Framed: CMC architecture advances ‘California Modernist’ style

A cube shaped building is surrounded by long buildings.
The Cube, the Kravis Center and Roberts Pavillion are examples of some of CMC’s recent architectural innovations. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

I’ll put it bluntly: Claremont McKenna College is not known for its architecture. In fact, it often draws criticism for its monochromatic beige California modernist style. One article in CMC’s own student newspaper, The Forum, snidely remarked that the campus “has a reputation of lagging behind its neighbors” in a discussion about campus renovations made in 2012.

But none of that is to say that CMC’s campus is uninteresting or irrelevant. In fact, the school’s architecture, especially the recent additions to campus — Roberts Pavilion, the Cube, etc. — reveals truths about CMC’s identity and recent trajectory, perhaps more so than any of the other Claremont Colleges’ do. 

It’s no secret that CMC has become a much more competitive player in the elite liberal arts arena in recent years. The college has steadily climbed U.S. News and World Report’s liberal arts college rankings, to look at one marker: No. 13 in 2005, No. 11 in 2010, No. 8 in 2015 and No. 6 in 2020.

Competition between elite colleges comes in many forms, not least of which is campus facilities. Schools build the shiniest, most impressive buildings they possibly can, often gyms or residence halls, to attract prospective students. Meanwhile, old-school academics grumble that students can read literature and study theory in a cinder block room. 

Whether or not new dining halls and their mind-boggling price tags come at the expense of schools’ academic purpose, there’s no denying that in today’s elite school market, the beauty, innovation and excitement of a school’s physical campus matters — and CMC is fully aware of that fact.

Claremont Men’s College was founded in 1946 as the third college in the consortium, following Pomona College and Scripps College. Much of the early student body was made up of GIs returning from World War II, and the school remains true to its original purpose: to educate and train leaders in government and business through a liberal arts curriculum. 

If CMC has always been more utilitarian in its pedagogical goals than other liberal arts colleges, then that mindset is reflected in its campus plan. Straight lines and right angles make up the vast majority of spaces, from the conveniently wide pathways that allow for plenty of skateboarders to the balconies that open the residence halls onto the balmy Southern California climate — even the fountains filled with sunbathers on hot Saturday afternoons are composed of stacks of concrete cubes and rectangles. 

Most of the buildings on CMC’s campus can be classified as California Modernist, an architectural style that came out of Southern California from the 1930s to the 1960s. It’s characterized by “attention to indoor-outdoor living, open plans, rectilinear structures often constructed with steel frames, and extensive use of glass.” 

The major academic and administrative hub of the college is located at the Kravis Center. Work on this impressive structure, designed by the prominent Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, was completed in 2011. Five levels of terraces, glass walls and stacked rectilinear units in Californian terracotta hues create a fortress-like entrance at the west edge of campus.

CMC credited the Kravis Center with creating “a defining architectural identity for CMC.” Notably, they also explicitly framed the compound as a key part of their development: “Sunny terraces and breathtaking views of The Claremont Colleges and the San Bernardino Mountains set the stage for the growth of the College’s collaborative culture in this visionary new facility.”

Any discussion of CMC’s architecture has to bring up the Cube. Everyone (maybe everyone at the other 5Cs) loves to hate the Cube. Uttering its name is almost always accompanied by a sigh or an eyeroll.  

Smack in the middle of the Kravis Center, the transparent, all-glass cubic structure is surrounded by a very shallow black granite reflective pool and contains little more than a few chairs and tables, which are normally occupied by a handful of students studying.  

By the way, did you know that the Cube is actually officially called the “Living Room”? And, according to CMC, it’s actually the “Kube” with a “K”? I know that college administrators are often out of touch and cheesy, but I think this takes the cake — I mean, kake.

It might be true that the Cube is showy why does a college need a fancy glass lounge for students?  Perhaps as an attempt at grandeur or innovation, it falls short it’s just a cube, after all. There is no building, however, in all of Claremont that is quite as ostentatious as Roberts Pavilion. 

The enormous sports complex was designed by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, who said that their work “dramatically redefines what a college athletic venue can be.” Costing $70 million, the luxurious facilities include a huge arena, a multi-level fitness center, a weight room, locker rooms and many other studios. The structure is light-filled, with sweeping views and spectacular, airy and bright interior expanses. 

An interactive sculpture by Chris Burden stands in front of the Pavilion. “Meet in the Middle” is composed of circles of benches and street lamps, echoing his iconic “Urban Light,” the famous rows of lamp posts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

These new structures certainly reflect CMC’s status as a world-class institution, as they should. But the school also has used impressive architecture as a tool to increase its status, as a weapon in the so-called “college amenities arms race.” It might be a question of the chicken and the egg, too hard to say whether CMC’s architectural innovations represent or caused the school’s rise to prominence. 

Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world. 

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