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A time when I could slay dragons

by Steve McKee on October 28, 2010

I recently helped deliver my daughter to her new life at UCLA. While there I made a point to visit “Bruin Walk” to flashback to the best two months of my life when I learned that I could take on the world and win. That’s what if felt like.

In 1983 I was an architecture student and I ended up saving one of the best parts of that beautiful campus from some really klutzy landscape design right before the university was all set to build it. They even had a builder all lined up when I happened to see an article in the school paper. I had no idea of the ride I was about to take.

Bruin Walk is the name of a hillside path in the heart of UCLA, but the name conjures much more for me. It brings to mind an extraordinary eight weeks of my life when I learned that I could take on the authorities and triumph, when I discovered that good design really could make a difference in the world.  A time when the LA Times wrote about what I was doing and proclaimed that the students (that would be my pal Brian and me) had a better idea than the university this time. A time when I found that I could take my idea all the way to the top and stand before the Chancellor with his department heads all seated at a really really big table (very much like a White House cabinet meeting) and then sell my scheme like I was born to it.

The news story that started it all included a little landscape plan that showed a new handicapped ramp placed as awkward as could be on the big graceful slope of lawn and trees that is the main entrance for students walking to classes. The ramp switchbacked up the hillside cutting up the natural routes the students had used for decades. They were also going to add some ugly bench height concrete “things” set into the hill along the pathways. I say “things” because they were these amorphously shaped curved blobs (like an amoeba right before it subdivides) that would match the concrete sitting blobs that were already in place further south in the modern part of campus. Except these modernistic blobs were now being proposed in the historic center of campus, in the sylvan grace of hill between the Gothic poise of Kerckhoff Hall and the Romanesque grandeur of Powell Library. It was a terrible idea. Surely handicapped ramps could be integrated into the natural flow of the hill along paths that everybody used. And surely user-friendly sitting features could be added in a way that fit better with the historic ambience created by the traditional building styles there.

This was my seventh year as a student on this campus (getting a second degree will do that to you) and I suppose I felt proprietary about the place. Bruin Walk was the crucible for student life and was used by thousands of students each day to travel to and from campus. At the top of the hill the path turned the corner at Powell Library into the big open quadrangle of grand brick buildings that defines the campus. In contrast, the Bruin Walk area was more informal, like a park where you could bump into friends and talk for a minute under the canopy of sycamore trees that shaded the hillside. Down the slope along the main path there were always student groups and clubs recruiting from sidewalk tables and there was often someone orating about some cause from the slope of lawn in front of the arches of Kerckhoff Hall. Girl-watching was superb and I had done my share of swooning there, if only for the thirty seconds it took the girl to walk by and disappear up the hill. It was arguably the true heart of campus, and now some hack of a designer was about to get it all wrong and mess it up with overdone ramps and modernistic concrete blobs.

Somebody had to speak out about this, and speak out loudly. The next day I submitted a strongly worded opinion piece which ran in the school paper. At that age I wasn’t quite the pithy minimalist whose words you are now perusing, but I had enough fire in my belly to get some passion across. Seventeen of my architecture schoolmates signed it with me. The following afternoon cosigner Brian Harner, my buddy for bodysurfing and tossing Frisbees, joined me at my drawing board and we talked about how they could have designed things better.

A couple days later while walking the hill, Brian and I found our breakthrough idea. The ramp could be moved out of the middle of the hill to the small lawn at the south side which would preserve the hill. The cross slope of the ramp would fit the new location without much digging needed. We drew it up. When we later showed the idea to a wheelchair user who was the leading campus advocate for the disabled, he suddenly got quite excited because a ramp at this location would not only provide access up the hill but also provide great new shortcuts between various key buildings and create a whole network of possible routes for the disabled. This was it. We had the better idea and now we had political ammo to go along with it.

By now the growing opposition to the university’s scheme had taken a life of its own. Student groups collected almost five thousand signatures opposing the plan. Brian and I continued to meet with the Office of the Campus Architect, where the project manager visibly struggled against the idea that two pesky students were messing up his tidy process. He made a few small token changes to the university’s plan and then conspicuously announced to the press that the “students’ ideas had been incorporated.” We rebutted in another opinion piece in the Daily Bruin.

L A Times - April 11, 1983

Then the LA Times got involved by running an article by architecture critic John Dreyfuss. We architecture students had always held Dreyfuss in high regard, so it was a blow when he looked at the university’s plan and then wrote a piece praising it. Tepid praise, but still. Brian and I decided to invite him to come have a look at our alternate plan. We toured our hero around the hillside and showed him why we thought our idea was better. A few days later came a follow up piece in which he cited all the advantages of our plan and concluded by saying “the student proposal has some important practical and aesthetic advantages over the university plan.”

I was giddy with anticipation for that morning’s LA Times to be delivered to my apartment. Hearing the little plop as it landed on the doormat outside was like experiencing the sound of pure victory. If that moment is to be the high point of my life, that’s fine with me, because it was a doozy. It didn’t hurt either that I had just recently moved to that apartment to join my new girlfriend, a very clever and very pretty English major who “got” me like nobody ever had. Years later she and I would exchange vows and move to Benicia and raise a family together, but for now this sort of honeymoon phase helped make these favorite two months of mine all the better.

The LA Times article was the endorsement that finally got Brian and me a meeting with the Chancellor and his Capital Affairs Council. We rehearsed our presentation together a mere half hour before heading into this meeting, a tactic I highly recommend. We nailed it. That afternoon the Chancellor announced the university was going to do a complete redesign in order to incorporate the new ideas. It was complete victory.

The following day I learned that TV reporters had tried to reach Brian and me that afternoon, but we had already headed to the beach at Santa Monica for bodysurfing, beer and our favorite pastime: perfecting the technique for playing Frisbee in an ocean breeze. Which was just about as perfect an ending to this story as I could ever want.

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