Aaron Betsky Donner House

Recently, a modest piece of architecture in Pittsburgh made me think about big ideals and ideas. Building a better world used to be something we could all believe in. We were going to eradicate hunger, war, disease, and poverty. We were going to make our world more beautiful and more available to all. Architecture and urban planning had a central part in that project. Within architecture, the making of ideal communities was the test case. That might happen in housing projects or new towns, but there was no better place to build a prototype for an integrated community than on a university campus.

Dllu The Carnegie Mellon University campus

Last December, I found myself slogging through the postmodern axes of Carnegie Mellon University. Constructed for the Carnegie Institute of Technology after it merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1967 to the 1987 designs of Michael Dennis, and based on some of Henry Hornbostel’s original buildings, the pallid brick arcades paled in the winter sun, the promise of a better world hiding inside their nostalgia for former orders constrained only by the reality of modern budgets.

Aaron Betsky The Donner House, tucked away in a corner of the CMU Pittsburgh campus

Then, I came across a fragment of the dream, tucked away in a far corner of the campus. The Donner House (formerly Hall), erected between 1952 and 1954 to designs of Mitchell & Ritchey, sits in the crook of a curved and sloping street, asserting itself as a vision of reason and complexity. The main façade is three stories tall, set back in the middle of its run to make room for a one-story entrance pavilion that comes forward to greet you. The short, blank façades of the sides are clad in the kind of iridescent, Roman-bond, green-glazed brick that is a sign of 1950s and 1960s American Modernism—and which makes my heart, for some reason, sing. The long faces, where vertical windows framed in aluminum alternate with stucco panels, are anchored on their ends by all-glass staircases. At the rear, the building continues down another story, and here its four stories of dorms are supported by a colonnade of green-painted columns.

Aaron Betsky From the street you can see the Roman-bond, green-glazed midcentury modern brick that makes Aaron Betsky's "heart sing."

Within this simple composition, the architects (a firm that disbanded shortly after the building was completed) introduced subtleties like the horizontal stretch of bricks and the counterpoint of the entrance lobby which break the volume apart and also lets it accept its site, all while isolating and thus emphasizing a modest public pavilion at right angles to the street. The slip and slide of solid and void at that knuckle both break down the overall mass and create a composition that holds the building’s center with confidence.

Aaron Betsky The entry pavilion breaks up the long, horizontal stretch of brick and glass.

The Donner House neither conforms to the street nor looks any more noble or familiar, as classicists would want, than it did when it opened. I also understand that the interiors have been renovated in a manner that updates the original to modern standards—and thus, perhaps out of necessity, lost the character of the 1950s design.

Aaron Betsky The entry pavilion

What the building does is to present an alternate way to build community. Instead of creating an overall order, its geometries are open and active. Instead of defining a limited space, it responds to and answers back to its surroundings. Instead of subsuming the functions to a monumental unity, it presents them as an open and open-ended series.

Aaron Betsky

This approach had (and still has) its limitations, and it seems alien to many—although, as far as I could glean from conversations and a bit of surfing, the Donner House remains very popular after all these years. With a design like this, you need to work much harder to make a real sense of community out of such abstract blocks. (For a good example of how to do that, I would refer to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, designed by Eliel and then Eero Saarinen.) And, surprisingly, making architecture in this manner is also more expensive, both because our building industry is geared to the production of fake history and because the site use is not very efficient.

But for all that, the Donner House remains an example of how you can create the building blocks of a better world. In an era in which new colleges are more than ever cloaking themselves in false memories (see the recent expansions at USC and Yale), it is difficult to find examples of structures that propose university campuses as places where we are not just learning about the past, but also building the future.