The academic campus is among the greatest American inventions. Because it is not an iconic object, like a skyscraper, and does not move you the way jazz, blues, or rock ’n’ roll do, you might not think of it with as much patriotic exultation. Yet few things better embody American values at their best or have produced more great spaces. The American campus is our democracy, our sense of progress, and our ability to take diverse identities and create communities in courtyards, dorms, classrooms, laboratories, and other edifices of education. It is a physical model of what America wants to be.
The campus’ roots are British and lie most particularly in the Gothic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Certainly, the Oxbridge tradition informed the campus’ form from the beginning, but it was in America that the notion of a field (campus in Latin) dotted with academic structures and set aside from the grid of the city or surrounding nature first appeared. The model, or locus classicus, is the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s 1817 seried assembly of residences around a lawn, anchored on one side by a domed library and open on the other side to the landscape; each building is separate, and each is an embodiment of classicizing ideals. The lawn they border is communal and separate from the surroundings. The series could theoretically continue endlessly, and in so doing embody ideal elements posited ever further in a landscape seen as America’s for the taking.
In various forms across the U.S., this model repeated itself throughout the 19th century. It was never as clear as it is in Charlottesville, Va., either in organization or in the actual pavilions, but the brick (and sometimes stone) structures that began appearing from Vermont to New Orleans to Washington state were to a large extent modular and flexible, as well as easy to design and build, and thus could grow across the territory of a land grant or other defined area. Their architecture, at first mostly Classical and later tending towards Neo-Gothic forms, embodied ideals of articulation, shared traditions, community, and cultural aspiration.
Slowly, the campus became increasingly enclosed and unified. Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1886 plan for Stanford University and Henry Ives Cobb’s for the University of Chicago in 1893 set the tone: enclosed quadrangles, their flanks usually consisting of dormitories, punctuated by domes, towers, and larger blocks dedicated to different disciplines and administration. By their presence, the students defined the campus spatially as well as socially, while the structures offered symbolic and functional anchors.
With the massive expansions at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University (to a 1906–1911 plan by the most vocal proponent of the campus as a model for a new kind of community, Ralph Adams Cram), and Yale University, the campus entered its glory period. Everywhere around the country, the Neo-Gothic and Neo-Colonial walls of dormitories rose in cities, towns, and countryside, defining communities of learning around such structures as Day & Klauder’s Cathedral of Learning (1926–1937) for the University of Pittsburgh.
The campus was the engine by which an increasingly diverse country accepted and acculturated generations of students into shared values and beliefs. The buildings and the spaces around them reinforced what students learned; not just literature and history, mathematics and biology, but etiquette, team spirit, music, jokes, and rules of behavior that made them effective citizens. The best campuses reflected and embodied those values and modes of behavior: Gothic turrets and ambulatories presented a model of monastic concentration and dedication to learning, while Neo-Colonial expanses of brick surmounted by white gables represented American ideals of democratic, repetitive, and idealized forms.
The enclosed campus was a rationalized and larger version of the American home, sitting in a conceptually and physically open field. No wonder it continues to have such a pull on alumni: It was here that they became part of something other than their family or their small community; here they learned they could make their own world in a space they inherited and shared. The place symbolized their becoming American citizens.
The postwar campus took these ideals into the realm of the machine, reason, and a new scale, usually without great success. Over time, architects and campus leaders began to realize that they had lost something and tried to create that sense of community. These experiments—which ranged from Eero Saarinen’s 1961 Morse College and Stiles College at Yale to Charles Moore’s 1972–1974 Kresge College at the University of California Santa Cruz—relied on the notion that the campus was essentially a stage set in which students learned the roles they would play for the rest of their lives. They were theatrical façades and convoluted skins around rationalized interiors.
Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. Read more of his thoughts on design and design culture at our blog Beyond Buildings
While the American campus seems stuck in the past, with the most recent structures attempting to recapture the style, if not always the essence, of successful forms (as Robert A.M. Stern did at the University of Virginia and is attempting to do at Yale), it is in foreign countries that the campus is evolving in new directions. I recently visited the campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China, designed by Amateur Architecture Studio. It is an astonishing collection of pavilions, each slightly different, responding with great sensitivity to the site and housing both dormitories and academic functions. It is built with local materials in concrete frames and is filled with the kinds of spaces of both formal and informal gathering that have made the American campus so great.
As with many American inventions, the best campus examples in the 100 years following the American Century might be rising up beyond our borders.