A Sense of Place

Originally published in , January 1998

There is no area of architecture and urban design in which America has excelled more convincingly than in the design of university campuses. The halls of academe and the lush grounds that surround them often sit as oases in the desert of commercial cacophony that characterizes so much of the American urban landscape. Architects and urban planners from abroad often seek out the American campus as a prototype for coherent, civilized community and as a home for beautiful and important works of architecture.

Indeed, for much of the 20th century, the best campuses in the United States have become testing grounds for the work of the finest architects in the world. Le Corbusier ‘s only building in America is Carpenter Center at Harvard. Alvar Aalto broke new ground for his career and for 20th-century architecture when he designed Baker House at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mies van der Rohe designed a whole campus in Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright did the same in Florida. Today’s generation of leading architects have all done some of their most important work on campuses.

In Texas, we are blessed with some of America’s best and most beautiful campus plans. Rice University, designed by the outstanding Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram early in this century, is hands-down the best physical environment in Houston. Behind the hedges, as they say, the landscape is shady and generous, the outdoor spaces are stately and well-proportioned, and the buildings are, if not beautiful, almost always intriguing.

The University of Texas at Austin campus has been the beneficiary of three grand master plans by the best architects of their generation: Cass Gilbert in the period from 1910 to 1920, Paul Cret in the 1930s, and Cesar Pelli recently. Gilbert and Cret, along with Dallasite Herbert M. Greene, created an ensemble of 30- plus buildings that form one of the most compact and sophisticated urban districts on any campus: the much beloved 40 Acres.

Trinity University in San Antonio, built from scratch beginning in 1948 under the direction of architects Bartlett Cocke and O’Neil Ford, is equally impressive, though very different from Rice and UT. The buildings are a gentle blend of modernism and tradition, creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Longtime president Ronald Calgaard attributes much of the character of the university to the character of its seminal campus. The spirit of the campus and the spirit of the institution are inseparable. A relaxed, congenial attitude pervades both.

At its best, that ‘s what an American campus is – a reflection of and a provocation for its university. The nature of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Rice, UT Austin, and SMU is inseparable from the physical environment that houses those institutions. As Winston Churchill observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.” Savvy college boards and administrators understand that their image and their character are on the line when they build. Dynamic, creative, thoughtful universities build campuses that project those qualities. Banal, mediocre campuses likewise palpably communicate a lack of vision and ambition on the part of the institution that builds them.

SMU’s recent campus master plan sends a powerful message about the future of this venerable Dallas institution. The campus as it exists today boasts a solid, memorable general plan, the central feature of which is a half-mile-long mall terminating at the administration building. In a tradition initiated by architect Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, the building vocabulary at SMU is Collegiate Georgian.

The campus plan, as fleshed out over the last half-century, is good-not great. That memorable north-south axis makes a wonderful ceremonial gesture, but never really becomes a successful place to hang out like Jefferson’s ” lawn” at the University of Virginia. Though some buildings group together comfortably to form well-scaled forecourts off the great axis, creating an amiable hierarchy of campus outdoor rooms, others just sit like isolated lumps oblivious to their obligation to create a larger whole.

Architecturally, many of the older buildings are pleasant, if not particularly distinguished. Some of the campus additions in the 1960s and 1970s (a bad period for most campuses) are actually quite admirable. The Underwood Library, though too big for its site, is quite at ease in its Collegiate Georgian context without being cloying or overly sentimental. But there are dogs here, too-banal dormitories that are more Collegiate Barracks in style than Collegiate Georgian, and a gargantuan fine arts building that seems to have grown like Topsy over the years. And, of course, open parking lots have eaten up much of the greenery and lawns that are so essential in creating a gracious, academic atmosphere.

The new master plan is admirably aimed at curing some of these ills and setting SMU on a well-defined track for the future. Peripheral parking structures lift some of the cars off surface lots, allowing courts and lawns to be recaptured for student use. New buildings are projected around quadrangles, re-creating the hierarchy of outdoor rooms which is successful in some parts of the older campus fabric. Some delicate surgery and a few careful insertions improve relationships between existing buildings and help define more useful and congenial open spaces. The architects for the new master plan, the SWA Group (who are nationally recognized for campus planning) and Good Fulton & Farrell (who have produced excellent urban design work in the Dallas area), have done a commendable and workman-like job.

What does the new plan say about SMU? It says this university values clarity, order, and tradition. But, more significantly, it reasserts the importance of student life at SMU. Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton before he was president of the United States, said, “The real intellectual life of a body of undergraduates, if there be any, manifests itself not in the classroom, but in what they do and talk of and set before themselves as their favorite objects between classes and lectures.” The new plan focuses on life outside the classroom in many ways. It improves outdoor spaces for informal meeting and gathering. It creates a new student services building in a prominent location at an elbow between academic, residential, and recreational parts of the campus. It projects a large new sports center. But perhaps most significantly, it establishes a new home for the Meadows Art Museum at the front door of the campus, communicating the primacy of creativity and contemplation in the life of students at a university.

What will the buildings that follow say about SMU? It is a bit too early to tell. The master plan sketches speak strongly to values of conservatism and tradition. Some preliminary sketches of projected new buildings are delicate and sophisticated extensions of the best of the existing SMU vocabulary. Others are hulky and out-of-character with the original fabric of the campus except for a few pseudo-Georgian gewgaws that seem to be apologizing to the real Collegiate Georgian buildings around them. The best sign of success for the new building efforts is the recent selection of Tom Beeby, of the firm Hammond Beeby & Babka in Chicago, to be the design architect for the crucial Meadows Art Museum. Beeby has proven himself capable in idioms akin to SMU’s in his work at the Chicago Art Institute and in the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice. This one is in good hands.

SMU should be commended for its carefulness in taking these important steps toward a new era of building. Preparation of the master plan is a crucial first move. Hiring a highly capable architect like Beeby for the landmark museum building bodes well for that critical project. But building a great campus, like building a great university, requires constant fidelity to high standards. The inertia created by bureaucracies, politics, and economics inevitably produces mediocrity unless countered by vision and extraordinary commitment. Will SMU step up to the plate and place itself in the league of great American universities with exemplary campuses? Or will it return to business as usual after a few good hits? The next few years of building will tell.

Thinking about Campus Architecture
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Originally published in , January 1998