"The same things they were saying then are the things we're saying today," Gross says with wonder.

When the firm began its work on revamping the master plan at Hopkins, the architects felt strong pushback from professors and administrators who were used to the arcane system of roads that cut through campus. What did a few new sidewalks and a few closed-off streets have to do with running a great university?

Gross countered with a simple question: Which campus did Hopkins hope to emulate? Princeton, came the consensus answer.

So he showed them comparison diagrams of the New Jersey campus, with vast expanses free of traffic, and the Hopkins campus, where cars could pull practically to the edge of the main quad. "The quality of the grounds don't reflect the quality of the institution," he told them.

"I think they were slipping," Gross says now, talking about the university's stature among the nation's elite.

The message hit home. Though many of the changes are subtle — uniform signs, walkways converted from asphalt to brick, parking pushed underground and to the edges of campus — the total effect is not. Hopkins feels more secluded and tranquil than it did 15 years ago.

"You change the whole nature of the campus," says Larry Kilduff, the university's executive director of facilities management. "And indeed, that's what happened. I would give ASG credit for leading us in that direction."

It might be a coincidence, but in the years immediately after the design changes began, applications to Hopkins skyrocketed, outpacing growth in the Ivy League.

Though Ayers Saint Gross built its business on the long relationship with Hopkins and has worked on projects for numerous Maryland universities, the firm's signature project unfolded 300 miles south, at the University of North Carolina.

The Chapel Hill campus had acquired a bipolar feel over the years. Visitors delighted in the elegant brick structures and inviting walkways of the old, northern half. Then they cringed at the southern half's sprawling mishmash of medical buildings, dormitories and parking lots.

The project, begun in 1998, was the biggest the firm had taken on — reimagining the future look and feel of one of America's great public universities. How could the plan emphasize the elegant historic features of the campus but also solve its modern problems using new construction and spaces? How could the past cohere with the future?

Ayers Saint Gross has a particular way of going at a campus redesign. It starts with a quest to divine the essential nature of a place. What is the university trying to do and how is that reflected in its layout and buildings? Then the architects ask everyone from administrators to students to neighbors how the university needs to change and grow. Finally, they figure out how to meet those needs without rendering the place unrecognizable.

"It needs to be visionary, it needs to inspire people, it needs to capture the spirit of the place, but it also needs to work," Greene says in explaining the firm's ethos. "We're always trying to balance those things."

Howes says the firm "knocked our socks off" with its grasp of Chapel Hill's history and needs.

Gross and Greene traveled to North Carolina every month to walk the campus with deans, students and neighbors. The process lasted three years and involved more than 500 meetings.

They encountered plenty of skeptics, who told them they'd never be able to make the lower campus feel brick and grassy.

One evening, sitting with Greene at a popular campus bar called Top of the Hill, Gross scrawled out his guiding vision.

The plan obscured modern dorms that looked like "satellites landed from Mars" with brick buildings reminiscent of the old campus. Vast parking lots surrounding the football stadium became underground garages covered by grassy thoroughfares that linked the upper and lower halves of the campus.

The approval of the plan dovetailed with the passage of a $2 billion bond bill, $600 million of which went to Chapel Hill. What Gross and Greene thought of as a long-term vision became the immediate blueprint for a decade of heavy construction that added the equivalent of the entire campus of Wake Forest University to Chapel Hill's existing footprint.

"They really helped us to understand, better than we had on our own, what a jewel we had," Howes says.

The Chapel Hill plan is the one campus blueprint the firm keeps on the red brick display wall of its Tide Point office, the one most emblematic of what Gross believes his shop can pull off.

He encounters plenty of Tar Heel alumni in day-to-day life and, as the project rolled forward, they kept telling him he better not mess up their beloved alma mater. Now, he says, he runs into them and they say, "I was down there and I can't believe how beautiful it is."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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