Thomas Lollini, FAIA, Honored with 2015 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award


Feb. 20, 2015

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture honors Thomas Lollini, FAIA, for his contributions as campus architect at both California’s oldest public university and the nation’s newest pubic research university. Lollini, the Category Two recipient, and one of two 2015 Thomas Jefferson Award recipients, is celebrated for his commitment to public architecture as an integral part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

In the 23-year history of the Thomas Jefferson Award, no recipient has embodied Jefferson’s role as a creator of universities as well as Thomas Lollini. Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s polymath founding father, was an inventor, philosopher, scientist, statesman, and (of course), an architect. His home at Monticello and the Virginia State Capital are definitive works of American Neo-Classical architecture. The way he lived, and the way he died, tied architecture and public service together in a way that speaks to the highest aspiration of the profession. Before his death in 1826, Jefferson left explicit instruction on what his gravestone epitaph was to say about his life, omitting—curiously, as historians have pointed out—the American presidency:

Here was buried 
Thomas Jefferson 
Author of the Declaration of American Independence 
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom 
& Father of the University of Virginia 

Designing the University of Virginia was what he most wanted to be remembered for, his highest expression of public service. For Jefferson, founding what he called “an Academical Village” for a new public university (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) was the best way to grow and perpetuate democracy.

It’s a responsibility rarely concentrated in one person alone, but if there were a Jeffersonian figure in our time who embarked on a similar mission, many would point to Thomas Lollini. As campus architect for the University of California-Merced, the newest public research university in the nation, he has had a singular role in growing a new academic institution out of the agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley. One hundred fifteen miles west of San Jose, Lollini has used this exceptionally rare academic blank slate to guide creation of a campus that is an exemplar of contemporary design values in the hopes that these values permeate the wider democratic culture of the nation, as in the tradition of Jefferson.

It’s not as if, in Jefferson’s time, Lollini has had the freedom to design every building, classroom, or doorknob himself, but his consistent vision and leadership has created a school—now 10 years old-where architecture binds the story of the region’s ecology to students’ and faculty’s everyday life.

“UC Merced is a place of significant architectural beauty and coherence, shaped by the integration of natural and built environments,” wrote AIA Kemper Award recipient and Architecture 2030 founder Edward Mazria, FAIA, in a recommendation letter. “The innovative work Tom has been doing [there] is producing a learning laboratory for the profession, students, and faculty.”

‘A bolder view of what was possible’

Earlier in his career, Lollini worked as town planner for new cities in Asia and Africa, returning to the U.S. in 1984 to work for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. There, he became an influential advocate for the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, a trendsetting project that got cities across the nation to reconsider the need for expansive freeways that block access to waterways.

In 1996, Lollini took his first job as a campus planner in a place that is as old as UC Merced is new: the University of California-Berkeley, which was founded in 1868 and is the oldest public university in the state, with a Beaux-Arts campus master plan by John Galen Howard and buildings by AIA Gold Medailists Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck. But when Lollini arrived, UC Berkeley had spent decades straying from Howard’s plan with ad-hoc development. Much of Lollini’s work involved reasserting the primacy his master plan, and restoring landscapes originally designed by Frederic Law Olmsted and Thomas Church.

The series of long-term plans Lollini led were responsible for $2.5 billion in capital investments. He undertook a widespread series of seismic upgrades on campus that are about 70 percent complete today. His New Century Plan (the school’s first comprehensive planning exercise in 100 years) paved the way to expand enrollment by 10 percent, the first such expansion in 30 years. It set urban design guidelines for the Beaux-Arts core, as well as the outer urban fringe, planning for the addition of 2 million square feet of infrastructure. This included hiring top-shelf architecture firms like David Baker Architects, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam, ZGF, and Canon Design.

Beginning with the series of seismic upgrades, Lollini took an opportunity for basic safety improvements and leveraged them into a chance to re-evaluate the entire campus in a way that would help preserve its status and one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. “What was so impressive about Tom was his ability to inspire others to take a longer, bolder view of what was possible,” wrote Harrison Fraker, Assoc. AIA, 2014 Topaz Medalist, in a recommendation letter.

The seismic upgrades “[transformed] a crisis into an opportunity to thoroughly re-envision the campus in the light of its historic legacy, its community relations, and its future,” wrote University of Chicago campus architect Steve Wisenthal, FAIA, in a letter of recommendation.

Triple Zero 

UC Merced hired Lollini in 2005, its inaugural year. His challenge was to conjure a campus from scratch in the San Joaquin Valley, an area better known for endless fields of lettuce and carrots than for academic prestige. The University of California Board of Regents began the process of establishing the school in 1988, and selected its site in 1995 after the Virginia Smith Trust, a charity that donates scholarship money to Merced, Calif., high schools students, donated the land.

However, the site’s environmental challenges and demographics didn’t make it an intuitive choice. One of the poorest regions in the state, the San Joaquin Valley suffers from chronically high unemployment and low levels of college graduation. Nearly half of its students come from low-income families. The area comprises one-sixth of all irrigated land used for agriculture in the county, making water scarcity a massive concern. Pollution is rampant, as the valley has the nation’s worst air particulate rates, as measured by the EPA. Even so, Lollini’s school is poised for explosive growth, feeding more students into what is already an exceptionally diverse campus. The valley is expected to double in size by 2050 to 9 million people, and the town of Merced is expected to triple in the same time period.

UC Merced’s campus plan, buildings, and landscapes are all guided by one overriding principle: the Triple Zero Commitment. By 2020 when the school teaches 10,000 students, it will use net-zero energy, create net-zero landfill waste, and produce net-zero carbon emissions likely making it the most sustainable college campus in the world. Already, it’s the only campus in the world where all building are LEED-certified.

Located northeast of the town of Merced and southeast of nearby Yosemite Lake, the campus is surrounded by 30,000 acres of preserved and protected vernal pool grasslands. A loop road bounds the car-free campus. A section of student housing is separated from the lake by the grasslands, which leads south to a green space core comprising the North Bowl and South Bowl—a pair of landscaped depressions that work as a campus quad and gathering space, as well as rainwater retention and filtering systems. Further south lays the primary academic core, and it’s two main pedestrian walkways running through a dense mixed-use neighborhood of residences and businesses. A public-private research and development district is being developed to the west.

Lollini has hired a range of quality architects (SOM, SmithGroup/JJR, Sasaki Associates) asked to design within a common language of materials: steel, aluminum, concrete, glass, stucco. The buildings’ sustainability strategies begin with passive solar orientation and access to natural light first, then adding active energy generation elements, like the 1 megawatt, 65,000-sqaure-foot solar array that provides much of the campus’ power. One consistent design feature is the use of arcades and colonnades (like at SmithGroupJJR’s science and engineering building) to encourage outdoor circulation in the warm climate, instead of HVAC-intensive ground floor interior circulation. Several buildings also use abstracted references to agricultural vernacular buildings, like the barn-like gables of the student activities and athletic center, or the silo-shapes in SOM’s utilities plant and the social sciences and management building by Studios Architecture.

“Under Tom’s guidance, UC Merced has become an architectural showcase of the language of sustainable design, developing a language derived from the regional context and responsiveness to the regional environment, with each architect adding a new dialect to the conversation,” wrote Wisenthal in his recommendation letter.

The school already generates half of its peak energy on-site. It uses 40 percent less water than code benchmarks, and 50 percent less energy than comparable buildings. That’s 20 percent better than the university’s own energy use goals. The campus infrastructure plan, by Arup, makes critical use of energy monitoring and post-occupancy commissioning, allowing them to fine-tune each building system.

In 2012, RACESTUDIO’s master plan for UC Merced was honored with an AIA COTE Top Ten award, the first ever for a college master plan. “By using systems that are bigger than individual buildings, they are demonstrating that economies of scale are an important component of the continuing evolution of sustainable design,” the jury remarked.

It’s a unique talent that can re-synthesize a historic campus’s discordant architectural history into a coherent narrative, and can also set the table for a new university to be made of whole cloth. Lollini’s career is a testament to architecture’s dual nature as a harbinger of the new and preserver of the old.

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