Mac Court’s Future Second Life

The University of Oregon will play its last PAC-10 basketball game at Mac Court tomorrow. The university and the community have done an exemplary job marking the end of an era that started with a scintillating 38-10 victory over Willamette University on January 14, 1927.
Are people still talking about that game, with its thrilling two-handed set shots, its run-and-gun pace, and its win-from-ahead drama? No, not really. Such ancient history to most students seems, well, academic.
Universities honor the past because most of what there is to learn from is located there. But a university must always be looking into the future, because that’s where its mission lies. The richest asset of any university remains what hasn’t happened yet, literally embodied in the students it serves.
Show me a school that’s not getting ahead of itself, and I’ll show you a former school in the making.
Mac Court has had a good life. It’s having a good ending to that good life. Can there be a good second life ahead for Mac Court? That’s what the university wants to find out.
Exactly a year ago, The Future of McArthur Court Committee completed its preliminary study. This small work group considered seven goals for Mac Court’s second life, but they focused on opportunities that answered two questions deemed most central. Does the option address an identified academic need? And is the proposed reuse of Mac Court well suited for the location?
The committee proffered four alternative uses for adaptive reuse of Mac Court but no single recommendation. Only one of the four alternatives directly links Mac Court’s “second life” with a targeted student population that will further the university’s academic mission.
Relocating the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts (AAA) deserves first crack at the site and its adaptive reuse challenge. Not because moving the academic school into a venerable stadium will be easy, but because it will be hard.
Historic preservation is something taught inside that school, so teaching the concept inside a structure that preserves history serves also as a four-story-tall object lesson.
“Adaptive reuse” is not a new concept to architects, as anyone who has been to a quaint brew pub or a loft apartment in a repurposed industrial building can attest. But reuse-as-character is beginning to intersect with reuse-as-sustainability.
Architecture students have been studying sustainability for a generation and AAA’s program is rated one of the top in the nation. Architects and urban planners are beginning rediscover “old and improved.” Building standards are beginning to calculate and consider the energy that went into building the original structure as something worth saving. The future is calling AAA to reuse the past.
Giving the School of Architecture and Allied Arts a daunting design challenge allows the school’s reinvention to become an expression of the expertise it offers. If the Nice Cube is designed to show sport recruits and their parents how much we prize our student athletes, imagine how a high schooler wanting to study architecture will feel walking into a four-story-tall atrium to learn about our offerings.
Giving this prized piece of real estate to a single school within the university will help to preserve Mac Court as a place. And who better to remake that place than a school dedicated to teaching place-making?
The feasibility of adaptive reuse for a building that lasted longer than anyone might have expected will have to be studied next. The committee’s report made clear that such a technical analysis was beyond their scope of work. That analysis can serve both theoretical and practical needs if it evaluates specifically what would be required to move AAA from a handful of buildings a couple blocks north into a reimagined Mac Court and an adjacent new structure.
The University of Oregon should be looking for a bold statement to anchor the southern edge of its academic core, as the Lillis Business School marks the west edge of campus. “Bold” has risen a notch since the opening of the Jaqua Center for Student Athletes, but that’s good.
The Nice Cube points boldly toward the future, but a radical reinvention of Mac Court can do that and more. It also can boldly honor what is this week becoming the past.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but these views are only his own. The Future of McArthur Court Committee’s final report can be downloaded at www.uoregon.edu/~uplan/mac_court/FINALMacCourtReport03_01_09sm.pdf