The tradition of the American college campus is one of the few that we can call our own. Its purpose from the beginning was to create a place apart from the daily life of farm, factory and city. The beginning was Harvard College which in 1636 was established with a few simple, rectangular brick buildings arranged around a rectangular lawn planted with trees. This lawn is now famously known as “Harvard Yard”. It resides just a few steps away from Harvard Square the busy center of Cambridge, MA separated only by a brick wall and iron gates and it’s a world away. It’s pastoral.
While Harvard was a field punctuated by buildings, Stanford (Fredrick Law Olmsted, 19th century) was a building punctuated by courtyards. At Harvard a building is a box that sits around open space, at Stanford it’s clay (or more precisely, sandstone) with which to shape (or carve out) open space. The two hundred and fifty years that separate them played a part in their differences but so did the climate: compact rectangular boxes (“salt boxes”) kept rooms warm inside; whereas buildings that spread out, opened out, even configured half-in/half-out (loggias) were well suited to California.
The two campuses are variations of the same idea—rectangular buildings around rectangular spaces-- an idea which when applied in two different ways, in two different places at two different times produced two unique environments. It’s an idea that informed the planning and design of campuses across the country for more than three hundred years with tenacity, consistency and yet with surprising variety and vitality. The goal never changed: tranquility and repose. The traditional college campus is not a place to rest, but it is a place at rest.
The Carpenter Center at Harvard University completed in 1963 and designed by seminal early modernist Charles Jeanneret (or “Le Corbusier” if we want to indulge the guy) is an exquisite work in concrete, beautifully composed and proportioned with an intelligent floor plan that cleverly picks up on the iconic diagonal circulation pattern that runs through and links the quadrangles at Harvard. The building’s shape is fluid, and to experience it fully you move around and through it. The rooms inside are spacious and filled with light.
The Carpenter Center sits on Quincy Street across from Harvard’s main campus in a neighborhood of 17th and 18th century Georgian brick buildings with white neoclassical detailing. In Jeanneret’s mind all that Georgian stuff was irrelevant to our modern lives, superfluous to the more enduring first principles revealed through the indigenous architectures of the Mediterranean (primordial, pre-European), and at the time, we surmise, Harvard agreed. The Carpenter Center is cerebral, the result of a fully resolved, self-contained, internally logical (if not also slightly romantic and highly personal) complete world view. And it’s completely out of place.
There are few buildings built on any college campus in America after 1945 that take its campus seriously or even address it. There are intelligent, expertly crafted standouts of excellent mid-century architecture that offer high quality, unique and dramatic experiences that also have nothing to do with the campuses they occupy. There are many more buildings of that same era that not only ignore their campuses but offer little else in return. Inevitably (and swiftly) the intellectual rigor and aesthetic acuity of early modernism had devolved into the opportunistic ethos of expendable buildings with neither compositional facility nor architectural character.
Today we get the hyperbole of contemporary (late modern?) architecture which on occasion delivers exciting experiences that are also invariably disorienting and artificial because like the Carpenter Center these buildings could be anywhere. Or we get knock-offs of surrounding traditional campus architecture to “fit in” when of course nobody’s fooled. Most of this stuff reads like some sort of practical joke -- not anything that anyone could learn anything from. Relative to the almost three-hundred-year success story of the American college campus this is not progress.
We seem to think we can make modern architecture work if we just amp it up, or we think we can’t ever make it work so we abandon it altogether. We unnecessarily box ourselves in with a false choice. Unnecessary because it is within our means to make architecture that respects a campus and evolves it, architecture that knows its place and yet creates unique and dramatic experiences not thought possible in that same place. It is with imagination, attention and care that we architects should embrace the legitimacy and the intelligence of the American college campus while we also attend to what’s newly possible. We might surprise ourselves.