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Student Union: The Architecture and Social Design of Postwar Campus Community Centers in California


This dissertation examines the architecture and social intent of Student Union buildings. The narrative reaches back to the first quarter of the twentieth century when students and college leaders in the Midwest and Northeast formed the Association of College Unions, but focuses on the postwar period in California when Student Unions became modern, standard fixtures on North American campuses. Early ideas about social education in the targeted the socialization of young men and women, class distinctions, and the business sphere that many students would enter as graduates. Subsequently, architects took cues from private social clubs and YMCA buildings. In the 1950s, however, ideas about social education turned toward the G.I. and the postwar demographic of college students. As a result, campus leaders took steps to build large postwar Union buildings that they thought addressed the needs of a broad middle-class culture. By providing arenas for consumption and postwar leisure activities, proponents reframed the social agenda and gave buildings new form.

The underlying institutional armature of Student Unions and the rhetoric behind them remained largely unchanged between 1920 and 1960. Student Unions were and continued to be called "living rooms" or "hearthstones" of the campus. But after World War II, the strategies deployed by Union proponents and architects, especially in California, adapted to the social context of the university campus, creating a complex combination of rhetoric and form. Vernon DeMars, Donald Hardison, and Lawrence Halprin, who designed the postwar Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley, and Welton Becket, who designed the postwar Union at UCLA, dutifully called their buildings "campus living rooms." The interior spaces, however, were boldly modern, and the buildings mimicked corporate hotels, shopping malls, and civic centers. The shift domesticated non-residential campus buildings and helped introduce modernism and its social vision to large postwar public universities. Students no longer experienced separate lounges for men and women but found themselves in coed commercial complexes with large cafeterias, bookstores, and bowling alleys. By examining parallel architectural developments such as the design and growth of suburbs and urban renewal, this dissertation recasts the history of Student Unions.

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