Saturday, June 03, 2006

Things Ain't What They Used To Be

Last week, I mentioned the Frank Gehry Building at UC Irvine, and how I didn't particularly care one way or the other if it got demolished.

I also said that it's a crime against architecture to buy an Eichler or a Neutra just to tear it down and rebuild on the lot. In fact, as you are probably aware, such crimes do not actually exist -- there are no statutes in any country pertaining specifically to architecture, as far as I know.

Unfortunately, this only strengthens the belief among some people that since something belongs to them, they have the absolute right to do whatever they want with it. Legally, they probably do in many cases. Legally, someone can buy a Ming vase and smash it to pieces. It would be unconscionable to destroy such a priceless historic artifact, but there's no law against it. Legally, someone could buy a Picasso and trim it down a little so it fits better on his living room wall, or repaint parts of it so the colors don't clash with his carpet. But just because it's legal, that doesn't make it a good idea. As a matter of fact, sometimes it can be a very bad idea.

You can ponder that for a while if you want, but it's not what I really wanted to talk about this week. As you may recall, I also mentioned last week that I graduated from UCI in the '70s, so writing last week's piece inevitably brought back a few memories.

I hadn't been back to the campus in about 25 years, but about five years ago, the son of a friend of mine was accepted there. They held an orientation day a few weeks before the school year started for students and their parents, but he didn't want to go, so my friend and I went instead.

As I mentioned last week, there are a lot more buildings than there used to be. That was one visible change. Another was that a lot of the old buildings had been renamed. It seemed like just about all the buildings were named after corporate donors, so there was a Rockwell building and a McDonnell Douglas building and a bunch of others. There were also a lot of buildings named after private donors, but I don't remember any of their names. When I went there, the buildings were named for the kind of classes they taught there, like Humanities, Physical Sciences, or Engineering. Concise, direct, and to the point, with no hint of corporate endowments.

When I was a student, there used to be a building called Gateway Commons. I used to hang out there between classes with my friends. Back then, it was one of the few places on campus where they served food, so it was always crowded and noisy. I don't think I actually ever bought any food there, but that's sort of beside the point -- it was just a good place to hang out. Now it's called the Gateway Study Center and it's probably the quietest building on campus -- I think I even heard more people talking in the library.

That seemed sort of ironic, but it wasn't as strange as when I went back to the dorms. When I was a freshman, I lived in the dorms, which were collectively known as Mesa Court. Going back there brought back all sorts of memories that I didn't even know I had. For example, I didn't remember that it was called Mesa Court. We caught up with a Mesa Court tour given by one of the dorm residents, and I learned that the place had changed a lot in my absence. Of course, even if it had stayed exactly the same, it would have still seemed different to me, but things had changed a lot in 25 years.

Mesa Court is a cluster of buildings, each one housing about fifty students. Each dorm has its own name, and when I went there, a lot of dorms had distinct personalities as well. They still do, as it turns out, but some of those personalities have changed over the years. For example, there was a dorm not too far from mine called Bahia. It was an all-male dorm with a reputation for heavy partying and beer drinking. Back then, the living room wall even had the word "Bahia" painted on it in the style of a Coors beer can, complete with mountain and waterfall.

Bahia is now co-ed, but it's also a "substance-free" dorm. The students have to sign a contract stating they will not use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs -- even when they're not in the dorm. If they do and they get caught, they get kicked out. When I told the girl (woman, technically, but she looked so young) leading the tour about its old reputation, her jaw dropped a little. She was a Bahia resident, and it didn't look to me as if she appreciated the irony.

Drinking and drug taking were a significant part of my socialization process as a freshman, so it seemed to me that these substance-free kids were missing out on something valuable -- but I decided to keep that comment to myself, especially since a lot of parents on the tour seemed very concerned about things like drinking and drugs and whether students of one gender ever had overnight guests of another gender.

Since the student population had grown so much in 25 years, the dorms were a lot more crowded. Some of the rooms that were designed to hold two people now hold three people, with single beds removed and replaced with bunk beds.

But that alone wasn't enough to meet the increased demand for on-campus housing, so they were in the process of tearing down some of the dorms to make room for larger ones. Some of my old friends used to live in the dorms they were tearing down, but I didn't, so my dorm was still intact.

I wanted to see my old room, but my dorm wasn't part of the tour and the entrance doors to it were locked. When I lived there, the doors were open all day, so anyone could walk in and hang out. It helped foster a sense of community, which we were sort of big on in the '70s. But the doors I had walked through every day of my freshman year had been replaced with security doors, so you needed a special access card to get inside the building. There was even a sign that read "Do not prop door open." So much for fostering a sense of community.

When I went there, most people I knew never even locked their bedroom doors -- I remember going into other people's rooms when they weren't around to return a book or listen to their stereo or do whatever. Back then it was like we were one big happy family, except that we weren't always that happy, and it wasn't really much like a family.

Anyway, I knocked on the door and somebody let me in. When she asked if she could help me, I told her I used to live there a long time ago and I wanted to take a look at my old dorm room. Fortunately, my room was unlocked, and I even met one of the guys who lived in it.

He asked me what it used to be like, so I told him that we used to be able to paint our rooms any way we wanted, and I described how the room used to look. (By the way, even in the relatively free-spirited '70s, the way I painted our room was considered unusual, although as I look back on it now, I think it may have been unconsciously inspired by some of the works of Henri Matisse.) He seemed intrigued, but he told me there was no longer any such policy, so all the rooms were white -- and nobody ever rearranged their furniture either, so each room had exactly the same layout as all the others.

When I lived there, one of the living room walls had a cartoon painted on it. It was taken from an offbeat underground comic book, which would undoubtedly be considered even more offbeat today. As I recall, the dialog was mostly a conversation between the sun and the moon as they looked down upon the people of Earth and pondered the human condition. I don't remember much more than that (other than that the cartoon was from the Odd Bodkins book Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking...Drown the Sound of My Voice Talking... by Dan O'Neill), but that cartoon was one of the things that gave our dorm its personality.

Of course, the cartoon is no longer there. They covered the wall with painted wood paneling, the same as they'd used in all the other dorms. I remember how when they used to give tours to high-school seniors, our dorm was sometimes one of the tour stops, just so they could show off the cartoon. Now it's barely a memory.

And that's it for my college reminiscing. I haven't been back there in about five years, so I'm sure the place has changed even more. Things change, slowly but surely, and sometimes it happens so slowly that we don't even notice what we've lost. And even when we do notice it, we usually forget about it after a while. So life goes on, for better or worse. That's just part of the human condition, I guess. And if a Frank Gehry building happens to get torn down along the way, it doesn't really matter much one way or the other.