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Terraforming the Irvine Ranch and the Construction of UC Irvine

A newborn university, or a terraforming project on an alien world?

Seen from the air in 1967, the University of California, Irvine, looks like a radical experiment in reshaping and reskinning the earth, its geometric forms and bold colors at odds with the irregular contours of the beige land surrounding it. But the site of the school was not Mars. It was the Irvine Ranch, an agricultural empire whose grazing lands and orange groves then sprawled across 93,000 acres of Orange County.

Aerial view of UC Irvine in Dec. 1967. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Aerial view of UC Irvine in Dec. 1967. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.

By happy coincidence, the ranch's owner, the Irvine Company, entered the real estate development business around the same time the Regents of the University of California resolved to open a new branch campus in rapidly urbanizing Orange County. In 1960, the Irvine Company donated 1,000 acres of rolling hills for a new UC campus, which would anchor a master-planned suburban community on the company's extensive ranch lands. Both would bear the Irvine name, and both would bear imprint of a single designer: William Pereira, a former Hollywood art director-turned-architect.

The Irvine Ranch was not Mars, but it was a tabula rasa on which Pereira could realize his modernist visions for the future. His master plan for the city of Irvine preserved wetlands and conformed to the natural contours of the land, but it otherwise envisioned a built-from-scratch suburban city, infused with modernist planning principles like the segregation of automotive and pedestrian traffic. Similarly, his design for the UC Irvine campus boldly experimented with form, eschewing traditional features like a central quad and brick-clad buildings.

The basic plan – conceived in conversation among Pereira, UC president Clark Kerr, and UCI chancellor Daniel Aldrich – consisted of two concentric rings. The first – a narrow, paved, walking path – contained a central park, planted with broad lawns and climate-appropriate trees and ornamented with two scenic lakes (never built) and a campanile-like structure named the Centrum (also never built). The second ring – a broad pedestrian road, one mile in circumference – encircled five academic hubs, one each for the humanities, engineering, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. A sixth gateway hub housed the library and administrative offices and linked the campus with the rest of the master-planned community of Irvine through a mixed-use town center. Like spokes on a wheel, these six hubs radiated out from the central park. Each occupied a distinct place within the campus, yet students could easily walk from one to another in ten minutes or less.

A 1965 rendering of the UC Irvine campus. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
A 1965 rendering of the UC Irvine campus. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.

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William Pereira, pictured here in 1964, also designed San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, UCSD's Geisel Library, and many buildings in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
William Pereira, pictured here in 1964, also designed San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, UCSD's Geisel Library, and many buildings in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.

Construction began in 1961, and when the still-unfinished campus opened to students in October 1965, it might have seemed a hopeful model for the future. The brutalist buildings (a term derived from the French béton brut, for "raw concrete") exuded futurism in function as well as form. Their distinctive concrete facades, for example, shaded classrooms from the full harshness of the Southern California sun and captured prevailing onshore breezes, passively regulating the university's energy needs.

But utopia soon warped into dystopia. As other UC campuses roiled with student unrest in the late 1960s, the same brutalist forms came to represent a starkly different future. Paranoid urban legends circulated about how Pereira's design discouraged student rebellion and bolstered the administration's authority; however, Pereira completed most of his original plans well before the December 1964 Berkeley protests that sparked the Free Speech Movement. In 1972, the campus starred in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," playing a city within a totalitarian state of the future. And in 1977, the university replaced Pereira as campus architect, more or less parting ways with his original plan.

Today, as UC Irvine celebrates its 50th anniversary, subsequent development and mature landscaping somewhat obscures Pereira's original design for the campus. But it survives with clarity in the university's archives. Housed within the special collections of the UC Irvine Libraries are renderings, project workbooks, and photographs -- a small sample of which appear below -- that reveal an architectural vision uncomplicated by a half-century's history.

UC Irvine's central park, since named Aldrich Park in honor of the university's inaugural chancellor, under construction in Sept. 1965. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
UC Irvine's central park, since named Aldrich Park in honor of the university's inaugural chancellor,under construction in Sept. 1965. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Another Sept. 1964 view of Aldrich Park under construction. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Another Sept. 1964 view of Aldrich Park under construction. Courtesy of the SpecialCollections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Circa 1967 view of the central park after its initial landscaping. The Science Lecture Hall and Natural Sciences Building float beyond the park. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Circa 1967 view of the central park after its initial landscaping. The Science Lecture Halland Natural Sciences Building float beyond the park. Courtesy of the Special Collectionsand Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
1968 aerial view of the UC Irvine campus. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
1968 aerial view of the UC Irvine campus. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Graduation in UCI's central park, circa 1966. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.
Graduation in UCI's central park, circa 1966. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.

Further Reading and Research

  • Hess, Alan. "Discovering Irvine," Places Journal, October 2014.
  • McCulloch, Samuel Clyde. Instant University: The History of the University of California, Irvine, 1957-93. Irvine, CA: University of California, Irvine, 1996.
  • Online Archive of UCI History.

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