Even though it has been around since 1944, relatively few Fresno residents have ever strolled across the inviting campus of Fresno Pacific University in Southwest Fresno. That’s a mistake. Pacific’s tranquil and verdant campus is—according to a friend who takes graduate classes there, “the most relaxing place in town.” The campus is arranged in a classic college layout, with a grassy quad and a large central axis that give the buildings a regal air. There is no parking in the center of campus; to visit, you must park in one of the perimeter lots and work your way in to enjoy it. In addition to expansive lawns, mature trees, gardens, and lovely fountains, Pacific also happens to be home to an enviable collection of Mid-Century Modern architecture, including a prayer chapel that is equal parts alpine cabin and geodesic dome and a sleek and low-slung library facing the main quad.
But no building on campus is as original or masterfully executed as Marpeck Hall (1966), the roundish looking edifice that lines the extreme southwest corner of campus and is highly visible from Chestnut Avenue.
Although Fresno Pacific has favored the statelier and more conventionally “college-looking” McDonald Hall in its branding strategy, there is no question that Marpeck Hall, named for a 16th century Germanic Anabaptist leader, is the most iconic building on campus and by far its most architecturally significant. Long before McDonald Hall was built, it was Marpeck that featured in a Time Magazine ad about “Pacific College of Fresno” from the Mad Men era in the 1960’s.
Pacific’s administration was right to be proud of it. To put it squarely, Marpeck is a masterpiece of Mid-Century Modern architecture.
All the elements of greatness are there, including its perfect scaling (anchoring a bucolic corner of campus without dominating it), it’s exceptionally wide eaves (protecting students from sun and rain), its gigantic clerestory windows (which provide incoming natural light without distracting students from the goings on in the classroom), and its sharp detailing (which conveys a sense of precision, ostensibly in keeping with its historical identity as the campus’s “Science Building”). At night, the building is exceedingly handsome and elegantly illuminated, two requisites for the genre.
Marpeck Hall’s greatness extends beyond its first glances. Its architect, Ben Lippold, employed several psychological tricks that make the simple-enough-looking building belie its extraordinary complexity. First, it is a deceptively large building, as wide and deep as the main section of McDonald Hall if you include the eaves. Second, it employs both centripetal and centrifugal visual elements. At night, the lights shining out from its clerestory windows grab passersby and plant the thought that illuminative learning is going on inside. This, in turn, invites people into the space but with a somewhat unsettling sense that they don’t fully know what they’re getting into. This modernist trick, evident in Southern California residential architecture for decades, gives the building a sense of mystery and understated importance. The classrooms, arranged in an “outside-in” fashion, are perfect for larger, lecture-style classes with all students’ eyes front and center. Third, the roofline is—unthinkably and perhaps preposterously—sloped downward and inward toward its center. The construction photos in Hiebert Library’s archives room are enough to convince you that these Mennonites were not building just any old building when they were assembling Marpeck.
Marpeck Hall’s other trick is that the building is not actually round at all; it only looks that way. “It’s an icositetragon“, says Fresno Pacific University’s archivist, Kevin Enns-Rempel. “It’s perimeter has 24 equally-sized walls.” This translates into an edifice that is visually “sculptural”, but that can be maintained with simple wood and stucco elements—a trick that overcomes major criticisms of modern architecture; namely, that it looks awful when not properly maintained or cluttered with ill-fitting ornamentation, and that it struggles to convey a sense of curvaceous depth using the simple, mass-produced materials that modern architects championed.
Marpeck Hall is not without its critics. Some have likened its whimsical design to a flying saucer that mistakenly landed on a college campus. Others dislike its labyrinthine interior, reached by an incongruously sloped and then suddenly stepped hallway radius (a later modification). It is admittedly all too easy for the uninitiated to get lost inside, and departures from its original design haven’t helped matters much. I have also heard some professors (full disclosure: I teach at Fresno Pacific) complain that its theater-style-lecture-hall design places too much emphasis on the instructor and not enough on the students. These are fair criticisms, but they are perhaps made more forgivable given the original design needs of the space and the fact that any interior of a 24-sided building is bound to be difficult to manage.
My real response to these critics is to remind that the real miracle of Marpeck Hall is that buildings like it were ever built in the first place. Today’s overly functional and big-box architecture all but precludes doing something as brazen, playful, and as coolly experimental as Fresno Pacific did with building an icositetragon. There is simply no way this kind of building gets built today, and my feeling is that there is something sad about that. Let us criticize, but let us also remember.
An encouragement: For those of your considering a visit to Fresno Pacific, don’t just come for Marpeck. Get a coffee at Charlotte’s and linger in the inviting forest area adjacent to the bookstore. Grab a $4.00 buffet lunch in the cafeteria (Fresno’s best lunch deal?) Become hypnotized by Foucault’s pendulum in AIMS Hall. Grab a quiet corner of the library to read a good book. Look up at the giant deodar trees. Right under your nose, hidden in plain sight, is Fresno Pacific University, perhaps the region’s most charming campus and home to one of the San Joaquin Valley’s true architectural classics.