One gleaming Middle Earth tower reflects the other as they stretch up into the sky. Steve Zylius / UCI

The grand entrance that leads to UCI’s new Middle Earth Towers can seem intimidating to a hobbit – or a student – but those fluent in Elvish need not worry. On a concrete ledge next to the staircase is an inscription that translates to: “Speak friend and enter.”

The riddle is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one of the best-selling novels ever written. Written on a magical gateway in the trilogy’s Middle-earth setting, the words are initially interpreted by a band of travelers as “Speak, friend, and enter.” Speaking, however, does not open the doors. Gandalf, a wizard in the group, eventually realizes that the phrase is intended as “Speak ‘friend’ and enter,” with “friend” being the password.

the grand entrance to the Middle Earth Towers
An Elvish inscription translating to “Speak friend and enter” adorns the grand entrance to the Middle Earth Towers. Steve Zylius / UCI

It’s also a key word in UCI’s Middle Earth community. A recent $130 million expansion of the housing complex – one of the campus’s oldest – added the 500-bed twin towers, and residents will have many opportunities to make friends as they enjoy such amenities as a dining hall, a multipurpose room, a two-story study pavilion, and a fitness and recreation center.

For first- and second-year students, the buildings – connected by a walkway – contain 20 double suites (for four residents), 40 triple suites (for six residents) and 20 quad suites (for eight residents) – plus single rooms for resident advisers.

Two roommates in their new dorm room in the Middle Earth Towers
Biological sciences major Matthew Matsuda (left) and aerospace engineering major Dylan Luu settle into their dorm room in the Middle Earth Towers. Steve Zylius / UCI

The futuristic structures are inspired by Tolkien’s fictional mythological past – specifically, Laurelin (the Gold Tree) and Telperion (the Silver Tree), which brought light to the heavenly land of Valinor before becoming the Sun and the Moon. Similarly, the five-story towers gleam brightly over the campus and provide stunning views for residents.

Encompassing about 215,000 square feet, the buildings are as green as they are beautiful. According to campus architect Brian Pratt, they beat California’s strict energy code by more than 34 percent through advanced environmental design – with such features as solar panels, LED lighting, natural ventilation, drought-tolerant landscaping with irrigation provided by reclaimed water, recycled construction materials, stormwater terraces and vegetative roofs.

In addition, the towers – which are on track for LEED Platinum certification, Pratt says – adjoin Ring Road, the pathway that circles the heart of the campus, making classes and other university sites easily accessible by foot.

The Middle Earth expansion is only part of the effort UCI has made to provide more convenient on-campus housing for the growing student population. A completely new residential community, Plaza Verde, also debuted this fall, providing about 1,400 beds.

Julia Smith, a sophomore in criminology, law & society, is excited to begin the school year in the Middle Earth Towers. “They’re amazing! The amenities and furniture are great. And my room is so much bigger than my last one, so that’s a big plus,” she says.

Biological sciences major Leslie Vazquez-Rangel, is looking forward to meeting fresh faces. “Last year, my dorm was also in Middle Earth. But with this being my second year, I feel more adjusted to the school, the campus and its resources,” she says. “Since I’ll be living with freshmen, I hope to help them – talk to them about my first-year experiences and tell them about the clubs and research projects I joined.”

To connect with future students and keep its legacy alive, the Middle Earth community decided to do something special during the towers’ construction. A time capsule was buried under a sidewalk on the south side of the south tower. A granite plaque marking the spot reads: “To be opened in 2069.”