Timelessness, Beauty and Poetry in Planning

Timelessness, Beauty and Poetry in Planning

“The challenge—our challenge—is to produce for generations to come—not just for today or for fifty years hence—an efficient, flexible, and simple solution to the design of your Academy; and yet—and above all—beautiful, lastingly beautiful. In other words, our challenge is to produce a timeless beautiful thing that works….” – Nathaniel Owings, May 14 1955.

The United States Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs has long been recognized as one of the most important institutional planning and design projects of the Cold War era. Completed in 1958, the Air Force Academy remains as one of the preeminent expressions of an American modernist vocabulary at the campus scale. Nathaniel Owings, the architect in charge of the campus’s design, brimmed with enthusiasm as he eloquently justified it to members of Congress in 1955. He proclaimed the campus’s design as a thing of “timeless beauty.” This optimism can be viewed as a product of the times and the attitude of many Americans during the post-war socioeconomic boom. However, I believe that the design intent of the Academy is not just a reflection of the era, but also a testament to the poetry of thoughtful planning and design.

On a recent visit to the Air Force Academy I was struck by the special quality of the campus’s weightless buildings and rectilinear courtyards all set against the dramatic backdrop of the Colorado Rockies. Looking out across the large, sunken pavilion known as the “Terrazzo”, I watched as the Air Force Academy’s Cadets assembled in lunchtime formation. Surrounded by a perimeter of some of the campus’s original buildings, the scene could have easily been from fifty years in the past. Yet, it also felt contemporary, an everyday scene set in an appropriate context that was very much of the here and now. I was reminded of Ownings’ affirmations from the 1950’s. This campus ensemble was indeed a thing of timeless beauty.

This result was not accidental, nor was it arbitrary, it was the deliberate result of thoughtful and intentional planning. Timelessness and beauty are codified into the Air Force Academy’s planning philosophy. From the original 1950’s campus master plan through subsequent master plan editions, the Air Force Academy’s planners and architects have consistently defined a cohesive campus aesthetic. An example of their thinking fills the text of the 1980’s campus master plan: “The Master Plan…must be treated as a “living” document; it must be responsive to the ever-present changes in need and program. However, the planning and design goals, objectives, and strategies identified and illustrated must remain constant for the plan to be effective in ensuring the quality and harmony of the environment.”

This consistent approach has allowed the Air Force Academy to physically develop while adhering to the original modernist vision developed over sixty-years ago. While master plan directives are largely technical by nature, they point to a larger discussion about the future, and what that future should look and feel like. There is an inherent optimism in this discussion, for any discussion of the future assumes that there will be a future for a given campus or place, and that it is a future that is worth planning for. In order for the Air Force Academy’s planners to persuade others of their continued vision of the future they had to weave a planning narrative that was exciting, compelling, and spirited. In other words their plans needed to be poetic.

At WRNS, we are unrelentingly optimistic about the future. This view is encapsulated in our architecture, which integrates forward thinking design with a deep understanding of sustainability. We simultaneously have a deep appreciation for context and history – an attitude that is often expressed through our architectural forms and use of materials. This attitude about the past and future also permeates our planning practice. We were recently asked by our client, CSU Maritime Academy (Cal Maritime), to help develop a new master plan for their Vallejo, California campus. The scope of this effort was broad, covering all aspects of future campus development, including student enrollment growth, overall campus land use and design, building capacity and placement, circulation and infrastructure, and sustainability. While this largely manifested in brick and mortar projects, the fundamental purpose of the campus master plan was to guide campus development in a way that reflects, upholds, and strengthens the institution.

The vision statement for the plan articulated an overall goal of helping “to help create a beautiful and distinctive campus that remains rooted in the University’s history while recognizing and responding to enrollment growth and changes in pedagogy, as well as the evolving landscape of the total student experience, faculty teaching and scholarship, and staff support.”  While the requirements of the plan dictated a technical approach that was rooted in investigation and data, we also felt that it needed to tell a persuasive and poetic story to speak to those unfamiliar with the technical lexicon of architecture and planning. Learning from the accomplishments of the Air Force Academy planners, we asserted beauty and timelessness as primary drivers of the plan’s principles and narrative.

An example of this approach can be seen in the plan’s discussion of the design intent for future campus buildings, where the narrative was rooted in the larger story of the evolving organization of higher education and the beauty of the campus image. An excerpt from this section reads:  “Great educators can inspire students in almost any environment, but the ease by which quality education can be delivered increases greatly in thoughtfully designed environments and buildings. As the spaces in which indoor learning and campus life takes place, buildings can play a critical role in student’s ability to learn, create, collaborate, and thrive. Buildings also define the spatial and architectural character of campus. This section provides campus-wide building design principles and guidelines that will help to foster cadet success and keep campus facilities consistent with Cal Maritime’s cohesive campus image.” Of course the section also contained detailed (and sometimes technical) standards and guidelines. However, an attempt was made to interweave these requirements into the larger, more poetic narrative surrounding higher education and beauty. While not necessarily poetry in the traditional sense, this type of narrative is poetic in that it conveys a sense of spirit, emotion, and composition in a way that a purely technical document would not.

The master plan was also structured around four organizing concepts – densify the academic core, engage the waterfront, emphasize the main campus axes, and connect residential and academic life. Each of these concepts was key in telling an overall story about the way in which the Cal Maritime campus should develop into the future. The concepts were operated through technical planning necessities – like guidelines, data, and drawings – so that the plan could ultimately be implementable. However, a consistent poetic narrative, continually touched on the organizing concepts, helped tell the plan’s story of creating an enduring and vibrant campus environment dedicated to student success and supportive of Cal Maritime’s strategic mission and core values. I hope that in the future a planner would stand on the Cal Maritime campus – just as I had at the Air Force Academy – and enjoy the view while reflecting on these ideals. 

As WRNS assists our clients plan for the future we look to the accomplishments of the past. Precedents like the Air Force Academy inspire us to produce work that is timeless, beautiful, and poetic. With continued pressures related to growth, rapidly evolving technologies, and the larger dynamic of global climate change, we find that an approach rooted in storytelling and poetry will make our planning work have impact, while remaining – in Owing’s words – timelessly beautiful.