Architecture as art

Architecture as art

While on the University of Oregon campus the last few days attending a conference, I had the pleasure of walking by a particularly beautiful building every day.  Opened in January of this year, the John Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes stands on the corner of Agate Street and Franklin Boulevard.  As Agate is one of the main entry points into the campus, the Jaqua Center is quite an exclamation of a welcome to a campus filled with stylish, “traditional” college buildings of brick and stone.

The building was named for John E. Jaqua, a war hero, lawyer, football star and, oh yes, founding board member of Nike.  Achievements certainly worthy of recognition on a football campus like UO.  It appears that the building has a two-fold purpose: to exceed minimum NCAA requirements for academic support to student athletes and to serve as a beacon to draw in potential high-caliber athletes to the Ducks’ athletic program.  It’s interesting to compare “traditional” media accounts of the public reception to the building with the comments among students on the campus blogosphere.  As discussed in the mainstream media, the building is opulent to the extreme, with questions surrounding whether the expense is worth it and whether it will accomplish its mission.  (One media source even referred to it as the “Taj Mahal.”)  On the campus blogosphere, it appears that there is some student opposition to the building, claiming that the 40,000 square foot building, by being open to a select few of the student body, discriminates against the general population and places clear, unfair preferences on student academic success.  A group called “UO Students for Equal Access” has formed a Facebook page called “NO to the John Jaqua Center” and has a developed following of 718 members.  On the other hand, students supporting the center have noted that the gorgeous building adds value to the campus aesthetically as well as providing a valuable service of “making life easier” for the student athletes who bring so much revenue and exposure to the school.  Supporters have also formed a Facebook page, but have so far only garnered 264 members.  You would think they would have more supporters just from the athletes alone.

I think that the pro-Jaqua Center crowd is closer to the point on the value of such a building.  We generally as a society do not question the value of art, particularly public art, and what it adds to the aesthetics of our community.  And I also think that architecture can also be an art form in and of itself.  Sure, sometimes building designs have a purely utilitarian quality – like most of the buildings in Alaska.  (I do not think some of these UO students would complain about opulent buildings if they spent a semester on the UAA or UAF campuses, which are replete with drab, practically Soviet-style purely functional buildings.)  But as a visitor to the University of Oregon campus, I was simply “wowed” by this building.  I stopped to admire it several times throghout the day, and took about a half hour out of my time one evening to study it with my camera.  To me, this building says something about the University of Oregon’s priorities.  No, it does not make me believe that the UO shows undue favoritism to its athletes, it shows me that the UO gives great concern to campus aesthetics and quality in its facilities.  When the UO decided it needed to have an expanded facility to provide academic support to its athletes, it could have merely provided a simple facility that still had the same space, room and facilities for academic pursuits.  But the administration decided to instead pursue beauty and quality.  When a university has the luxury of being able to do that, any prospective student or supporter knows that the university has the broad support and vision necessary to be successful, in whatever ventures it may pursue on behalf of its community.  And that is something that any UO student, staff or faculty can take pride in.

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