Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Visual Boredom of the College Campus

It’s been quite a few years since I stepped into a semi-rural university campus, where the setting felt more like an elegant park carefully framed by pseudo-historic buildings. These campuses can be surrounded by a dense city (such as Rice University in Houston) or within small towns like most small liberal arts colleges. In both instances the sense of isolation from the surrounding urban reality is pervasive—whatever takes place on campus is unimaginable if it happened anywhere outside the boundaries of the campus. The detachment brought about by its serene landscaping and its dignified architecture serve to induce the sense of being an almost utopian environment, disengaged from the chaos, noise, and dynamism of the dense cities that surround them. Even in smaller towns that host small colleges, there is a clear distinction made between the members that belong to the campus and everybody outside (or “townies” as we called during my undergrad years).

These little principalities permit the administrators tremendous freedom to control the environment within, either by policing the leisurely activities of students or by determining in precise detail the look of the campus and how it effects future development. Typical urban entities could never wield the degree of influence these administrators wield on the built environment. Individual property rights, the simultaneous flow of commerce, and the preoccupation in generating centers of job growth prevent city leaders and planners from being too prescriptive on how to plan the city. None of the above factors influence campus design, which therefore offers any observer numerous depictions of what many would build in an ideal world where the selfish pursuit of money and power replaced by the far more ennobling task of education and research.

The United States is therefore a haven for these utopian mini-states, since its abundance of land allowed many institutions to take advantage of free land-grants. The thousands of these picturesque little worlds dot the land and testify clearly the prevailing preferences of the educated elite, the students that choose to attend them and what Americans overall expect of what places dedicated to the enrichment of the mind should look like. The most ambitious architects have always dreamed of having a clean slate to impose their own ideal plan of how to organize human settlement. They also yearn to have singular control on how each piece of the plan is designed at every level of detail. And what could be better for a designer than not to have to worry if the plan encourages vibrant economic life, only to create as poetic an assembly of built forms on a landscape as possible? Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and renowned Texas architect O’Neill Ford had the fortune to do just that with interesting results, revealing the limitations of their style when applied consistently from building to building.

What these Modernist efforts reveal about the drawbacks the built environment on college campus are also applicable to places defined by more historicist styles. Last weekend I found myself at Southern Methodist University north of downtown Dallas attending an even there. I took the time to wander around the campus, to walk into its more notable buildings (e.g. Dallas Hall) and to generally orient myself to a place I had never really known after all these years. SMU is representative of the qualities of American campuses that I listed above: isolated from the reality of the city, beautiful manicured lawns with trees, and carefully maintained buildings that exhibit a singular historicist style (Georgian Colonial) of strict scale and proportion. New academic buildings under construction seemed to faithfully follow the prescriptions set by the university master plan, reinforcing architectural conformity sought by almost every other college campus.

And it was precisely this oppressive architectural conformity typical of campuses that instilled a sense of uneasiness in me during my excursion through SMU. On the one hand architectural coherence is a good thing in that it lends a recognizable identity to the university to people outside the campus. Yet on the other hand this sameness was kind of oppressive, the monotony in the repetition of materials and architectural elements turn the buildings into indistinct massive elements that merely frame the spaces. For someone unfamiliar with the place, finding a particular building from a map becomes a challenge when they all look eerily alike, and one can never tell what function is going on inside (ironically a common complaint against Modernism). The powerful architectural conformity of the Georgian style do indeed endow the campus a sense of timelessness, as if every building had been built together at once. Beyond the few modernist eyesores small colleges indulged in decades ago, time stops in a campus—the passage of time, of changing taste of distinctive built artifacts is suppressed or even demolished for the sake of maintaining conformity and even reestablishing a dignified tradition that wasn’t there in the first place (my alma mater decided to tear down this one-of-a-kind Star-Trek style food commons and build a new building on top more in keeping with the prevailing Richardsonian Romanesque style of the campus.)

My impressions do not imply that the campus is ugly. To the contrary, college campuses are among the most attractive built environments anywhere, a fascinating extrapolation of traditional English campuses into desirable places that successfully pull in many ambitious students to enroll and hoping for an enriching experience in an idyllic setting. Much of the architectural detailing, the execution in employing the vocabulary of the historic styles (e.g. Classical, Gothic, or Romanesque) is well done, while the Beaux-Arts-influenced landscape plan ensure pleasantly proportioned spaces and monumental axes. Yet the mere fact that it is all ‘beautiful’ still leaves out an important aspect that is vital for me to make a place enjoyable to be in—something I would call ‘possessing interest’. What is meant here is that I desire an environment to offer something unexpected, fascinating, ironic, embodying subtle tension. The liveliest urban environments in the city downtowns contain this in droves, in which each street, alley, and building reveals itself in unexpected ways. In such dynamic places, unlike buildings sit side by side, their juxtaposition suggesting all sorts of meanings. The contrasting building style on a busy city street document the passage of time quite vividly, each land plot containing a story of its own unlike those built for college purposes. Far from dissolving into this nondescript mass that serves to enhance the landscape, the heterogeneity of the urban block generate a sculptural cityscape, a hierarchy of masses and surfaces that give a community a unique visual identity. College campuses share these attributes, but usually in a tightly composed plan that borrows heavily on rules of design inherited from baroque and neoclassicist planning principles. The resulting visual austerity contrasts significantly with the un-composed, unplanned, and chaotic liveliness that make urban spaces exciting to be in. Urban university campuses like the University of Texas in Austin share this quality, which makes for more dynamic public spaces within and more architectural ecclecticism which lend the place an aspect of authenticity.

Reflecting on my response to SMU’s architecture led me to realize the futility of having one designer designing an environment as broad and complex as a college campus, much less an entire city. Ceding complete control to one designer for such large scope projects will yield an undesirable monotony to a place that induces an uneasy sense of calm. The quality of the individual design of each building suffers, often revealing the limitations of an architect’s stylistic toolbox across a large group of structures (e.g. Mies at IIT). An environment can only become enriched by the interplay between distinct buildings of various periods, endowing each with its own integrity. The result of encouraging architectural heterogeneity may not necessarily produce the kind of beauty promised by more rigorous design rules, but they are certain to generate interest (at least to an architecture geek like me.)

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