An Architect Asks: Should Colleges Erect ‘Buildings of Our Time’?

Originally published in , June 20, 2008

I love old buildings. There is nothing I like better than puttering around in a Gothic cathedral or climbing through Inca ruins in Peru or even reading in my all-time favorite library — a hundred-year-old Cass Gilbert building on my own campus. Part of what I love about these old buildings is that they connect me to another time. Lasting architectural artifacts become documents of their place and time — authentic representations of the culture and era that made them. By touching them and living in them, I can feel the emotion of religion in medieval France, the order and sophistication of the Incas, and the noble aspirations of the early-20th-century pioneers of the University of Texas.

I think we need to leave lasting artifacts for generations to come that will give them a window into our cultures and our time. I actually really like the era we live in. I like the students I see running around campuses all over America in shorts and T-shirts, plugged into iPods and connected to an enormous World Wide Web of people and information. It seems bizarre, however, to see them walk into a brand-spanking-new building that has all the pompousness and formality of Georgian England. Those buildings fit beautifully with powdered wigs and heavy black academic robes, but they are not a reflection of life today.

In university communities, we take great pride in being forward-thinking and progressive. Our research is meant to serve generations to come and stimulate society to even greater achievements. Indeed, our students are the makers of the future. Shouldn’t we be concerned about what our buildings will say about all of that enterprise to the citizens of our campuses a hundred years from now?

Unlike the speculative detritus lining our freeways that probably will not be with us in a couple of decades and almost certainly will not survive to midcentury, our campus buildings are likely to stick around. Hopefully the institutions that built them will have very long and productive lives, and if we are good financial stewards, we are constructing our buildings so they will be sustainable over a long period of time.

Great campuses, like great cities, should be agglomerations of all of the cultures and all of the times that make up their history. If everyone in every era builds well and builds authentically, the result is a rich record of the institution — and a perfect home for it to grow and thrive in.

I do not just mean that we should be building “modern” buildings as opposed to Gothic ones or Georgian ones. Modernism is the way of our grandfathers, who formulated fresh, modern buildings in the 1950s. I mean we should be making buildings that reflect the values, lifestyles, issues, and technologies of today. That does not mean any sort of style, and, given the fact that we are a very heterogeneous culture, it probably means there is not a one-liner answer to the question, “What does it mean to build a building of our own time?”

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Section: Money & Management
Volume 54, Issue 41, Page A12

Thinking about Campus Architecture
Originally published in , June 20, 2008