Collegiate Gothic: the Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Campus Architecture?

A couple of weeks ago I made an unplanned visit to a college that it’s probably best to leave unnamed. It’s an institution whose campus I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, and time didn’t seem to have done it many favors. I drove past one clunky, knockoff-Gothic building after another, until finally I was forced to confront what may be one of the central questions of campus planning in America today: Is Collegiate Gothic the single worst thing that ever happened to campus architecture in America?

The more I think about that question, the more serious I am about asking it. I’m a big fan of good Collegiate Gothic architecture, but let’s face the truth: Most of the Collegiate Gothic buildings put up since World War II have been lousy. They don’t have load-bearing masonry walls, so they don’t need—and usually don’t get—all the costly buttresses, arches, and other structural flourishes that make the style lively and engaging. And they’re built all at once, instead of one accretion at a time, so they end up uniform and often symmetrical, rather than quirky and amusing.

Worse yet, if a college has a core of Collegiate Gothic buildings, alumni and trustees may refuse to let the institution build in any other style, even if an essentially medieval, church-inspired architecture is entirely inappropriate for whatever the institution is doing in the 21st century—and even if the college has no hope of raising the money necessary to build a new Collegiate Gothic building good enough to match those in its core. Plus—and this is increasingly an issue—Collegiate Gothic doesn’t scale. An architectural style that created perfect, human-sized cathedral cloisters cannot simply be supersized for an institution’s next interdisciplinary science center.

In the 50s we got stripped-down Collegiate Gothic — which is to say, Gothic without any of what we love about the style. After that we endured a spell of reinterpreting Collegiate Gothic in various contemporary guises—and that turned out to be, in most cases, even worse that what the 50s had given us. Now we’ve settled for putting up what are mostly background-grade Collegiate Gothic buildings. But what’s the point? I’d much rather see a good contemporary building than a mediocre Collegiate Gothic knockoff, no matter what the buildings next door look like.

You can certainly ask the same question about Georgian buildings on college campuses, but to me mediocre Georgian buildings don’t seem as disappointing as their mediocre Collegiate Gothic counterparts. Besides, Georgian scales better than Collegiate Gothic, and its ornament is cheaper to add on.

So the question remains: Is Collegiate Gothic the worst thing that ever happened to campus architecture in America? What do you think? —Lawrence Biemiller

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