• April 23, 2014

Should Your New Buildings Look Old?

Should Your New Buildings Look Old? 1

Tom Cogill for The Chronicle Review

Jefferson surrounded the lawn at the U. of Virginia with a half-size Pantheon and 10 red-brick pavilions with classical columns.

Enlarge Image
close Should Your New Buildings Look Old? 1

Tom Cogill for The Chronicle Review

Jefferson surrounded the lawn at the U. of Virginia with a half-size Pantheon and 10 red-brick pavilions with classical columns.

Blame Jefferson, if you like.

He wasn't the first person to imagine a college occupying a matched set of buildings grouped around an open space, but the matched set he created at the University of Virginia set the bar almost impossibly high for every campus since—a half-size, red-brick Roman Pantheon connected by colonnades to 10 pavilions, each architecturally distinct but all of them gloriously classical and beautifully detailed. His hope, Jefferson said in a letter asking the architect William Thornton to contribute pavilion designs, was that the pavilions would be "models of taste and good architecture, and of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for the architectural lecturer."

What happened instead, however, was that the lawn's red brick and white classical trim came to represent a Georgian ideal of campus design for countless American college trustees and presidents—a dream so enticing that in the past hundred years it has been given a run for its money only by the Collegiate Gothic fantasy that arose at Bryn Mawr College, Princeton University, and elsewhere in the early 20th century. But as ideals go, those two—the Georgian and Gothic—have been almost nothing but trouble since the Great Depression. For any number of institutions, they've been at the heart of a question that has bedeviled presidents, trustees' building committees, architects, alumni-magazine editors, and everyone else: Must a college's new buildings look like its old buildings?

Many, many people think they should. Intuitively, that seems to make sense—and perhaps, in fact, it does, in some small settings. But the campuses of Jefferson's republic are littered with bad buildings that were designed to imitate or blend in with their older neighbors. Some of these copycat buildings are merely bad in an ordinary background-noise sort of way, but some of them are cartoon-grade terrible, especially those from the 1950s and 60s. And just about all of them, it seems to me, are intellectually indefensible.

I should say here that I write as a card-carrying preservationist who lives in a 1906 Beaux-Arts apartment building, and also that I have been visiting colleges and universities for The Chronicle for nearly 30 years. I like a good Gothic or Georgian building as much as anyone (though not as much as I like some of the really quirky buildings on campuses—Union College's Nott Memorial, for instance, or the University of Pennsylvania's Furness Building). But what experience proves is this: Try as you might, if you put up a building today that's meant to look like it was built 75 or 100 years ago, the best you're likely to do is to put up something satisfactory and forgettable. If you want a building that's good or even great, a building that people will remember and talk about while they're driving home after the admissions tour or the reunion, you're going to have to give up imitation, hire a good architect, and then get out of the way. Satisfactory and forgettable were not Jefferson's goals.

The problem is all the more vexing if an institution is well known for landmarks, like Stanford University's Richardsonian core or Duke's Gothic chapel or Carnegie Mellon University's Beaux-Arts confections—or Virginia's Lawn. Indeed, Jefferson's university has suffered worse than most: His white columns and Chinese Chippendale balustrades became the required vocabulary for almost everything built there in the past century, even though a 366,000-square-foot basketball arena with a 1,500-space parking garage has no business whatsoever pretending to look like Monticello.

Perhaps your college is grappling with this question now, or will be soon. This primer is for you. Here are three simple questions to ask, and some thoughts about answers.

What is it about the design of my campus that I like?

It might be the architecture of the buildings, but chances are that it's actually something that's harder to put a finger on—the interplay of buildings, trees, open spaces, views, and other elements (like Strawberry Creek, which winds through the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, or the lively subway stop at Harvard Square, or the Rocky Mountain foothills that loom above the Colorado School of Mines). On the best campuses, the specific architectural vocabulary is often secondary—what matters is how the elements come together. Architects often refer to this as "place making."

For instance: Swarthmore College's iconic 1889 main building, Parrish Hall, is a fine piece of French Second Empire architecture, but the real treat is the approach to Parrish from the train station that faces it from the bottom of the hill. You come up along a straight walk lined with enormous old trees, climbing flights of steps every so often and seeing other college buildings at a distance on either side. It's one of the best entrance experiences that any small campus can offer—but it's the whole experience that is the key, much more than any of the buildings.

At Scripps College, the older buildings have a modest California Mission style, with plain arches and red-tile roofs, but they work together beautifully. An archway from the street leads into a cluster of administrative offices arranged around intimate courtyards, with individual offices opening off of colonnades and arcades. Then on the far side you emerge to find the campus's spacious, sun-washed centerpiece, a formal lawn bordered by low hedges that has residence halls and academic buildings set around it.

Surprisingly, Florida Southern College has much the same feel, although its architectural vocabulary couldn't be more different. Florida Southern's core buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and they look it—they're full of unusual angles, unprecedented massings, and unexpected ornaments. But the courtyards of Wright's administration buildings have exactly the same delightful intimacy you find in their counterparts at Scripps. And the smaller of Wright's two chapels is as delightful as the Oratory in Scripps's beloved Margaret Fowler Garden—or, for that matter, the tiny Gothic chapel you might stumble upon in Rhodes College's Voorhies Hall.

Walk down the hill from Scripps and you'll come to Pomona College. Head for the Lyon Garden, between Rembrandt Hall—an old, two-story, art-studio building with a colonnade—and a music building called Thatcher. Thatcher is exactly the kind of building many people don't want to see on their campuses—it's Pomona's prime example of Brutalism, which is to say it's a little fortress of unadorned concrete with narrow windows. But even so it does a fine job of embracing and defining the Lyon Garden, which is crisscrossed by paths and animated by a Modernist fountain with a sculpture of dancers. It's the place that matters—the adept arranging of space, the managing of the visitor's experience—far more than the architectural vocabulary.

Still, for many people the architectural vocabulary is what's easiest to latch onto, remember, and put a name to. Most of us have an easier time remembering things—buildings, people, landscapes—as though they were snapshots rather than three-dimensional experiences. When we think of what we like about a campus, the first thing memory offers up is likely to be a snapshot image of a landmark building, rather than the panoramic video clip showing how the crisscrossing paths of a shaded quad lead to a Greek Revival building here, a Richardsonian Romanesque building there, and then to a monument or sculpture among benches.

Can my college put up a good Gothic or Georgian building anyway?

Well, chances are you can't afford it. If you could, you'd have a hard time finding a contractor to build it. And it would be much, much smaller than you need.

Why? Among the best, and best known, Georgian and Collegiate Gothic buildings in the United States are the Yale residential colleges that James Gamble Rogers designed in the early 1930s. Even then, in the depths of the Depression, they were expensive—in the neighborhood of $2-million each. They offer any number of delightful features, such as paneled dining halls, working fireplaces, one-of-a-kind carvings, master's houses, and much more. They also have load-bearing-masonry construction, slate roofs, plaster walls, and all manner of nooks, crannies, arches, bays, oriels, dormers, and towers. They are relics of an era when construction had not yet become standardized and brick walls did not come in preassembled panels, before cost cutting came to be known as "value engineering."

Even Princeton can barely afford to build like that today. In 2007 it opened Whitman College, a 500-bed residential college in the Collegiate Gothic style that cost $136-million. Whitman has its charming moments, but mostly it feels bigger, flatter, more subdued, and less detailed than the university's older, livelier Gothic buildings. That same year—in fact, over the course of three months that summer—Muhlenberg College had components for five perfectly attractive modular residence halls trucked to its lovely campus and assembled by a giant crane. Together they house 150 students behind stately brick exteriors—they're not masterpieces, but for most campuses they'd certainly be assets. Total cost? Just under $10-million. The math isn't hard to do.

Construction costs and techniques aren't the only things that have changed since the 1930s: College buildings are significantly larger than ever before. Even many small colleges now have enormous science complexes, and at larger universities behemoths are common. That's partly because institutions now offer more options to more students, and partly because it's more economical to put a number of functions under one big new roof than it is to put them under several new roofs. Unfortunately, Georgian and Gothic architecture have no good way of coping with such dimensions. They're largely vocabularies of human scale—of ordinary floor-to-floor heights, of rooms that could be warmed by fireplaces and illuminated by windows. Gothic, in particular, begins to peter out when buildings get much bigger than anything Shakespeare would have been familiar with (even the University of Chicago's Gothic buildings feel overwhelming to me).

Georgian—an architecture of symmetries, repetitions, and fairly subtle ornament—is more scalable, but only to a point. It's also more likely to look cartoonish if mishandled. What makes Georgian architecture interesting—visit the older parts of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus to see for yourself—are details like lantern-topped towers and dentils under cornices, but today those details run up the price tag fast. And even then they can't do much for a wall if it's as long as a football field. Not even Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale's architecture school and the most capable of history-minded architects, can really bring a giant Georgian building to life. In his new 166,000-square-foot Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, you can see where he's pulled out every imaginable tool to control the scale of the thing—courses of limestone trim to divide the floors, projecting pavilions at the ends of long wings, and projections projecting from the projections. But it still feels huge. Modern styles give architects more options for handling scale.

One more point: The 1950s and 60s seem to have been an era of special shame at colleges that like to match new buildings to older ones. I sometimes wonder whether architects who persuaded trustees to accept Modernist interpretations of Gothic or Georgian styles shouldn't be tracked down in their retirement communities and called to account before tribunals. William & Mary's 1957 Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall is as good—or bad—an example as any: a red-brick banality that looks like a suburban elementary school stripped of its playground equipment. A few years later Rhodes, which prides itself on having an all-Gothic campus, put up Rhodes Tower, which looks like the keep of a medieval fortress—only with less to recommend it aesthetically. At least colleges that built Brutalist buildings during those same years have something authentic to dislike.

Which brings us to the third question:

Does honesty matter?

A few years ago my alma mater, Franklin & Marshall, put up a big new life-sciences facility. The campus has a number of restrained Georgian buildings designed in the 1920s by Charles Z. Klauder, a first-rate architect who did a master plan for F&M. For the new science building the college asked the firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott to pick up Klauder's vocabulary. What resulted is quite handsome outside, but inside it looks like nothing Klauder ever dreamed of—especially the full-height, oval atrium with a cafe and a staircase that seems to float through space. And now the college is building a residence hall by Stern that will also mimic Klauder.

I'm a big fan of the F&M campus and Klauder's contributions to it. But continuing to put up Klauder buildings in the 21st century seems to me to raise several questions. First, isn't imitating the work of a dead architect akin to plagiarism? American architecture has a rich history of recycling earlier styles, true—the most famous example is probably Henry Hobson Richardson's adoption of a medieval European style, Romanesque, for libraries, a courthouse, even a warehouse for Marshall Field in Chicago. But appropriating an individual architect's designs for reuse seems like a different matter. Higher education expects original scholarship from faculty members and students, so how can it condone imitation in its buildings?

The second question is: Should a college seem to cut itself off from advances in any field of intellectual endeavor? Alumni would howl, rightly, if any institution said it would teach nothing about developments in science or literature since 1938, which happens to be the year Klauder died. I certainly understand that sticking by Klauder's architectural vocabulary doesn't mean F&M has erased Modern architecture from the curriculum—I'm sure it hasn't—but shouldn't an institution that pursues the latest scholarship in every other field keep up with the times architecturally as well?

And, lastly, shouldn't a campus be, as Jefferson hoped, an opportunity for learning about the built environment? Princeton's buildings are so diverse that you can pretty much study the whole history of American architecture there—indeed, the campus achieves Jefferson's aim far better than does Jefferson's own. Harvard has a surfeit of Georgian but also two good buildings by Richardson, plus the over-the-top 1874 Victorian Gothic Memorial Hall and the 1963 Carpenter Center, the only building by Le Corbusier in the United States. Yale has an unmatched collection of Modernist masterpieces—by Gordon Bunshaft, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen—to balance all that James Gamble Rogers. And in the 80s and 90s the University of California at Irvine routinely commissioned buildings by architects who had made or would soon make names for themselves—Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, James Sterling—to complement its imposing core of Modernist buildings by William Pereira. You saw something new and significant there every time you visited.

Even Bowdoin, with fewer than 1,800 students, rings its quad with an instructive variety of buildings. Massachusetts Hall, which dates to 1802, is about as plain as a brick building can be; the chapel, by Richard Upjohn, was begun in 1845 in a Romanesque style; the 1894 Museum of Art is a Beaux-Art masterpiece by Charles Follen McKim. On one side of the museum is Edward Larrabee Barnes's brilliant Modernist reply to McKim, the 1975 Visual Arts Building—exactly the same size and shape as the museum, but with a stark, deep V placed where McKim put a fussy Palladian entry. On the other side of the McKim building is a new gem: a transparent pavilion from 2007 that opens down to the museum's underground entry and gift shop.

This ultracontemporary pavilion, by Machado and Silvetti Associates, recreates Barnes's deep V beautifully in glass and metal instead of brick. It may be my favorite new campus building—I've told any number of people to go see it. And in a way, it resets Jefferson's bar for campus architecture: An enlightened, engaging, entertaining conversation among designs of different eras seems to me to exactly what a 21st-century college or university could—and should—want from its buildings.

Lawrence Biemiller is a senior writer for The Chronicle.

Comments

1. wahoosarc - May 17, 2010 at 09:03 am

I cannot find a way to balance this line "Some of these copycat buildings are merely bad in an ordinary background-noise sort of way, but some of them are cartoon-grade terrible, especially those from the 1950s and 60s. And just about all of them, it seems to me, are intellectually indefensible." with the author's failure to even mention the Darden School, Stern's project on the UVa campus and arguably the most deserving set of buildings for the above criticism.

2. rdobias55 - May 17, 2010 at 09:07 am

,,,

3. rugged_cross - May 17, 2010 at 09:11 am

The University of the South (Sewanee) has managed to maintain it's unique gothic style in many of the new buildings constructed on campus

4. drj50 - May 17, 2010 at 09:49 am

Many campuses forsook their architectural heritage in the 60s and 70s to build Soviet-style box residence halls. The "latest thing" now looks terribly sad and unappealing, especially against the background of the much more interesting original buildings.

Campuses such as Rice (I am an alum) and Univeristy of Tulsa have managed to maintain a degree of architectural coherence while still allowing styles to be updated and buildings to become more efficient.

5. 11182967 - May 17, 2010 at 09:54 am

Ohio University is a good example of a school which has maintined architectural coherence without excessive replication of a specific style (in part because a long-time president thought his alma mater Duke had overdone the self-similarity). The buildings are for the most part red brick and white trim, but beyond that have quite a bit of variety. They are sited well on a hilly campus, the approach to which from any direction is enhanced by the vista along the Hocking River.

Almost anything is better than the brick and built-in-blond-furniture style of the late 50's and early 60's--see Rider College and a lot of dorms like the one I lived in as a freshman at Alma College in 1960. I escaped to a room in the oldest dorm on campus--Pioneer Hall was decrepit, but at least it had character.

Most unfortunate, however, are buildings designed in immediate response to transitory events. The University of Michigan built a fortress administration building in the late 60's that was obviously designed to repel the most determined of attempted student takeoers--even the few windows looked like gun slots. By the time it was completed the era of takeovers had passed, and the university was left with a Lego-like block of bricks.

6. 33kdr - May 17, 2010 at 09:58 am

I am surprised that the author says he is a "card-carrying preservationist" but nowhere mentions the Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines and Standards for historic buildings which addresses modern additions to historic buildings but is also the foundation for nearly every design guidelines written since it was put in place nearly 50 years ago.

The neighborhoods, campuses, cities that do the best work of building new amidst historic buildings or who "guide" new construction are those that ban copying the past--stated clearly in the Secy of Int Guidelines.

The solution to this issue is simple. To respect the past we must respect the present. By copying historic 'styles" or movements we are discarding present day achievements and contributions of artists, architects, builders and planners. How often is the word "cookie-cutter" used in a non-flattering way about housing developments. The same can be said for colleges that refuse to acknowledge that we are no longer living in the same time period as their campus origins. Perhaps if we started calling it as we see it and labeled these places cookie-cutters they would get the message. Every time a new building is built to look or match the old one nearby it cheapens the historic building.

Do we really want to cheapen history by making it commonplace? This is the question campus administrators responsible for setting guidelines, rules, etc. for new "old " buildings should ask themselves.

7. 33kdr - May 17, 2010 at 10:04 am

Reading the comments made while I was typing mine it is interesting to note that drj50 (Philly basketball fan??) and 11182967 both think of the Brutalist and reactionary architecture of the turbulent 60's as negative.

As an architectural historian, architect and preservationist I think they are perfect examples of how architecture SHOULD show its roots in the news of the times they are built. We need buildings like this to remind of us of times when things happened we hope to avoid in the future.

8. paulaeglover - May 17, 2010 at 10:34 am

While I "get" what you are saying from some sort of a purely intellectual basis - my experience of the Princeton campus is that the modern buildings are extremely ugly and jarring compared to the older buildings. If you're going to do modern, at least do attractive buildings that blend in, not seem to look ugly just for the sake of being different.

9. sdsuche - May 17, 2010 at 10:35 am

The author should visit the University of San Diego (USD) and the UC San Diego (UCSD) They represent a literal test case of his thesis that buildings in an historical campus vernacular are inherently forgetable. USD is unabashedly historicist, UCSD is equally modern. I have no idea if the author would appove of buildings like USD's Spanish Baroque Basketball aren, but the campus is almost universaly loved by its students, alumni, and the general public (even quite a few architects) because the campus as a whole is distinctive, coherent, and memorable. The lesson to me is that a great campus is far more important than any building on it. Not many architects can do a fine building in a historical vernacular, but that just means universities need to look hard to find those who can.

10. elgato1204 - May 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

It is amazing to visit universities that have both very old buildings--designed in a classical style, and newer ones. After 10 or 20 years, the modern buildings begin to look like "scrapers" (i.e. should be torn down due to obsolescent design), while the "old style" buildings still look great after a 100 years.

11. mela9087 - May 17, 2010 at 11:31 am

I have heard that Duke is running out of the stone used in their Gothic buildings and sets a quota for its use in new building construction. My favorite "Gothic" building on their campus is the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sanfordpubpol.jpg which is a modern building that still shows the influence of the main campus architecture.

12. davidbrussat - May 17, 2010 at 11:43 am

The article by Mr. Biemiller is civilized and intelligent, but buys into a lot of bad thinking that has wrecked campuses for decades. He sees every attempt to try something other than contemporary modernism (or copying the modernist past, more likely) as copying the older past, a sort of dishonesty, and abandonment of progress. Far from it, neotraditional campus buildings try to move old principles into the future using design practices that have stood the test of time and are beloved of students and alumni. He may live in an old building and claim to be a preservationist, but he has orthodox modernist attitudes toward architectural history that are plainly at odds with the facts and the truth.
He is prisoner to the idea, common among preservationists today, that an evolving built environment is more a matter of academic scholarship, exalting the importance of assuring that only buildings appropriate for their time (now) are built, than a matter of achieving beauty (which need have absolutely no conflict with function). That is false. Every building built in an era is of its era. The professional preservationist's attitude toward campus architecture results not in a genuinely evolving place but a museum of architectural fashion.
He may be correct that Princeton's new campus isn't as satisfying as its old Gothic quadrangles, but that is probably because the architect was trying not to be accused of copying the past. Many of the flaws in decades of attempts to revive great campus architecture are due to a lame attempt to avoid being too slavish to the past. Fact is, you can't be too slavish to the past, but since you are unlikely to be literally copying a historical building, reverence to the principles of the past will achieve quality if you have the money, the knowledge and the talent for it. If you don't, you may get something less than satisfactory, but it is likely also to be less offensive than the same project attempted by a modernist. And since it probably in some way an example of formal experimentalism, and defies the principles of a host of physical laws, including that of gravity, it will suck money long after it is completed.
Hire a modernist, even the best, and you are throwing the dice. You are far more likely to get something that the students and alumni will ridicule than revere.
- David Brussat

13. kepplet - May 17, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Mr. Biemiller, thanks for a excellent addition to the discussion about campus architecture. Having worked at Rhodes, Sewanee and Juniata I do find that it is possible to have "the interplay of buildings, trees, open spaces, views and other elements" that make a great campus. Rhodes is build on a flat 100 acres in the center of Memphis - the views aren't great but to compensate the President who moved the College to Memphis had the good sense to hire Charles Klauder to do the original campus plan. Once the Collegiate Gothic got started subsequesnt Presidents and Trustees had the good sense to "not mess up a good thing." If you have a million square feet of Collegiate Gothic architecture it is not a good idea to do the next 30,000 in some other style! Sewanee is also a Collegiate Gothic campus but in a much different location on top of the Cumerland Plateau in rural TN. Since it was built over a longer period than Rhodes and is spread out over far more acres the style there is less uniform. The main thing is that it is built mostly in stone. The new Hardy, Holsman and Pfiffer dining hall is clearly a modern building but it still fits in next to the Gothic chapel because it used Gothic elements and stone approriately. At Juniata there wasn't even a professional campus plan until the 1990's yet Presidents and Trustees knew they liked the original building's Central Pennsylvania German architecture characterized by stone bases, brick walls and steep roofs. Architect Baird Dixon's refurbishment of the original building - Founder's Hall (page B19) is definately a modern adaption of a 1979 building but it fits right into the grouping of buildings on the campus as does the 88,000 square foot von Liebig Science Center designed by Hastings and Chivetta. Here a relatively large building for this campus is nicely proportioned to also fit right in - including of course the stone base, brick walls and step roof. The main thing is that these three colleges mostly avoided the architecture styles of the 1960's and 70's by "latching" on to an architecutral vocabulary that has stood the test of time. Alumni love these campuses and support financially the contiunation of their campuses styles. On the other hand it is vertaully impossible for large universities to contine a distince style. Duke for example has certaily lost it's Gothic heritage for logical cost and size reasons.

14. swidman - May 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Biemiller raises all the right questions, sort of. For example, he completely understates the differences among the ten pavillions Jefferson designed at UVA. Not withstanding the example of Horace Walpole and others, the only real idiom available to Jefferson was "classical." Within that idiom Jefferson created dramatic variety. His goal should never be understated: it was to educate, to show all the classical orders and the differing proportions available, and the moods or ideals they were meant to signify as a means of educating. Within the idiom, those pavillions could hardly be more different. Today, it is true, colleges can opt for a "look." A consistent style will appeal to prospectives as "branding," and presumably stir the passions of sentimental alumni.

Or campuses can heed Jefferson's example. He insisted on using the best technology of his day, and the best available ideas. He did not have broad sheets of glass available to him, nor did he have steel beams to create vast spaces, nor in the Pavillions did he worry about plumbing. Perhaps the most important aspect of Jefferson's architecture was his willingness to use the best available materials and design principles. Ignoring that aspect of his work renders all imitations "Un-Jefferson like."

But his philosphy of design was clear: suit the building to its purpose, use the best available materials and on a campus, design buildings to educate. Those are truly great principles still. Today those principles may mean: make buildings as transparent as possible: insofar as practical let science buildings reveal science, theater buildings reveal theater etc ( Just what Franklin and Marshall did not do). So forget the tiny window panes and the mock columns. But in any event, in picking architects and designing buildings, it behoves us educators to never forget the goal of educating. Part of achieving that goal includes letting the best of the past be identified as of the past, and letting the new buildings of today represent the best of what we are capable of now. Oddly enough, the best buildings at Princeton may well be the nineteenth century outliers, what F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to as "those Attic twins," Whig and Clio.
Now as Biemiller suggests, there are 'safe" buildings, almost always boring and usually more artifical than any alternative, concealing their necessary modern aspects. Then there are buildings that are modern but harmonize, and finally there are buildings true to Jefferson's spirit: structures designed with the best available modern materials that seek to celebrate the education they aspire to embody. The last goal has always struck me as the foremost design principle available on any campus. On that score, Biemiller is right on target.
John Strassburger

15. ellenhunt - May 17, 2010 at 01:09 pm

At least they try to be a little attractive. Walk around some of the haphazard piles of concrete at certain high status universities in California and you will appreciate a bit of faux Georgian, or at least serious attempts to try for architectural pleasantness. One of the most outstandingly atrocious campuses in the world has got to be UC Davis, with its Stalinesque monstrosities that were designed to double as fortresses. Even the buildings that tried for attractiveness only look like someone grafted something onto a pile of rock. If there is anything uglier than Briggs Hall, it is the parking structure next to it, but I'm not sure about that. And the spaces inside these buildings? Somewhere between horrid and barely tolerable, with a few exceptions.

Really, there should be an award given for "most godawfully atrocious architecture inside and out" and I hereby nominate UC Davis for the honor. If there is a campus with a worse total collection god help us all.

Like the Ignobel, it may even become sought after.

16. ipersley - May 17, 2010 at 01:57 pm

One of the problems that we suffer in campus architecture is temporal. We see examples of the best older architecture of any given campus because the buildings that did not work at that time have since been discarded for something else. We all can name a recent piece of architecture that displeases us, but that should not give us cause to dismiss modern architecture in its entirety in favor of a distilled version of historic architecture that many revere. In time, campuses will demolish buildings that are not favored, because of function or aesthetics, leaving behind the best architectural examples of any style.

I also believe that many of us suffer from a protracted bout of nostalgia. We have lived and worked in these 100+ year old campus buildings and cannot see ourselves in anything else. It is interesting that academics attempt to be experimental in their ideas, but are often times intractably conservative aesthetically.

17. dave_ofthe_coonties - May 18, 2010 at 01:43 am

I discovered architect Charles Klauder while a student at Penn State. Apart from several charming 1920s buildings (I lived in one), what was then the State College gained a simple, sturdy plan that accomodated its explosive subsquent growth. Its coherent pedestrian circulation has never been seriously obstructed by new construction. Later on, it was fun to discover Klauder buildings elsewhere in wildly different styles (and usually more generous construction budgets).

If Princeton has Whig and Clio, the University of North Carolina's old twin buildings for the Di-Phi Societies (New East and New West) are probably the campus's best, even though the Italianate architecture was never copied. It's a campus where good planning during the 1920s made a coherent whole out of relatively cheap buildings.

The Duke campus's original layout was clever in that red-brick functional buildings (biology, engineering, even law) were tucked away just out of sight of the elegant Gothic chapel, dorms, and classrooms. Those plain buildings violate the sort of ostentation that even affects our tiny community college branch campus, where every building has a grand lobby and is called a Center.

A few years ago, I was puzzled to see a Gothic addition being tacked onto a simple, functional Modern building at Florida State. By now, that's looking like standard operating procedure. At the Florida Institute of Technology, you'd think the future was a thing of the past.

18. historianofart - May 18, 2010 at 01:50 am

Middlebury's Bicentennial Hall seems a particularly successful example of new architecture on an old campus worth mentioning in this context.

Swarthmore's Parrish Hall, which you praise here so strangely, is a Victorian monstrosity that should be razed posthaste. In contrast, the failure to mention Haverford's crisp and elegant Founder's Hall and the surprisingly effective blend of Quaker simplicity and Collegiate Gothic flourish around Founder's Green is a glaring oversight.

19. cathnpat - May 18, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Though my eye is untrained, I must say that the Bowdoin Quad, surrounded by the buildings described in this article, is one of the most beautiful campus settings I have ever seen.

20. cahill89 - May 18, 2010 at 02:12 pm

Last comment is right. Bowdoin's quad is very beautiful. Students used to say the Visual Arts Center looked like the box the Art Museum came in, but over the years the look has mellowed. This may be Biemiller's point when he refers to honesty. A campus grows organically, and matures, and reflects the ages in which it grew.

21. jungianscholar - May 20, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Davidbrussat's reflections echo my sense of architecture, especially when applied to the academe. The origins of Neoclassical and Gothic as college and university architectural style rest in the histories of the old European universities, and as was earlier mentioned, the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson in replicating a harmonious and classical campus design to create the kind of environment that leads one to recognize the sanctity of higher learning, and our homage to those who came before us, and upon who's' shoulders we stand.

Many, many architects are egotistical maniacs, as was Frank Lloyd Wright, whom I think of as Frank Lloyd Frauductect. As was mentioned earlier, buildings are designed within the context of their times. I have a book, an architectural walking tour of Cambridge, MA. and the author (from the 1970's) illustrates buildings that most of us would agree are hideous brick boxed veneers with ugly aluminum windows and no style. Most buildings of the 1950's through the 1970's on campuses stand out due to their ugliness, lack of inspiration, and discord with the older, more beautifully executed and harmonious buildings. What good does it do for a Frank Lloyd Wright to design buildings in his famous Prairie Style (I see influence from the Scottish architects Rennie McMurdough when the buildings like Falling Waters require millions in restoration due to faulty initial design and structural engineering. The much vaunted Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art looks like a fat cardboard spiral cutout or a paper flying saucer large enough for half of the aliens from the TV show, V.

Wonder what influenced the bane of American suburbs and small towns during the 1940's through the 1970's ranch house vernacular? Our Praire du Chien Frankie Baby.

Whenever I visit a new campus, my eye immediately takes in the overall symmetry, or, if there are special Victorian buildings or something unique in a good way, asymmetry. Next I look at the buildings and how they relate from early to later. MIT has some especially ugly buildings. The University of Cincinnati has a hideous Genome and Design, Art, Architecture and Planning building that will be dated very soon, and the design and construction costs were much higher than a neoclassic one.

The University of Illinois, and Michigan State have two of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen. Those two schools could be a model for others.

"Beauty is that which Pleases..."

22. clas78 - May 21, 2010 at 09:45 am

As a UVA student in the '70's, I distinctly remember being told that since Jefferson was an architect, new UVA buildings were built in the architectural designs of the day. One only needs to recall the battle over UVA's current South Lawn Project (BOV rejected initial firm's designs for not being Jeffersonian enough)to know that that idea flew out the Palladian window long ago! What a shame . . .

23. chingichongs - May 22, 2010 at 03:09 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

24. rgood - June 14, 2010 at 01:17 pm

A good article, but I think there are a couple of key points that were missed. First is context and proximity. I don't think most universities have been successful dropping modern buildings into areas with classical architecture. I'm sure Harvard is glad to have the only Corbusier building in the U.S., but it looks odd at its location (not to mention an odd design for Boston's climate). Second is the backlash against the often miserable modern architecture of the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

A couple of building examples in the article highlight these two points. William and Mary's new business school building and UVA's Darden school (both designed by Robert Stern) are quite large and far enough removed from their respective universities classical buildings to conclude that they could have and perhaps should have been built in a modern style. However, both universities were clearly reacting to the poor reception of nearby modern buildings (William and Mary has the drab Phi Beta Kappa hall mentioned in the article nearby, and UVA has the uninspired previous Darden School building and Law School buildings nearby). The truth is, those older modern buildings were disliked, and the administrations knew it. Both of the new classical business buildings are well liked.
Although, given its location, the Darden school at UVA probably could have been successful in the modern style, the other new business building, the undergraduate Commerce School, is close to Jefferson's lawn, and was correctly executed, in my opinion, in a complementary classic style.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.