The College of Architecture and Environmental Design dean has been talking with administrators to renovate and replace some of the structures in the "Architecture Graveyard." | Sophia Liu/Mustang News

Benjy Egel

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Don’t ask architectural engineering professor Ed Saliklis about the Architecture Graveyard. Call it by its proper name: the Experimental Structures Facility.

Saliklis loves the facility but hates the nickname students have attached to it for the past three years.

“If you call someone an idiot, they feel like an idiot, right?” Saliklis said. “It’s meant to be a laboratory, and that’s why that wording is very, very important, that it’s prototyping ideas.”

The Experimental Structures Facility, located past Poly Canyon Village, has been ravaged by vandalism in recent years. Now, College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) Dean Christine Theodoropoulos is meeting with administrators around campus to discuss removing or renovating the facility’s buildings.

Theodoropoulos has collaborated with Provost Kathleen Enz Finken, University Police Department (UPD) Chief George Hughes and facilities management representatives on how to keep the structures safe and the lab operable.

While the facility is not in danger of closing, Theodoropoulos said something needs to be done to prevent more broken glass and graffiti-splattered walls.

One problem is use of the nickname “Architecture Graveyard,” which encourages people to treat the facility with little respect, a criminological idea known as the Broken Windows Theory.

The facility has been operating since the 1960s, when George Hasslein, the first dean of CAED, made a deal with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences dean for use of the land.

Though the area looks like a roaming wasteland of broken-down buildings spread across dry hills, it comes with a rich history.

Any structure lucky enough to have a permanent home in the outdoor laboratory pushed the limits of what architects thought was possible at the time.

Hospitable structures aren’t the only things missing from the facility — the people are gone, as well. Student caretakers lived in the facility’s buildings from its launch up until three years ago, when the underground electricity system was deemed unsafe.

The caretakers kept vandals away, former assistant dean and longtime professor Richard Zweifel said. But now, with no supervision in the area, people who might not damage the buildings in the public eye can smash them without suffering consequences.

“That’s the primary reason that we’ve had difficult stopping (vandalism),” Zweifel said. “We don’t have a presence out there.”

When Saliklis applied for a teaching position at Cal Poly eight years ago, he made his interviewers trek more than a mile in their formal clothing to show him the Experimental Structures Facility.

Saliklis had heard about the laboratory as a professor on the East Coast, and the wide-open space for creative work helped convince him to come to Cal Poly. Every professional contact who tours the facility with Saliklis walks away stunned — even Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) legend John Ochsendorf.

“I don’t think anybody in the world has a laboratory like that,” Saliklis said. “It’s the size of the (area), the space is fantastic and the freedom to really do different types of things.”

His first couple years as a professor were accompanied by frequent visits to the facility for both academic and social reasons. The caretakers invited people into their homes, as if their living situations were perfectly conventional.

“It was in great shape when I came,” Saliklis said. “They were taking care of the place, they were improving the buildings. I used to go up there for visits (when) they’d have barbecues up there.”

Now, nearly every structure in the facility has been ripped apart. One building’s glass walls have all been shattered.

“This (vandalism) is completely bewildering to me,” Saliklis said. “Students created something lasting, that has lasted for generations, and now someone is actively going out there to destroy that very thing. They obviously are doing it to make an impression, but the impression is terribly destructive.”

Some people have posted pictures and videos on social media of themselves breaking down buildings. Saliklis has worked with UPD to identify them, but has been unsuccessful so far.

Officials have found cans of acetone — a material commonly found in paint thinner or nail polish remover that can be inhaled for a high — when checking in on enclosed buildings, Theodoropoulos said.

Despite the distance from most residence halls to the facility — more than a mile — Saliklis said Cal Poly students were the likely culprits. It would be too much effort for someone who lived off campus to get out to the structures.

“I hope it’s not Cal Poly kids, because this is really part of our legacy, but I also can’t imagine that it’s just local kids getting high and going out there and destroying stuff,” Saliklis said.

The best solutions require people, Theodoropoulos said, since the vandalism wasn’t a problem until the caretakers left. One potential option is that ROTC cadets begin doing their morning and evening exercises in the canyon at an architecture professor’s request.

Each building will be individually evaluated to determine whether it is reparable, and if so, how it can be protected from future vandalism. Since the structures are just projects and not meant for permanent living, some have decayed with age and now pose a threat to adventuring students.

“We need to address the current problems, and we need to do it on a structure-by-structure basis,” Theodoropoulos said. “Some structures pose greater threats than others because of their state of stability … Some of them are in very good shape, and we’ll respect those, too.”

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  1. It would be nice if they hired the caretakers. If the electrical is unsafe, why not make a system that is safe? It seems like there has to be some connections the college could use for help, among alumni that are Architecture grads especially? Do a fundraiser to get the money to fix things up too? It would be great if there were also some sort of plaques that explained the whole point of the area, and if there was history available of those structures. People have no connection to them, so they think they are all abandoned.

  2. With all the innovators we have at Cal Poly, we should easily be able to create a safe electrical supply. I’d be more than happy to collaborate on energy and security measures to keep the lab open. But above all else, let’s continue the “Learn by Doing” legacy.

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