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Feature Stories

Walter Pyramid is Turning 20

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 20
10/4/2013


By Alison Keiser


Courtesy CSULB

There are a great number of people in and around Long Beach who have wondered, “Why is there a giant blue pyramid at Cal State Long Beach?” At first, this would seem like a simple question with a simple answer.

In November 2014, the Walter Pyramid, a Long Beach architectural icon, celebrates its 20th birthday.

“We are spending a lot of time thinking about the Walter Pyramid,” Kristina Newhouse, curator of CSULB’s University Art Museum, said via email.

The UAM will host a special installation called MatterApp:Pyramidal in the spring of 2014. The art installation in the shadow of the pyramid will reflect community, architecture, and those connections to the modern pyramid of Long Beach.

While the Walter Pyramid was built in 1994, the principles behind the structure’s design are not new. Many ancient civilizations around the world developed the composition independently.

The Yonaguni pyramids of Japan have rested under the East China Sea off the coast of Taiwan for more than 2000 years. Both the Aztecs and the Mayan Civilizations built pyramids throughout Mesoamerica for thousands of years. Perhaps the most well-known ancient pyramids are those of the Egyptian desert in Giza.

The Walter Pyramid is more than an interesting, cobalt feature in the Long Beach landscape. The 18-story structure was designed to be the home of the Long Beach State athletics.

According to the Long Beach State University, the name of CSULB’s athletics department, the structure houses “nine volleyball courts or three full basketball courts and four additional half basketball courts.”

Hollywood has used the interior as location for productions such as “Starship Trooper,” “Red Belt,” and ABC Family’s “Make It Or Break It.”

Airplanes preparing to land at the Long Beach Airport use the landmark as a guide to line up with the airstrip.

These tidbits are not revelations to locals. What they do not know are the reasons the school and the architects chose a pyramidal structure, and the obstacles these people had to overcome to set Long Beach’s university apart from all the others in the country.

Unlike the two other well-known modern pyramids in the U.S. – the Pyramid at Luxor Casino in Las Vegas and the Great American Pyramid in Memphis – there is no cultural reasoning for the design in Long Beach.

Luxor Casino and Hotel, built in 1993 as one of many theme hotels in the desert along the Las Vegas Strip, was designed with the theme of “Thebes.” Thebes was the Greek name for the ancient city of Luxor, or modern-day Cairo, which is across the Nile River from the infamous pyramids of Giza.

In 1991, the Great American Pyramid opened to little fanfare in Memphis, Tennessee, which shares its name with another ancient city in Egypt. Touted as the next great sporting and concert arena in North America, there has been a great deal of trouble finding a permanent purpose for the pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi.

As for Long Beach, there is no such obvious connection to any location of the ancient design. The connection comes from a much more modern source.

Don Gibbs, the primary architect for the project, in a 2011 interview with CityBeat, said, “The shape actually came from a conversation I’d had with former CSULB President Dr. Curtis McCray about the spiritual properties of pyramids.”

Though McCray moved on from Long Beach before the pyramid and the design he admired was completed, the spiritual influence was not the only factor in the design decision of the pyramid. Like any new construction on the site of a government facility, there were obstacles.

“It took some creative thinking,” Kurt Gibbs, son of principal architect for the project, said. By working with the vision of CSULB’s president at the time, as well as utilizing “someone who knew the rules,” Kurt said Gibbs Architects AIA was able to design the unique athletic facility within the constraints of the state, government, university, geological, and structural regulations.

Why does California State University Long Beach have a pyramid? It was imagined at a prosperous time by adventurous people to reflect the unique city where it makes its home.

alison@longbeachcomber.com