Jan 2015 Bulletin cover
Volume 83 | Issue 1
January 2015

Postwar Union Buildings in California

Clare Robinson

 core competencies - postwarAlthough college union buildings appeared on North American campuses early in the 20th century, the building type came of age after World War II, when architects and union proponents enlisted modern architecture to fully embrace modernism and its ideological tenets of functionality, efficiency, planning, and flexibility. Examples of postwar union facilities, especially at the University of California–Los Angeles and the University of California–Berkeley, illustrate how buildings took the form of flexible spaces that by design equalized differences among activities and students. In these new settings, coed spaces for socialization replaced single-sex lounges, large cafeterias seated hundreds of students at one time, bookstores sold a greater variety and quantity of merchandise, and leisure activities linked up with new technologies, such as televisions, record players, and automatic pinsetters in bowling alleys. Tailored for a broad audience, the spaces and the activities in them amounted to buildings much more complex than their pre-World War II predecessors. Technology coupled with spatial flexibility to bring modern living to campus and a fresh way of teaching students how to be part of the postwar community.

In modern postwar buildings, architects reinvented spatial and experiential relationships among interior activities using structural columns, partition walls, and glass curtain walls. The same materials gave buildings new exterior form. In addition, products such as steel, radiant heat, fluorescent lighting, and plastics were readily available and allowed architects to focus on functionality, efficiency, and technology. Freed from past forms and traditional construction methods, architects and social programs of unions could “collaborate” to create new environments for socialization.

University of California–Los Angeles

 Ackerman Union - postwar

Architect Welton Becket’s design for the Ackerman Union at UCLA exemplified the promise of modern architecture and served as a monumental backdrop for the drama of everyday student life. At its opening in 1961, the union’s community lounge doubled as a ballroom and event space for banquets, films, dances, and live performances. Although the expansive floor space was infinitely flexible, on a typical day, green-blue carpets defined its organization into smaller conversation circles. The soft fabrics of the wood-based furniture introduced turquoise, greens, blues, and highlights of yellow and copper to the white room. When the curtains were not drawn, a wall of windows with concrete modular sun-shades filtered the western sun. In the cafeteria, interior furnishings were as colorful as those in the lounge. The room had vinyl floor covering with stripes of cantaloupe orange, white, and lemon yellow; ochre, gray, lemon yellow, and white chairs; and regular table sizes that formed four-, six-, and eight-person conversation groups. Compared with UCLA’s old union, Kerckhoff Hall, Becket’s new union for UCLA introduced a building much larger and more flexible.

The interior spaces of Ackerman contrasted with Kerckhoff Hall as well. Gone were the Spanish-style tile floors, rich wood trim, floral upholstery, and carpets. Instead, Ackerman featured modern fixtures, finishes, and finely woven fabrics. The smooth polished floors, paint, and track lighting were durable, manufactured products suitable for recreation spaces. Any money saved on lavish materials Becket spent on modern conveniences, making the building an efficient student activities machine. The elevators, automated bowling lanes, televisions, lockers, cash registers, bake shop ovens, and steam cookers are examples of how Becket and his design team, along with UCLA’s union proponents, prioritized modern conveniences. These amenities, set against pale colors and white, glistened and put modern conveniences and leisure activities within reach of UCLA students.

Compared to Becket’s later work—which included corporate offices, luxury hotels, and international airports—the Ackerman Union at UCLA was a modest project. His hotels, department stores, and corporate headquarters, in particular, often had several buildings and lavish modern interiors. However, the Ackerman Union shared several characteristics with Becket’s high-profile projects. The height of the student union community lounge was comparable to the grandest hotel lobby. The cafeteria mimicked corporate lunchrooms found elsewhere. Using this language of design, Ackerman Union taught UCLA students about postwar living. 

University of California–Berkeley

 Heller Lounge - postwar

Architects for UC–Berkeley’s postwar college union also brought modern architecture to campus but in the form of a large complex for student leisure and recreation that not only relocated student activities on campus—as Becket did more subtly on UCLA’s campus—but that also knit exterior and interior spaces together with the campus plan. The result was a large-scale urban student activities center on the southern edge of campus. The impetus to build there in 1961 dated back to the 1948 alumni study Students at Berkeley, but the form and its meaning were products of the 1950s and many union proponents on Berkeley’s campus. For example, the alumni association helped introduce the role of architecture and large-scale planning in postwar social education and union design. By addressing the importance of education outside the classroom, they spread the idea of the student union and promoted the models and renderings prepared by architects Vernon DeMars and Donald Hardison. According to DeMars’ 1957 paper “Education for a Full Life,” alumni and students imagined “a feel for the future” and “a modern, completely informal atmosphere.” They could also picture how the campus community would enjoy the lounge and dining terrace, and they sensed the availability of constructive things to do. The project would be a modern campus “living room,” with all its recreational, cultural, social, and intellectual opportunities for informal education. All in all, it was a desirable solution to student needs in the postwar era.

Not unlike Becket, DeMars and Hardison chose to fill interiors with modern furniture and fixtures, and they covered many of the surfaces in durable materials. The billiards room, for example, had asbestos flooring, painted concrete walls, and fluorescent lighting. The cafeteria—completed first—displayed DeMars and Hardison’s more playful approach to architectural forms: the “flying” cast-concrete roof framed clerestory windows and hovered two floors above the main dining area. Here, floor-to-ceiling windows and globe lighting illuminated the tables, chairs, and dark polished floors for up to 800 diners. In an important nod to California’s Bay Area and local architectural palette, DeMars and Hardison clad the interior walls and selected structural elements in more precious materials. Redwood boards and laminate paneling covered the walls of the lounge, lobby, memorial room, and ballroom. The rich texture and color of the wood absorbed the natural light pouring through the windows. In general, the clean, uncluttered lines of the furnishings and interior spaces foregrounded student life and activities.

The most celebrated and iconic part of the union was its plaza. It was here that DeMars and Hardison, with the help of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, envisioned the pulse of student life. The lounge, dining terrace, and pub activities spilled out and over the plaza and served as a civic space. Concerts, dance performances, academic festivals, and impromptu rallies could take place here and be seen and heard by nearly anyone in the complex. And as the architects hoped, such activities would solidify school spirit and campus citizenship.

DeMars and Hardison likened their design for the union to the Plaza of San Marco in Venice. By doing so, they suggested citizenship would be modeled on Renaissance ideals, civic space, and architecture. In their imagination, the residents of Venice visibly practiced citizenship in the great main plaza, where deliberation and discussion occurred. Thus, the large lower plaza at Berkeley was an outdoor gathering place for all of its citizen-students. DeMars and Hardison gathered the main “civic” buildings of campus around it and included a sculpture of Berkeley’s bear mascot that, like the statue of San Marco, blessed the campus. With these parallels to the Italian plaza, DeMars and Hardison sought to cast the union as an environment for citizenry.

DeMars’ own practice dealt with large-scale urban projects. In partnership with Donald Ray, DeMars studied and proposed numerous civic centers that combined housing, office space, retail, and urban environments. Much like UC–Berkeley’s Student Center, these projects envisioned people strolling through public plazas and enjoying food and drink outside but adjacent to serious work environments. Plazas, colonnades, and pedestrian bridges gave coherence to the building ensembles. Thus, DeMars’ concurrent projects renewed urban areas and imbued them with a reverence for bustling city centers, where citizenship was seen and practiced collectively. Berkeley’s student union and plaza reflected this 
civic optimism.

A New Type of Socialization

 community lounge - postwar

Architects at UCLA and Berkeley bridged the demands of student union programs, largely established by consensus through the oversight of the Association of College Unions, consultants such as Porter Butts, and concurrent projects in practice. Becket borrowed heavily from his planning experience and corporate designs while DeMars, Hardison, and Halprin developed spaces akin to large-scale civic centers. Underlying these formal strategies were commitments to modern architecture and an interest in the leisure pursuits of college students. DeMars especially celebrated the potential of his union to teach students citizenry. To make the plaza at UC–Berkeley work as the plaza in Venice, however, it needed markets. Therefore, commercial activities—dining, bowling, shopping, and drinking—lined the lower student union plaza. As a result, consumption defined citizenship and the recreational activities enjoyed by students on both campuses.

Commercial activities did not go unnoticed. Critics of UCLA’s Ackerman Union, for example, complained that union activities were empty of cultural and educational content. Without a proper music room, browsing library, art gallery, or current events room, the union lacked the intellectual and emotional environments necessary to educate and socialize students. In 1969, one detractor, UCLA biology professor George Laties, indicated the building had become a coed playhouse that abysmally failed to foster meaningful interaction among students and faculty. These accusations would have been serious for UCLA’s union staff, but the vehicle for social education had changed. Ackerman Union and others like it did socialize students. Instead of deliberative skills or art appreciation, students (also considered future citizens) learned consumer and cultural activities important in the postwar period. Citizenship training had not only a new backdrop but also new underlying financial necessities, which drove how and for what students were training. Federal building loans, subsequent student fees, and revenue generated by room rentals, bookstore sales, the cafeteria, and games largely defined the activities in the union. Thus, as part of their training, students learned to tax themselves, purchase school supplies, eat, and participate in inexpensive recreational activities. The activities reflected how successful unions had broadened their audience, and therefore purpose, in the postwar period.

Many spaces within UCLA and Berkeley’s postwar unions provided unstructured spaces for socialization and noncommercial activities. The cafeteria, bowling lanes, and bookstore, however, gave students opportunities to consume food and leisure activities. Students could eat, bowl, and shop together. By consuming popular culture and popular activities in the union, students practiced becoming consumers of popular culture after graduation. Imagining students as citizens and consumers arose directly from the process of planning and funding buildings in the 1950s.

In all of this, modern architecture played a crucial role. College union architects—Becket, DeMars, and Hardison among them—looked to corporate and urban renewal projects as precedents. In these were both the processes that shaped postwar student union projects—private capital and public money—and the ideals that they represented—functionality, flexibility, and efficiency. College unions, with modern furniture and the latest building technology and equipment, presented the ideal environment for social education and civic life during the postwar period. Most important, the legacy of these buildings lingers on campuses today as university communities renovate or replace postwar union buildings.


Clare Robinson

Clare Robinson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, where she teaches courses in architectural history and theory. Her dissertation, Student Union: The Architecture and Social Design of Postwar Campus Community Centers in California (2012), is the basis of this article and her current research on student union buildings.