The Jaqua Center: The College Experience Writ Architectural

A controversial new building on the University of Oregon campus—underwritten by Nike’s deep-pocketed cofounder—wants to turn athletes into student-athletes.

“No food, no drinks, no beavers,” reads a sign just inside the door of the auditorium at the University of Oregon’s John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, in Eugene. And in case the rivalry with Oregon State University, just an hour up the road in Corvallis, isn’t clear, the elevator takes up the theme: “Capacity: 3000 pounds, or one Beavers fan.”

It’s a jaunty attitude for an academic building, but it’s only one reason why the Jaqua Center isn’t just another academic building. It’s a perilously shiny — and controversial, given the university’s recent budget cuts — piece of new construction that boldly juts out of a corner of campus. Soothing any potential fiscal ire, however, is the fact that it’s been almost single-handedly financed by the Portland-born University of Oregon alum Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike and a big home-state supporter. (Without his company’s Beaverton campus, which holds 7,000 employees, it’s doubtful that Portland would be able to support as many expensive restaurants as it does.) And this is Eugene, “the anarchist capital of the United States,” as described by its mayor in 1999; and neighbor to the improbable Oregon Vortex, a tourist attraction billing itself as “an area of naturally occurring visual and perceptual phenomena” including disturbances to the laws of perspective, posture, and magnetism. In other words, things here can get a little weird.

But college towns tend to be only as strange as their gowns, and Eugene is no different. The University of Oregon is where the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander came up with the book The Oregon Experiment, which detailed an intuitive planning process furthered in his insanely successful A Pattern Language, a prescriptive architectural manifesto using “feeling” as a primary design criteria and pattern recognition as a problem solver.

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It is also where the famous Oregon Ducks play. “When the football team wanders out onto the field with eight different uniform changes, that’s Eugene!” says Eugene Sandoval, of the Portland-based firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, lead architects of the project. Fun fact: the name confluence isn’t a coincidence but rather the result of a Filipino father who studied at the University of Oregon and loved the town’s name so much he gave it to his son. Had Eugene (the architect) been a little more interested in schoolwork in Manila, his father might not have sent him to Eugene (the town) to learn to study. But he wasn’t, and he did. And so, today the architect Eugene walks through the building he built for not only his namesake town but also his alma mater.

It’s a worn trope that student-athletes are often less academically inclined than their less athletic peers. Colleges across the nation, from state schools to the Ivy League, have their lacrosse teams, basketball players, students who can run really fast but might have a harder time with math. Often, though, teachers turn a blind eye, thinking instead of the perceived value of a winning streak. In other words, if you’re a “laxer” — a lacrosse player who lives and dies by the game — so is the school. It’s great for four years, but what doesn’t seem to be thought of all that often is that once the athletes get out into the real world, they won’t be intellectually coddled out of respect for their curveball. Sandoval, a former swimmer, has been thinking about that.

“The building is a platform to make student-athletes succeed in life past the University of Oregon,” Sandoval says. His coarchitect on the project, a fiercely well-put-together designer named Randy Stegmeier, concurs. “This isn’t about sports,” he says. “This is about life.” As they talk, they stand below a photomural of student-athletes. Each snapshot is taken over the course of a year and melded together to create an abstract portrait of Albert Einstein. It’s similar to what Rem Koolhaas did with Mies at the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, at Chicago’s IIT, but hipper, more casual, lower-slung. (Remember, this is Oregon.)

That said, the mural may be the only thing about the building that is casual and low-slung. From an exterior that glistens like a shining jewel box (particularly in the steady Oregon rain) and that seems to grow out of a flat pond often detailed with real ducks to the offices, which alone would be enough to make professors — tenured, publishing professors — in any of the other buildings, anywhere on campus — throw out their publication record and vie for the chance to talk student-athletes through their calculus homework, the Jaqua Center is a study in very good architecture, from program to site to detail.

“Sports are still treated like a gladiatorial event,” Sandoval says. “There’s not really any story of the way to get there and the way to succeed in life.” The existing student-athlete study center wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere. “It was in shambles,” Stegmeier says. “Students were in hallways trying to study.”

For the students, the Jaqua Center provides a chance for them to connect with the school, in some cases for the first time. For the university, it is a chance to protect its most successful student-athletes. The flip side of being a great athlete is that you’re not the only one who knows it. Sandoval runs through the list of concerns: outside sports agents, overenthusiastic fans, donors who “will go in and try and have a casual conversation” that somehow sounds nothing but menacing, and the boyfriends and girlfriends who just find it easier to do the athletes’ homework for them.

This is a place for student-athletes to have the ultimate collegiate experience: a big old mishmash of running around, learning, avoiding learning, talking to others, having table-pounding arguments, talking to a counselor about your sudden discovery of something that feels like a bad feeling, and generally trying to figure yourself out. This 40,000-square-foot space is the college experience writ architectural, a delineated and multilayered structure floating on a seemingly ephemeral plane of water, with an open middle that belies the controlled force holding the edges in. The Jaqua Center, with its tension between freedom and suggestion, confusion and careful layout, open plan and privacy, articulates an experience in which private and public blend to the point of melting.

The exterior is anything but typical. It is hung with a curtain wall designed by Benson Industries — the same Gresham-based firm that did the curtain wall for ZGF’s office tower in Portland as well as the iconic one for Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building. Engineered in collaboration with Arup (the only firm Sandoval found to have a modeling program complex enough to take on the project), the structure is a two-layered box with single-plate-glass panels on the outside and insulated glass panels on the inside. The glass lets 52 percent of available light into the depths of the building, while the five-foot-deep air cavity, operating under the greenhouse effect, insulates the building against the Oregon chill. It is such a novel construction for the school that it has been co-opted as a research project, a living laboratory for professors from the architecture department. A system of operable rolling shades is in place just in case the sun should ever shine in this corner of paradise, while a stainless-steel screen absorbs heat in the cavities in the winter and reflects light back out in the summer.

There’s a lot of light in the building, surprising for this part of the world. Most of it comes through the central public atrium, which is split in half on the second floor by a bridge that’s the closest the space gets to the library. The light illuminates students’ names engraved on the floor, Academic All-Americans all of them, with the size of the engraving corresponding to the size of their accomplishments. It also illuminates a wall of graduates, where a Nike-inspired phrase “A Few Who Just Did It” introduces former students like Ken Kesey, the pole-crossing explorer Ann Bancroft, and, of course, Knight. It comes through the public cafeteria and the open fire pit, flanked with Moroso furniture, a brand that appears again in the staff lounge upstairs. Sandoval and Stegmeier have also introduced Poltrona Frau (in the form of Duck-yellow auditorium chairs) and Ligne Roset seating for the student lounge and specially modified De La Espada study seats (braced for offensive linemen).

There is a casualness that lies at the heart of what makes this a successful space. The only time the athletes used to see one another, Sandoval explains, “was at the treatment centers, treating their injuries.” The Jaqua Center, on the other hand, “is a place on campus they can see each other as a culture.” With their lives so resolutely monitored — from how many hours they’re in training to how many calories they can take in — the university’s student-athletes clearly needed a place to be students, not athletes.

It’s a freedom that the layout mirrors, with a central open core and private zones that line the perimeter of the building. Thirty-five tutor rooms and twenty-five faculty/advising offices provide respite from the frenzy of the library, auditorium, computer lab, and teaching labs, while two sets of study carrels — one for individuals and silent, one for partners and louder — offer mid-level privacy for studying track stars. Three teaching labs — math, English, social studies — feature electrically switchable smart glass that can be flicked from transparent to opaque quicker than you can say “Help.” Private tutors meet with students to discuss everything from the German language to politics. On a recent afternoon, a tutor’s office wall (they can all be written on) offered insight into Marxism with this breakdown:
1) product
2) process
3) self
4) each other

This building aspires to the very antithesis of alienation. There is no front door or backdoor. Instead, massive glass doors swing out onto perfectly inlaid stones that appear to barely float above the surrounding moat. Just as so many student names are engraved throughout the building — on the floor, in the stairwells — so, too, are the architects’ names engraved: onto the trash cans.

Three quotes — from Herodotus, Sophocles, and Plato — detail the public entry wall, essentially a letter written to the visiting student. “At this moment, you occupy a space and time that will change your life,” it starts. “This building is not hallowed ground. It is an eternal challenge.” And it provides just the kind of hurdles these students truly need.

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