Ag Meets Academia: Inspiration behind UC Merced's architecture

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 24, 2012 

— The photographer who inspired the architectural design of the University of California at Merced campus only recently became aware of his influence.

David Stark Wilson's book "Structures of Utility," which is a collection of black-and-white photographs of agricultural structures, has been widely referenced by campus architects and designers, UC Merced officials acknowledge.

University staff contacted Wilson several months ago, inviting him to show his work on campus.

Wilson, who works full time as an architect in Berkeley, said he felt "flattered and thankful."

"The book was a labor of love and I never felt that it got the market I had foreseen for it," he said. "So hearing that it influenced the architecture here and the construction here is just a real pleasure."

Images from the book can be viewed at Wilson's website.

'No architect'

Wilson's photography exhibit at the UC Merced Art Gallery ended Wednesday, and was capped with a talk by the photographer. Wilson, an avid outdoorsman, told a crowd of design students that on the way to the Sierra, he became fascinated with certain agricultural structures.

"There's no architect," he said, pointing to a picture of a grain elevator. "This is just there housing the machinery. It responds only to that. And yet the composition of forms and the way they interact are incredibly exciting."

UC Merced agreed.

In an effort to bring a regional accent to the campus's modern architecture, university designers have modeled buildings after agricultural structures.

"By having this book as an inspiration, it creates a language so that everybody's talking in the same language," said Thomas Lollini, campus architect, who oversees a team of designers.

"We'll get an architect, and they'll start a design, and I'll come in and I'll go, 'Well, that looks like it belongs in L.A. We want something that it looks like it belongs here,' " he said.

Examples of buildings heavily inspired by the agricultural architecture depicted in Wilson's photography include the Joseph Gallo Recreation Center and the Central Plant Complex.

"The recreation center, you'll notice roof lines look like some of the sheds you'll see going out on Oakdale Road," said Richard Cummings, long range planning manger for UC Merced.

Silo inspires cooling system

The university's central plant looks similar to a giant silver storage tower for grain, but it's a water-based cooling system, Cummings said.

"It's (structure) is familiar to anyone driving up Highway 99 seeing silos," Cummings said. "To see them reflected in a modern, sustainable way on campus is really fantastic."

The university is constructing three buildings: a 600-bed dormitory, a second science and engineering building and a student services building.

Of the valley

All three projects will draw on agricultural themes, Lollini said.

He said he worked with the original campus architect, Jim Smith, on the question: How do you do something that's really of the Central Valley?

"So, I've sort of taken that and run with it, and pushed that interpretation much farther than in the original buildings," he said.

The campus easily could have gone in a more conventional direction, Wilson said.

"It's what you're not seeing that's really refreshing to me. I think it's worth pointing out what this could have been, which is a lot of people might have come to this campus and gone, 'We're going to do these classical buildings.' "

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or

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