Thoughts on American Campuses

I have great admiration for the concept of the American campus. It is the best environment I know in which to come of age. There are several effective models for them, but they all seem to combine some notable qualities. They are communities of scholars gathered to learn and to teach, with a large percentage of the students living on campus. This is what allows them to be pedestrian villages. The best campus plans have been born around concepts of space, and the open spaces, usually green, tend to be more important than the buildings that surround and define them. 

I have had the opportunity to design buildings on several American campuses, and when I look at a place with the intention of creating a new structure for it, I see more clearly and gain a better understanding of a place than when I just visit it. I have to – because I want my design to become an integral part of the place. My observations are primarily of those campuses on which I have worked.

I first came to America, with a scholarship from the Institute of International Education, to the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. This was the first American campus I had ever seen and I was impressed. It was a completely different physical structure of a university from those I was familiar with in Argentina. There they followed the continental European model of academic and administrative buildings dispersed throughout the city, with no residential facilities. The University of Illinois campus had no buildings that I could admire purely as architecture, although a few of them were elegant and had charm in what I thought then was an old fashioned way. But the central quadrangle was a marvel and made the qualities of the specific buildings unimportant. The campus was lined with two double rows of very large elm trees over pedestrian walkways. The trees were magnificent, like green sculptures, and each pair created a cathedral-​like space. Its central lawn, as soon as the weather was tolerable, was covered with students: discussing, reading, napping, away from the noise and fumes of cars. It seemed to me an incredible luxury and made physical the central importance of the students in the University. This quadrangle represented to me a great achievement of culture and civilization, reinforced by the main building at the head of the lawn, the Student Union, also inviting and dedicated to the well-​being of students.

I am now designing a building at the University of Illinois in collaboration with my son, Rafael, for the Business School. It is some distance from the central quadrangle, but it is helping to define a new large, green open space. The central quadrangle has unfortunately long ago lost all its elm trees to the Dutch Elm disease. This loss took away much of its majesty, but the space continues to be the heart of the campus. The buildings that surround it are now more visible, but they are still good definers of the space. 

Rendering, Business Instructional Facility, University of Illinois at Urbana-​Champaign

Central quadrangles are not unusual on American campuses. One of the handsomest examples I know is at Duke University. It is defined by a group of very good buildings designed primarily by Julian Abele, one of the first African-​American architects. He was chief designer in the firm of Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia. This quadrangle is also the heart of the campus and in many ways the physical embodiment of the university. We designed, for Duke, three buildings in the athletics area, and we placed them so as to define a new, long lawn already popular with students and Blue Devils fans.

The center quadrangle at Duke, as in many other large universities, is a gathering place primarily for undergraduates because most of the professional schools developed later and were built at some distance from the center. Graduate students do not live on campus, and they disperse away from the university after hours. In most universities the undergraduates are the heart of the university and give the campus life and identity. They are in many ways the carriers of tradition. Liberal arts colleges have the great advantage, in their cohesion and character, of being populated only by undergraduates. They are there all day cementing life-​long friendships and developing a strong attachment to the institution that will forever be their alma mater. 

Of the campuses where I have not worked, but only visited, the most extraordinary continues to be the part of the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, designed by Thomas Jefferson. The Great Lawn is one of the most beautiful spaces in America. Because the University of Virginia campus has expanded greatly and the lawn is surrounded by only a small number of dwelling spaces, it is not as intensely used as is the central quadrangle of many later campuses, but it remains a strong model for campus planning and design. It is the product of a very American view of a university, quite unlike Oxford and Cambridge that have also influenced campus design.

Another beautifully designed campus that I know well, but where I have never worked, is that of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. It was almost completely conceived by Eliel Saarinen and it is one of the most successful and delightful integrations of architecture, landscape and art in this country. Perhaps because it is not a college and is a rather recent design (1920s to 1940s) it has had little influence in the planning of other campuses.

The first campus building we designed, in 1982, was Herring Hall for the School of Management at Rice University in Houston. We also prepared a master plan for the growth of the campus. I came to thoroughly understand the intentions of its original designer, Ralph Adams Cram of Boston. He designed the Rice campus on a very ordered axial plan and invented a colorful architectural style based on Byzantine elements. Most importantly, he planted a large number of live oak trees that today are as important as the buildings in giving character and shade to the campus. The buildings designed or influenced by Cram were still charming and much loved, but much of what had been built after World War II was weak and disjointed. In our design and master plan, we tried to regain the spirit of Cram’s design and reinterpreted it in contemporary terms. Herring Hall has helped define a new quadrangle, the Great Square, and proposed a contemporary vocabulary sympathetic to the historicist one devised by Cram. Rice has continued to expand in a handsome and consistent way.

Herring Hall, Rice University

I am perhaps most familiar with the campus of Yale University. I have designed buildings for it, I have taught there, have been dean of its School of Architecture, and my office is across the street from the campus. The Yale campus is in the center of the City of New Haven and is an integral part of it. It has taken form within city blocks, and through the years Yale has adopted various strategies to deal with these conditions. In the early 1930s Yale developed the system of residential colleges as semi-​autonomous entities with the buildings formed around courtyards. This collection of courtyards and relatively small, contained lawns allow Yale to be crisscrossed by city streets and still maintain a sense of seclusion. I believe the form and character that James Gamble Rogers gave these buildings was brilliant. Today they shape the image of Yale and most of the memories of students, alumni and faculty.

The campuses I like best have not only good spaces and buildings, but also a recognizable and memorable character. This special character has become the image identified with the institution and helps to strengthen the bond among its members.

I have been very fortunate in having had the opportunity to design two buildings for Vassar College. Vassar College is perhaps the best example of the type of campus that has been called an academic park. On these campuses much depends on the quality of the park. Vassar is unusually rich in the variety of delightful experiences its park provides, helped by a topography with pronounced but manageable changes of level. In it we find woods, trails, an arboretum, a lake, a precious garden, a quadrangle, and a great circle in the woods. The historic and symbolic center of the campus is the Main Building, a wonderful, massive Victorian structure designed by James Renwick Jr. that opened in 1865. It is a bit forbidding in its exterior but embracing and charming inside. This building originally housed the entire college. It still anchors the loose composition of buildings on the campus and gives order to the whole.

The first building we designed for Vassar is now named the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Before I designed it, I visited the campus several times, sometimes accompanied by Frances Ferguson who greatly helped me understand Vassar College and its campus. The space where the art gallery building could best fit was on Raymond Avenue. This was unquestionably a place where the campus needed a building. Before the art gallery was built, that space was a gap open to the traffic and visual distraction of Raymond Avenue. Now, since the building has been built, the beautiful lawns with great specimens of large trees form a delightful space, ample, inviting and sufficiently secluded. The only problem was that in this position the gallery was invisible from the entrance and much of the campus. I believe it was President Frances Ferguson’s idea to place a small glass pavilion near the Raymond Avenue gate that would announce the gallery and serve as its entrance. A very transparent curved glass corridor connects the pavilion with the main gallery. Towards Raymond Avenue, a sculpture garden was created that also helps to buffer the street noise for the galleries. The building is modest, but delightful. I believe it fits well in its historical context and has strengthened the form of the Vassar College campus.

Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

The second building we designed sometime later is for the Center for Drama and Film. This was built on what was much of Avery Hall, a building originally designed to house the calisthenium and riding academy. We preserved and renovated the entire front portion of Avery Hall, another Victorian structure built in 1866 and with much charm and character. This portion was the whole of the architecture of Avery Hall; the remainder was warehouse-​like, and we replaced it by a calm and contemporary structure, housing a dense program for drama and film, including a very well equipped theatre and a screening room. There are now two entrances in the building, one in the old Avery Hall façade, reusing its front space. This is the more formal entrance for public performances, and another every-​day student entrance is on its north façade. This new entrance, together with two existing buildings, allowed the Center for Drama and Film to define and help populate a new public space for Vassar. This new quadrangle was designed as a sunken lawn by Diana Balmori and it has been named in honor of President Ferguson. It adds another place for gathering and an element of delight to the Vassar campus which is already so rich in them. 

Center for Drama and Film, Vassar College

Designing for a campus means becoming part of a collaborative process, not only with administration, faculty and students, but also with many generations of designers that have preceded us and many others that will follow. In the case of a campus, the work of art is the whole composition. I admire its beautiful buildings, but I admire them more when they also strengthen and enhance the character of that particular campus. One of my deepest professional satisfactions is to have been part of the creative chain that has given and will continue to give shape to the work of art that is a good campus.

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