Trinity University in San Antonio is a city set upon a hill. Like some of the best American campuses, it shelters its students, faculty, and staff in buildings and courtyards that rise across a verdant expanse, removing them from the outside world and presenting a more perfectly arranged and designed version of reality. From the hill Trinity occupies, you have a panoramic view of downtown three miles away, while the 166-foot high Murchison Tower, once the tallest structure in the city, marks the presence of this academic enclave to the outside world. What makes Trinity different from most other such campuses is the sparse forms, carried out in brick, concrete, and glass, with which architect O’Neil Ford designed the original campus buildings. Even better is the landscaping by Arthur and Marie Berger, which makes the whole cohere as the buildings range across the plateau and tumble down the slopes of the former limestone quarry to the south. It is no wonder that the campus was recently designated a National Historic District.
What makes this campus exceptional is the radical nature both of its forms and of its placement on the land. First planned after the Second World War (the first section opened in 1951), the campus was originally supposed to be a more traditional, neo-Georgian sequence of quadrangles. But O’Neil Ford took over as the architect when Frank Murchison, who was one of his clients, became chair of the university’s board. Ford felt the 70-foot drop between the top of the hill and the lower campus warranted a different approach, and he designed rectangles placed at slight angles to each other in two series around what had been the quarry. These bars were dormitories stepping down the slope, while he crowned the hill with the tower, a chapel, and a variety of classroom and administration buildings whose brick blocks and concrete-and-glass open volumes created a continuous composition around loosely organized open spaces.
Using a lift slab system for the first time in North America, Ford was able to make his buildings more expressive than, for instance, the structures Eero Saarinen designed at roughly the same time for Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The slabs extend beyond the lines of the windows in almost all cases, often running for what look to the naked eye like impossible lengths, especially given how thin they are, between the brick-clad blocks that act as anchors to these human-made versions of contour lines lifted off the limestone cliff. There is little else beyond an occasional chimney and the web of sloping walkways, often sailing over the ground on columns, and stairs to detract from this continual play of lines and blocks as the bits and pieces of this academic village that tumbles down the slope.
The buildings that make up the campus are not nearly and simple and dramatic in their lines, although both Parker Chapel, a gable-roofed shed whose interior opens up under parabolic concrete arches, and the clever concavity of the brick-clad peers of Murchison Tower do give the whole a sense of proper gravitas. Some of O’Neil Ford’s later designs, such as Coates Library, pull apart into stepping corners that reduce their overall mass, but have little of the expressive sense of a contrapuntal dance with the land that gives the dormitories such power.
It is the massing and the composition of Ford’s designs for the campus buildings that gives them their strength as works of architecture. The interiors are, on the whole unremarkable (although decades of adaptation makes it difficult to experience them as you would have in the 1950s) and the detailing is either—depending on how you look at it—the most matter-of-fact assembly, or ramming together of different materials and shapes, that I have seen in this type of building.
Trinity College is, in other words, not an example of integral architecture built up out of machine-like buildings, but rather an academic landscape whose elements mix only three major human-made materials—brick, glass, and concrete—with native scrub oaks, strips of grass, bushes that mark transitions between levels, and a few eruptions of lush plants whose intensity of color and form contrast the simplicity of the architecture. Ford’s and the Bergers' achievement here is magnificent.
As with almost every campus built in this country between the 1920s and the 1970s, subsequent administrations and their architects have succeeded only in detracting from the achievements of the original buildings. The banal and gargantuan blocks they squeezed into the spaces at the top of the hill are bad enough, but still better than the sports complex that takes up the central, flat part of the bottom campus in its entirety and separates Ford’s two arms of buildings with inaccessible playing fields and even larger and uglier buildings.
There is enough to see here to make you realize how good Ford and his office were, at least when they were working with a good landscape architect: the Bergers, who completed hundreds of projects in Texas, deserve more recognition. It also lets you realize how important Ford’s architecture has been in defining the character of this small liberal arts college. This is architecture that presents itself, like all good campuses, as a village of forms that are building blocks for a new kind of modern community, at once one with its place and open to the world around it. I hope someday an architect with the talent of O’Neil Ford will help prepare Trinity University for its changing role in this century.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.