by Marshall Williams
“On a warm, clear winter afternoon, architect Michael Wilkes leads a guest on a tour of the new School of Leadership and Education Sciences building he and his company have designed for the University of San Diego. After years of shuttling among campus buildings including temporary trailers, this fall, the school will finally have a home to call its own, validating its pioneering graduate degree programs that have earned recognition for training the leaders and educators of tomorrow.Though the building’s completion is months away, it’s evident that this structure, which covers a full block, will be impressive. A tower stakes the building’s claim along Marian Way. Behind it, the structure’s massive steel frame is filling in with walls, ducting, pipes, concrete and stairways. There are hints of arches and windows and doorways.
Wilkes leads the way across a patch of bare dirt that will become a spacious entry plaza with a tiled Moorish fountain, palm trees and low concrete walls. He is tall and wiry, with the quick, nimble movements of a man whose BMI is in the lower range. Until his knees began to ache, he ran track workouts with men half his age — and often beat them. He’s since switched to cycling, but chances are his relentless drive still pushes him past younger athletes. On this particular day, he wears a light jacket over an open-necked shirt, khakis and nubby-soled trail shoes. He lopes through the site, weaving his way around construction debris as he talks a steady stream of architectural details.
At 61, Wilkes is one of the esteemed San Diego architects of his generation. He is past president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and several years ago he was honored by his peers with the title of “Fellow,” a recognition of career achievement bestowed on only a few architects each year. Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues and Barker, where he is a principal and CEO, has designed buildings for Qualcomm, Pfizer, Kyocera, the Four Seasons Aviara and Pechanga Resort & Casino. The firm has also done projects for San Diego State University, the University of California, San Diego, and now, USD.
Even after decades in the design business, Wilkes found a new challenge at the University of San Diego. He is a modernist at heart — think sleek geometric forms of steel and glass. USD, by contrast, is modeled on the 16th-century Spanish Renaissance style of the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, outside Madrid, Spain. To land the USD job, Wilkes had to cram like a grad student. “I felt like I was in school again!” (He earned his architecture degree at the University of Oregon).
While doing his preparation to interview for this job, he became fascinated with Spanish architecture. In fact, he was vacationing in a village of bleached-white buildings in Andalucia when he learned his company had won the SOLES contract. His design team had impressed USD officials with its detailed knowledge of the Spanish Renaissance style, from the proportions of buildings, arches and windows, to decorative patterns in stone, tile and plaster. Once Wilkes began working on the design, he returned to Spain for a visit to the university in Alcalá. He spent a long day making notes and sketches and waiting for the sun and clouds to move into ideal locations for photographs.
“The University of San Diego campus is renowned for its own photogenic qualities, and the $36 million, 80,000-square-foot SOLES building occupies a prime location at its northwest edge.
The building makes the most of this site, with its entry plaza facing busy Marian Way and the heart of campus; while the back side of the building, away from the traffic, is more private but equally inviting. It overlooks a quiet canyon and will soon feature a Mediterranean-style plaza with a fountain, citrus trees and views to the ocean.
Wilkes and landscape architect Greg Nowell, of Nowell & Associates, conceived of the building as a series of interior spaces connected to various “outdoor rooms” in the form of the plazas, courtyards and patios. Throughout the building, it’s obvious the designers are making the most of San Diego’s friendly climate. Around its edges, the building features covered arcades similar to those in Balboa Park, which serve as outdoor corridors. Many interior rooms open onto courtyards and plazas, with low benches and concrete walls that are perfect places to sit and eat a sandwich or work on a laptop computer.
Walking toward the building from Marian Way, Wilkes stops to describe the grand main entrance, with its three-tiered arch, wrought-iron grillwork and double 9-foot-high doors. Through those doors, we step into a sizeable space that will soon become a two-story atrium, or sala, Spanish for family room. The sala is modeled on a similar space at the university in Alcalá, where doctoral candidates defend their dissertations. In the SOLES building, this room — with its gas fireplace, coffered ceiling defined by chunky wood beams, and floor of travertine tiles — will be an impressive setting for events like speeches, awards presentations and receptions. It will also serve as a sort of town square, where faculty and students can randomly run into each other and catch up on the news of the day. Adjacent to the sala, in the base of the corner tower, is a student lounge.
At the heart of the main floor plan are a 197-seat auditorium, an executive classroom with curved rows of theater-like seats, an interior courtyard and a cyber café. The auditorium will host major SOLES events, as well as events organized by USD and off-campus groups that rent the facility. The café is essential because many of the school’s graduate students are working professionals who attend classes at night and need a place to grab a quick meal or a cup of coffee. Many of these students are also parents who will appreciate the first-floor children’s playroom as well as restrooms designed to accommodate children (and diaper changing).
In the executive classroom, multimedia equipment will be used for teleconferences with universities anywhere in the world — a student on another continent might “attend” a lecture at USD, and a professor teaching on the East Coast could share her thoughts with students at USD. Unlike older buildings that have been awkwardly retrofitted with new technology, the high-tech equipment here will be incorporated so that it is barely noticeable.
On the second floor are offices that include the dean’s suite, as well as another student lounge (also in the tower), more classrooms, conference rooms and a media resource center. Interactive classrooms will function as laboratories where students can observe and be observed in various settings. Interactivity is an essential element of the building. Students will study the behavior of children, and demonstration rooms will allow faculty to familiarize students with the technologies and techniques they will eventually use in the field. Supervised therapy sessions, development of skills with learning lab equipment, work at seminar tables, and preparing lessons that use a variety of manipulatives, such as toys and games, will all help students gain experience in simulated real-world settings.
The second level’s most dramatic feature will be a reading room of a kind you’ll find at grand old universities like the one in Alcalá — and, in fact, similar to USD’s own Sister Rosalie Hill Reading Room in the Copley Library — with rows of big wood tables. It will be a space worthy of weighty leather-bound tomes.
Throughout the building, members of the design team — architects, interior designers, landscape designers — have worked together to ensure that design details remain consistent with the Spanish theme.
Materials were selected to appear solid and refined, while fitting within the $36 million budget. The exterior combines real stone, precast concrete, plaster, and fiberglass to create architectural details that look authentic compared with the solid stone that was prevalent in 16th-century Spanish architecture. In areas where visitors come close to materials, such as courtyards and prominent entries, Mexican adoquin and other stone in pale earthtones make a strong impression. For decorative moldings around arches, the architects ordered custom concrete castings. Upper-level finials (ornate spires that project above the edges of the roof) are made from fiberglass, covered with a material that looks uncannily like real stone. Together with recessed windows, wrought-iron grillwork and an exterior subdivided by towers that echo the main entry tower, the end result is a building that will capture the subtle play of light and shadow that is a signature of romantic Spanish Renaissance architecture.
Throughout the building’s interior, materials extend the elegant, historical design theme. Adele Smith-Chapman, director of interiors at Delawie Wilkes, selected a variety of fine woods. Walnut panels, for instance, adorn the auditorium, executive classroom and reading room. In the cyber café, dark brown vinyl flooring will have a wood-like appearance to achieve the look of old plank floors, but with more durability and less maintenance than real wood. Other interior details inspired by Moorish architecture will include wrought-iron wall sconces and hanging lamps, as well as custom carpeting woven with geometric patterns in blue, brown and gold that resembles the patterns on Spanish tiles. Additionally, a few interior areas will showcase fine art and antique furniture collected by the university over the years, thanks largely to the generosity of various patrons.
“Outside, landscape architects from Nowell and Associates looked to Moorish gardens for their inspiration. In places like Granada, Spain, 16th-century landscapes expressed the idea of “paradise on earth,” according to former project landscape architect Brad Lenahan. Old Spanish towns were seen by their creators as oases amid a rugged agrarian life dominated by the forces of nature. In this landscape, palm trees, citrus orchards and gently flowing channels, or “runnels” of water will add to the serene atmosphere. Geometric patterns known as “arabesques” incorporate images of plants and animals. In the Muslim world, arabesques express the infinite powers of Allah. Arabesques will appear on tiles, exterior roundels (plaster medallions), and in the lacy patterns stenciled on the sala’s ceiling beams.
The Spanish buildings that inspired this one also included the work of craftsmen of a kind one doesn’t often see today.
One such craftsman who worked on this project is Encinitas tile artist Laird Plumleigh. His studio’s handiwork will be on view in various areas, including three fountains. Plumleigh’s designs reflect both Spanish designs and early 20th-century California Craftsman styles; his tiles range from ornate and multicolored to subtler tan and brown squares inspired by Batchelder, the tiles featured in many elegant Craftsman homes.
Among the building’s significant outdoor spaces, the largest will be the plaza on the west side, with its unsurpassed view to the ocean. The auditorium and café will both open onto this plaza, drawn to its centerpiece: an elevated U-shaped planter with a runnel of water dividing a small carpet of grass. The surrounding plaza will be surfaced with concrete, scored in a pattern of large diamonds stained in antique amber and dark walnut. Groups of citrus trees will cluster at the plaza’s edges, and terra cotta planters will contain additional trees. All around the building, various beds will showcase colorful, flowering annuals. Inside the building, a central courtyard will bring light and fresh air to the building’s interior. With its stone surfaces, tiled fountain, and flowering vines spilling down from upper-level balconies, this will be cool, shady place to take a break.
For Paula Cordeiro, who became dean of the School of Education and Leadership Studies nine years ago, the new building validates a collection of programs in leadership and education that have made the school the first of its kind. It has earned its place in the San Diego community and in academia itself by demonstrating the value of preparing leaders and educators for successful careers. But not long ago, some of its offices were housed in trailers, and until now, the school has led a sort of vagabond existence, moving from space to space on campus as it grew. Over the past seven years, the school has expanded from 15 faculty members and 500 students to 35 faculty members and 1,000 students.
More than 25 years ago, the school established the nation’s first American doctoral program in leadership studies. Today, SOLES is internationally known as a professional school that offers American Humanics (“the study of the nature or affairs of humankind,”), Certification and Credentialing, Counseling, the Department of Learning and Teaching, doctoral degrees, the Education Leadership Development Academy, Leadership Studies, Marital and Family Therapy, and Nonprofit Leadership & Management. Graduates go on to careers that include jobs in the public, private and non-profit sectors, as well as in the military.
Cordeiro had little experience with architecture when this project began.
“Years ago I was headmistress of an international school in the Canary Islands,” she recalls. “It was originally built by NASA, and to be honest, it looked like lunar modules.” Like Wilkes, Cordeiro became fascinated by historical Spanish architecture, but she was even more interested in how emerging technologies could serve her state-of-the-art school.
“We visited other campuses around the state and country: Mesa College, National University’s Spectrum Center, San Diego State University, Stanford and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The SOLES building’s executive classroom is modeled on a similar classroom at Harvard,” she explains.
“When I began my career in the ‘70s, personal computers did not exist,” Cordeiro admits. “Today, nearly every student enters the classroom with a laptop, and a course syllabus and materials are available online. More and more, class papers, grading and registration are being done electronically, not on paper.
“One of the big areas of growth is distance learning. We have a partnership with the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles to help train teachers. The new technology in the building will give us real-time opportunity to teach across the United States, directly to students for this program and others. Students no longer have to sit in a seat in front of a professor to be enrolled and actively participate in classroom discussion and lectures. The technology in our new building will bring the world to our classrooms.”
Cordeiro says the new building will engender “a real sense of community. We’ve never had a place like this for students and faculty to interact and develop relationships and have conversations beyond the classrooms. Currently, our faculty offices are located in five different buildings on campus, and our students take classes in every building on campus. I think the dynamic and potential for multi-disciplinary work that our new building will provide is exciting and challenging. I can’t wait to move in and begin to see it unfold.”
As part of this new sense of pride, the school has created a “Remarkable Leaders” awards program. Winners each year will be recognized with pictures and descriptions of the achievements of these San Diego leaders displayed in strategic locations throughout the building.
Even before completion, Cordeiro says the new building has enhanced recruitment.
“We had four new faculty join us this past September. When they interviewed, we showed them the plans and they became excited about being in such a great facility. So the new building has already attracted new faculty.”
It has also attracted financial contributions ranging from tens of thousands to more than $1 million from San Diegans who see the value of the school when it comes to the future of their community.
“All of the donors understand the key role the school plays in making San Diego a strong community by providing the highest quality of graduates who work in a variety of educational, social and community service careers,” says Gary A. Neiger, the school’s director of development. He believes that many more donors will step up.
And with several naming opportunities within the new building still available to individuals interested in participating in this campus landmark project, SOLES administrators and faculty hope that their own excitement about the new facility will inspire even more alumni, staff and friends of the school to contribute generously to its completion by summer’s end.
For the design team, the proof of their efforts will be in the behavior of those who visit the building once it opens.
“I want them to linger. I want them to walk in and look up and around and notice all of the details,” Smith-Chapman says. “We notice that students spend a lot of time in hallways waiting, and they usually sit on floors and spread out books and papers around them. We provided lots of little nooks where they can read, study, collaborate.”
In a way, it sounds a bit like the subtle design cues used by a famous coffee chain to keep patrons coming back. If you make them comfortable, they’ll want to stay for awhile.
Is it possible that the designers of the latest university landmark borrowed a trick or two from that famous coffee empire?
“Absolutely,” Smith-Chapman says.