Walk through UC Santa Cruz’s forested paths and you might see moss creeping into the grooves of wooden bridges and stone walls, or thick roots rupturing concrete as if gasping for breath.

UCSC is often lauded as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country, but its architectural style often plays second fiddle to the rich landscape. Unglamorous yet coveted, the interplay of industrialism and nature is what makes this campus special.

The industrial appearance is the result of the brutalist architectural design many buildings on campus abide by. Brutalism, a style of architecture that emerged in the 1950s, is characterized by a geometric, minimalistic style that emphasizes the materials buildings are made of, typically concrete or steel.

The brutalist vision of the campus was pioneered by John Carl Warnecke, the architect of McHenry Library, and maintained by those designers who followed him. 

Left: windows casting shadows on a door at the marine sciences building. Right: dappled light through trees on a maintenance door at Classroom Unit 1. All illustrations by Prema Reyes.

Beautiful Brutalism: McHenry Library

Named after the first chancellor, McHenry Library was built in 1968 and designed by the San Francisco-based architect Warnecke and remains one of the campus’s most iconic buildings. Prior to his work on campus, in 1963 President Kennedy recruited Warnecke for  the preliminary design process of a Kennedy presidential library, but he was dropped from this assignment following the President’s assassination. Despite this loss, Warnecke was given another chance to construct a library when he was enlisted by the University of California to design McHenry Library.

McHenry Library added a new wing to its existing structure in 2008, but renovations did not fully wrap up until 2011. The whole endeavor cost the University $100 million.  

Those who frequent McHenry can feel the history absorbed into its walls. Awash with silence, we float over the treetops, elevated by an unnatural and yet nearly invisible industrial force. The beauty of McHenry’s brutalism is that it is striking, even distracting, from the outside, and invisible from within. Inside the building’s belly, you can only see the trees. 

With his design, John Carl Warnecke imparted a timeless and indelible piece of architectural history onto UCSC, and established a standard for structural style on campus. 

McHenry Library is not the sole contributor to my understanding of UC Santa Cruz as a literal kind of concrete jungle. More recent additions to the campus have followed Warnecke’s lead.

Ugliness and its Appreciated Effect: Music Center

In January 1997, the new music center opened. Designed by Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock, the building cost $21 million. 

“The poetic topographic elements of the UCSC campus — ravine, meadow, and rocky outcropping — organized in a choreographed sequence to form a music village where the great meadow meets the edge of the redwood forest,” Predock said of his design. 

Top left: view above an atrium, across from the music theater. Bottom left: wall indicating the descent to a second atrium, and the music center’s first floor entrance.

Right: a small window reflects the landscape back at the viewer. View of Monterey Bay. 

His description is artful and telling of the brutalist mission. In Predock’s description of the building, he hardly discusses it. Too often,  brutalist buildings are addressed as stark and powerful, when in reality they are quite ugly. 

Ugly, here, is not an evil word. Ugly is descriptive — it is honest. It forgoes the typical aesthetic prescriptions in order to establish new ones. I think the music center is wonderfully ugly. It takes nothing and lends everything to the landscape. 

Impact and looking ahead

So where does all this history lead us? 

For one, we are gifted with architecture that shows us time. From morning to afternoon to evening, shadows move through trees and glass. Concrete walls darken from years of absorbing the oil of passerby’s fingertips. The concrete ruptures as trees grow impatient. 

Bettina Aptheker, a former UCSC professor of feminist studies, wrote in her memoir ‘Intimate Politics’ that “the scattered placement of the colleges… were intended to thwart student protests.” The “bunkerlike” designs of the campus seem to serve a political agenda alongside an aesthetic one. 

In  An Uncommon Place : A Digital Companion, an oral history collection created by UCSC, former chancellor emeritus Karl Pister reccounted his arrival on campus in 1991: 

“Where is the campus? That was my first question. There’s no campanile. There’s no tower. There’s no there there. That was my first orientation towards something that I’ve become accustomed to now, that the campus is everywhere at Santa Cruz. There is no center of the campus, really.”

Decades later, there is still no center.

Another beauty of brutalism is its loneliness, its isolation. Each building in its individuality becomes its own center. They are ugly and clunky and in the way. Yet beside their gray facades, the forest glows greener. 

Clark Kerr Hall was designed in 1969 by the architectural office of Germano, Milono, and Associates and was named after the former University of California President and UC Berkeley Chancellor.