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Building Out of the Box 

School can make bold, progressive statement

An expert, they say, is someone from out of town. If one's expertise increases in proportion to the distance traveled, then UNC Charlotte hosted a truly brilliant person recently when Australian architect Glenn Murcutt came to town. Although little-known in Charlotte, Murcutt is indeed a world-renowned designer, having won the Pritzker Prize (the architectural equivalent of a Nobel) in 2002. Murcutt's work is the antithesis of much contemporary architecture. He designs mainly small projects on his own or with his wife Wendy; each one is drawn and modeled by hand in an exhaustive series of studies before the final form of the building is defined. Each building is unique, well fitted to its particular site and climate, and incorporates simple local materials used in original ways. Murcutt's buildings are very responsive to the subtleties of human life and culture; he crafts extraordinary beauty from ordinary circumstances.

There is no flashy styling here of the latest blobby shapes, where buildings contort themselves into exaggerated computer-generated wiggles, each one more narcissistic than the last. Neither is there any lazy application of fake pastiche, where cozy columns, pediments and moldings are stuck on buildings for superficial nostalgic effect. Instead, Murcutt makes pure architecture, close to nature, close to people and close to culture. Forms evolve from what Murcutt calls "ecological functionalism" and "the aesthetics of necessity," where craft, materials and beauty are united in totally original compositions.

At the invitation of Charlotte students, Murcutt spent two days at the College of Architecture, energizing students and faculty alike, lecturing to packed audiences on his own work and critiquing the work of graduate students from UNC-Charlotte and several colleges from adjacent states. He was bitingly critical of the kind of architecture that predominates in the city of Charlotte, and on the UNC-Charlotte campus: conservative, formulaic boxes that alienate us from our natural environment, consume large amounts of energy and pollute our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses.

It was just as well he didn't see the illustration of Charlotte's proposed new uptown classroom building. If he'd glimpsed that august pile, he'd probably have caught the next plane back "down under" in dismay. The good news is that the new university building in First Ward probably won't look like the computer-generated image of a sorority house on steroids that glared from the pages of the Charlotte Observer. I believe this was a hastily developed picture to accompany the press release, and as far as I know, no architect has yet developed a more detailed proposal. So there's hope.

I may get a rollicking reprimand from my superiors at the university for this column, but if I bite my tongue any more about the poor standard of architecture on our campus, I'd chomp right through the flesh. It's hard to teach urgent lessons about architecture when the students' alma mater avoids tackling key imperatives of contemporary design — innovation, environmental sustainability, and climatic responsiveness. That's why Glenn Murcutt's visit was so cathartic and inspirational. If I stay silent on this issue, I myself become complicit in the acceptance of low standards.

In part I've stayed mum out of genuine respect and admiration for our retiring Chancellor, Dr. James Woodward, who has led the university with exceptional skill through more than a decade of fast-paced growth, not just in new buildings and student numbers, but in terms of academic standards measured by the quality and quantity of new degree programs at all levels. But the standard of university architecture has not matched those achievements.

I'm privileged to work at a place that's now poised to reshape the intellectual landscape of Charlotte and its region. New buildings on campus house important research in technologies that bend the mind, and these new halls of academe nurture students in an expanding range of degree programs across the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. It's an exciting place to work, and it's our duty to lead our region by example. Now our buildings must be as progressive as our thinking.

Placing astounding new American technologies in structures disguised as country houses from 18th century Europe contradicts our high ambition and quality of work. Our university is the intellectual leader of the region, a beacon of progressive thought. Yet our buildings are timid, backward-looking, and avoid the urgent realities of the modern world.

Glen Murcutt achieved worldwide fame by creating buildings that stimulated his clients to think beyond their normal horizons, expand their understanding, and fulfill their places in the community and the wider world. That is what great architecture can do, and we have precious little of it in the Queen City. It's time for UNC-Charlotte to accomplish its mission and lead our city into a new era of architectural sophistication and environmental sensitivity.

Glenn Murcutt, one of the world's great architects, would expect no less of us.

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