The Chronicle Review

Should Your New Buildings Look Old?

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.
May 16, 2010

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.