of Southern California’s newest crown jewel: the lofty $700-million retail-residential complex known as USC Village. Students, parents and community members gathered for the first time in the plaza.

“This project has been a labor of love for all of us,” President C. L. Max Nikias proclaimed. “We built this village to show our enduring commitment to our exceptional students and our beloved neighbors.”

In typical Trojan fanfare, cardinal and gold confetti showered the crowd as the statue of Hecuba was unveiled to an eager crowd of thousands. It was at this very moment that USC Village officially opened its doors to the rest of the world — a titanic amalgamation of over one million red bricks that took three years to complete.

The University has always used architecture not only as an instrument to craft its image, but also as an indicator of its place in the community and sphere of higher education. Over the past few years, brick has not been the only requisite for constructing a typical USC building. Rather, the University has immersed itself in a new architectural tradition, one that defies current trends in favor of creating an image of historic prestige.

A vision of Collegiate Gothic

USC Village is one of several recent developments, such as the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, Jill and Frank Fertitta Hall and Wallis Annenberg Hall, to be built in an architectural style commonly known as Collegiate Gothic. According to Todd Gish, a professor of architecture and planning at the Price School of Public Policy, the Collegiate Gothic style includes brick tradition; vertical, pointed emphasis in windows; vaulted arches; and towers. Daniel Benjamin, an architect at Harley Ellis Devereaux, was the principal designer of USC Village. In pursuing the Collegiate Gothic tradition, he said the University hoped to meld the old and the new.

“The University sees itself as a forward-thinking institution — one of the leading universities in the nation — and at the same time it wants to respect and treasure its historic roots,” Benjamin said.

Although it continues the brick tradition of earlier campus buildings, the striking and massive developments usher in an image of grandeur markedly different from the softer styles of older campus buildings. Some think it is intentional. “The attempt of colleges and universities to use Gothic architecture and motifs — arched windows, towers, spires, pointed vaults and so forth — is, to no one’s surprise, an attempt to brand,” Gish said. “To piggyback onto the elite brands and associations of the first universities, like Oxford and Cambridge.”

USC is just one of many universities borrowing other traditions to make a statement on its own values and priorities. Such schools include the University of Chicago and Duke University, which both heavily utilized Gothic architecture in the 19th century.

“Some universities see their architectural program as a way to express that particular value as opposed to more historic associations,” Gish said. “Architecture is a vehicle for expressing values, and there’s different ways that it can be used.” Moreover, Gish points out that branding isn’t just aimed at current students.

“Universities have always competed for students and donors,” Gish said. “Don’t forget that competing for students is also competing for their parents — for their parents’ interests and attention and goodwill.”

But according to some critics, this branding means that USC’s architectural intention lacks authenticity. Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, published a scathing review of USC Village in August. “This is architecture as veneer, as drone fodder, as brochure material,” he wrote.


shideh ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Overimposing design

Benjamin said USC Village hoped to open the University up to the community and demonstrate its partnership through his design.

“The University wants to send a message of inclusion — that they’re not this ivory tower that overlooks the neighborhood that they don’t relate to,” he said. “It’s very much an open campus, which even now more than ever offers services to the community, and the intention is that there’s a lot of interaction between the community and the student community.”

But with its massive spires and arched windows, Collegiate Gothic architecture provides a significant contrast to the built environment surrounding USC. Combined with the spiked gates surrounding the University, some critics are wary that developments like Fertitta Hall and USC Village may appear imposing to the surrounding community. Gish thinks that is one possible interpretation.

“There’s other, more open, more friendly, accessible architectural styles that can be accomplished using brick, using some of the same materials, but don’t necessarily have the connotations of privilege and capital accumulation,” he said. In his review, Hawthorne lamented the effect of this newer architecture.

“The Village is part of an explicit effort by USC to reach out to and engage with the city itself, not build an oasis from it,” he said in the Los Angeles Times. “The contradiction between that effort and the architecture of the complex is basic and striking.”

That is just part of Hawthorne’s gripe with discrepancies in the development. He called it “a fantasia of just-add-water heritage.” Even Nikias agreed. In August, the president concluded his remarks at USC Village with a jarring statement that the complex would “give us 1,000 years of history we don’t have.”

According to critics, for a university that prides itself on traditions and roots, USC has devalued its own history in the quest of procuring an image of old-world prestige through USC Village.

However, Benjamin believes that USC Village and its Gothic influence are critical to understanding Los Angeles’ architectural footprint.

“I think the fact that it’s Gothic — I don’t think it’s providing a history we never had,” he said. “I think it’s well within L.A.’s architectural tradition to have buildings that embody the dreams of some other place, or memory of some other place.”

Embracing community

The push to create this consistent and clear message across so many new buildings is a significant administrative feat. Gish said that this might come from significant emphasis on these projects at the highest levels of the University administration.

“I think the administration is shaping and positioning the University as a 21st-century powerhouse,” Gish said. “Part of that is architectural, and part of that is a higher level of control than we’ve seen before.” If its purpose is to attract prospective students, donors and faculty, then even critics agree that the University’s current approach to design and planning is working. Most notably, USC Village’s emphasis on providing open space and economic opportunities for both students and community members has been praised. “One of the distinct positives of this more recent design regime is outside the buildings — open space, public space and the public realm at the USC Village and campus as well,” Gish said. “There’s a clear demonstration that open space, landscape, outdoor furniture, spaces in between buildings, outdoor spaces shaped by new buildings, are priorities for investment and design quality.”

Community engagement has been an essential part of USC’s expansion, as the University continues to assert its influence over neighboring communities with new developments in both University Park and Boyle Heights. Gish believes that the University’s success is contingent on its commitment to allowing students and community members to provide input in early planning stages.

“USC should look for lots of opportunities to engage with the community,” Gish said. “I think the University and administration are concerned with its relationship with the larger, surrounding community, but it could take more opportunities to engage at a finer degree of detail and interaction.”