Savannah Tate: This is Hidden Wonders, a podcast that discovers hidden stories, details and effects in the architecture of our everyday spaces at UCLA. I am your host, Savannah Tate.
Constructing a space for engineers is no easy feat. After all, how does one create a space high-tech enough to impress the leading minds of the field? Yet the newly constructed Engineering VI complex does precisely that by maximizing efficiency without compromising on style.
The building was to be completed in two phases since the project relied heavily on donations to cover construction costs. But donations came more quickly than expected; when phase one finished two years ago, phase two began immediately. Both phases were designed by the architecture firm Moore Ruble Yudell.
Will Longyear: Phase one is a traditional laboratory building, wet labs … But the building kind of lacks a public face. So on the West side there’s faculty and research offices, the back bit is all research labs, but there’s really no lobby, so the important role that phase two did was provide that public portion.
Tate: This is Will Longyear.
Longyear: I’m with Moore Ruble Yudell architects, and I’m the project manager for phase two of Engineering VI.
Tate: The site of the structure has personal relevance to Longyear because it is built on the site of Engineering I, which is a building his father went to as a student. He added that this complex gives a brand new face and much-deserved recognition to the Henry Samueli School of Engineering.
Longyear: Engineering VI is a nationally renowned, and actually world-wide renowned program, and so this new building gives it its due.
Tate: Longyear said that efficiency was a key component in the design of the building because of the UC system’s goal of being net-neutral by 2025. For this reason the firm designed the building to be LEED Platinum certified.
Longyear: LEED is a measurement of sustainability and involves both the efficiency of the building systems (the lighting, the air, plumbing) but also it includes where we source our materials. Is the wood taken from renewable sources [so] we’re not clear-cutting rainforest?
Tate: This starts with the building’s facade. Longyear and his associates needed to consider how to use the structure’s west-facing position to its advantage.
Longyear: West is usually the most difficult orientation because the hot afternoon sun comes in. So you can tell the protection of the windows provides a lot of shading so heat never really gets in the building. Then there was super high performance glass [through] which infrared is cut out, which is the part of the light that transmits heat.
Tate: He added that the structure’s modern design suits the style of the surrounding buildings. While Powell, Royce, Haines and the Humanities buildings comprise the traditional core of campus, the outer ring of buildings have more modern styles that use similar materials as these older staples. The firm designed the facade of Engineering VI with this aesthetic, as well as the building’s prominent siting, in mind.
Longyear: The elevation [of the site] kind of opens up and provides this tall stacking of faculty offices and kind of a lantern at the top. And this will be lit. The idea here was that looking down Westwood Boulevard as you’re driving into the campus gateway through Westwood Plaza, this building from a half a mile away will announce your ultimate arrival.
Tate: Longyear and I donned safety vests and hard hats to enter the construction site of the building, which is scheduled to be completed within the next month. The first floor contains the lobby, an internal garden court, a large auditorium and a few alumni spaces, while the upper floors contain research offices for the computer science program. We first entered the William Mong auditorium, named after the family who facilitated its construction. He gestured towards a steel panel on the right hand side decorated with columns of illuminated zero’s and one’s.
Longyear: This binary code in this stainless steel backlit screen are quotes from famous physicists like [Alan] Turing and [Carl] Sagan but written in binary… So if you’re daydreaming and you know binary, you could figure out what they’re actually saying.
Tate: The auditorium has three modes of operation. It can serve as a movie theater with 25 flat panel displays that showcase a cohesive image or a series of images. It can function as a TED Talk venue, with an adjustable stage and microphones that drop from the ceiling for Q&A sessions. When a listener presses the call button, the cameras in the room will focus on that person and project their image onto the screen.
Longyear: And then option three is the most amazing, where hidden in the dark slot in the wall a curtain comes here and this essentially becomes a mini television studio… and so you can do either distance learning or you could take classes and then offer them online.
Tate: From here we walk back into the lobby and into a private room, which honors the alumni of the distinguished engineering program.
Longyear: It’s about building a sense of pride. There always has been incredible pride, but [the room is there] to actually give alumni a place to come back and celebrate that and become more involved in the school.
Tate: Upstairs lies a series of offices for faculty and students to work together on computer science projects. Longyear said collaboration was a foundational premise of the building’s design.
Longyear: So many times research tends to be an isolated endeavor… And increasingly, particularly in the last ten to fifteen years, there’s been a move as research is no longer specifically chemistry or specifically physics. You get these hybrids [like] bioengineering. Getting colleagues rubbing shoulders, communicating in an informal, more fun way — who knows what sort of interesting ideas or new directions come out of those sorts of conversations.
Tate: To create this informal environment, the firm designed living rooms on each floor with comfortable seating and a small break room. They also arranged for the labs themselves to have opaque glass panels that face the central hallway.
Longyear: So while there’s a modicum of privacy so you can’t look over somebody’s shoulder and see what’s on their computer screen, you do get a sense of people moving around. There’s a sense of community and common purpose.
Tate: Longyear said they designed the research suites to appeal to both types of researchers: those who enjoy working in the mix of people and those who prefer to work alone. The latter may choose to work in office clusters in the corners of the west wing. But both wings have the same general design to create an optimum indoor environment.
Longyear: Because we live in LA, and we live in this amazing climate, it’s usually nice outside most times of the year. So the building opens and closes and just relies on the outside air for ventilation. That whole upper row of windows automatically opens and closes depending on the temperature of the environment outside. So the building is always kind of touching and feeling and smelling.
Tate: He also explained that the lights operate independently of each other to compensate for the natural light coming in through the windows. When outside light is strong in one part of the room, the overhead lights in that section will dim automatically. In the center hallways of each level, solar tubes filter sunlight from the roof into the space below so that less electricity is needed to illuminate this space. But efficiency was not the only reason why the firm wanted to bring in natural light.
Longyear: You’re not buried in the middle of the building. There’s a sense of always being close to the outside and a sense of the outside world. And studies have shown, very empirically actually, that that’s a much more healthful environment… A happy worker, a happy researcher, a happy student is going to be a better learner, better researcher, better person. We evolved in nature, and we need it around us at all times.
Tate: The terraced garden on the eastern side of the building also serves as a way students and researchers can connect with nature and each other after long days of staring at a screen.
Tiffany Beamer: Because the building had this really interesting series of levels, there was a desire for different kinds of gathering spaces. At the very bottom there’s this wide open deck space that you can come out of [from] an auditorium at the base of the building, and that’s going to have the most room for a large group of people. And when you come to that middle level terrace, it’s more about smaller group spaces, so there are a series of benches and a little deck, but these are sort of smaller breakout spaces. And then the third elevated terrace is also a deck space but it’s smaller than the one at the bottom. So you get this whole variety of occupy-able space out in the landscape adjacent to the building.
Tate: This is Tiffany Beamer.
Beamer: I’m a partner at OLIN [and a] landscape architect, and I’ve been involved in the Engineering VI building since 2013 with MRY [Moore Ruble Yudell].
Tate: Beamer said that an outdoor space for this building makes sense because of LA’s ever-sunny weather. She also believes that at a university some of the most interesting conversations people will have will occur outside a classroom, and the garden provides a more casual setting for those encounters.
Beamer: There are opportunities to gather serendipitously with other people and talk about something without being under the pressure that you might be in in a classroom or a lecture setting. And to the extent that the landscape, not only of this building but of the larger campus, can facilitate those kinds of interactions, I think it only makes the experience at school better.
Tate: Beamer said that the garden is comprised entirely of California native plants, which suits the building’s interest in maximizing efficiency. She also highlighted another detail that integrates this space into the larger campus fabric — its paving.
Beamer: When one is walking around UCLA you see this pretty standard palette of sort of a beige, buff colored concrete and brick. UCLA actually has its own blend of bricks. It’s a series of sort of reddish colors that come together in a blend that’s used everywhere at UCLA. And one of the things we did in this project and with Engineering V and the Portola Steps, is that we took those palettes that we needed to use at the university and gave them a little more of a contemporary pattern… As you approach this project and enter into the precinct and look down, you’ll see that the materials used everywhere else on campus are woven together in a slightly more modern and contemporary way.
Tate: By combining traditional design elements with the leading technology of its time, the Engineering VI building attests to UCLA’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances without compromising its core values. It’s the same winning combination that has made the School of Engineering one of the leading programs of its kind. And it’s a fitting message for those entering the western gateway of campus seeking to know what this university is all about.
For Daily Bruin Radio, this is Savannah Tate. Join us next month for another episode of Hidden Wonders.