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Creating Campus Appeal

Architecture's effect on the message conveyed about an institution
University Business, Mar 2007

THE BEAUTY OF A COLLEGE campus is a powerful influence on students' choice of college and the affection of alumni for their alma mater. No one truly understands what leads a student to select one college over another or why, many years later, the emotions of alumni are linked to specific places on campus. At some level, these individuals all recognize that the campus is the physical manifestation of an educational philosophy to which the college is committed and that is conveyed through educational experience.

A central quadrangle, for example, is surely an expression of the goal of encouraging students, for whom studying is usually a solitary activity, to interact and literally cross paths with others as they move from one class or activity to another. A college where the chapel is the largest building on campus sends a different message from one where the library or field house is the biggest. On a campus where an "Old Main" houses the senior administration, the meaning is changed from when it once housed classrooms and faculty offices. An older, well-preserved building in a prominent location tells visitors that the college values its traditions and its history. And the planning and creation of contemporary buildings signal the college's willingness to foster the best of innovative architecture, thus contributing to an expansion of knowledge of and experience with the physical environment.

Many years later, the emotions of alumni are linked to specific places on campus.

Because the early days of American higher education were dominated be private institutions, may of the oldest and architecturally most significant campus buildings can be found on the campuses of private colleges and universities. The Council of Independent Colleges, with support from the Getty Foundation, has collected data about and images of 2,100 of these buildings which are located on 389 campuses. Known as the CIC Historic Campus Architecture Project (HCAP) and led by architectural historian Barbara Christen, this project has a fully searchable website at <A href="; target=_blank></A&gt; that is proving to be of interest not only to scholars of history, architecture, education, and other disciplines, but also to admissions staff members, facilities managers, and other institutional administrators.

The website can be used to examine and compare buildings of a certain type-science labs, for example. It can also be searched by date and materials of construction, building function, architect/landscape designer, and geographic region. It offers extensive bibliographic resources as well.

The uses of the website are evolving well beyond the original idea. Recently, a consultant to a college that was about to renovate its 1950 library wanted to find other institutions with similar buildings that had undergone major renovations. Ten minutes of searching on the CIC HCAP site yielded information about a half dozen colleges with libraries that fit their search limits, and telephone calls to these colleges led to useful advice. In theory, an enterprising chamber of commerce could even promote a tour of a region's colleges on the basis of the buildings the schools have identified as significant.

Campus planners and alumni often have very different opinions about campus architecture. When alumni are asked about the buildings on campus that they like or about the design plans for a new structure, they often express conservative stylistic preferences, with collegiate Gothic often being a favorite. When campus planners and architects are surveyed about campus buildings, however, they are often dismissive of the lack of imagination that led to a decision to build another building in this style when more innovative options were available. When they discuss other options with institutional administrators and others, the results can be surprising and illuminating.

Rhodes College (Tenn.), which has an unusual degree of architectural harmony in its largely Collegiate Gothic campus, recently constructed a new library. The building is very large and already has become a center of campus life. Inside, it includes all the desired features of a modern learning commons, current technology, and ample traditional library areas. From the outside, it responds to the Collegiate Gothic environment around it, but inside it incorporates new ideas for the changing needs of the campus community.

Innovative reuse and other preservation solutions offer other possibilities. At Baker University (Kan.), a sandstone house dating from the 1850s is a tangible link to the pioneer days on the prairie and has been preserved as the Old Castle Museum. And at Houghton College (N.Y.), affection was so strong for Fancher Hall (originally known as Jennings Hall, built in 1905) that when in 1987 a new campus plan called for other uses of the site, this beloved building was moved in order to be preserved.

One feature of Southwestern University's campus is the determination of its planners not to turn  everything inward toward a central quad.

Many colleges and universities have an Old Main, a structure that has received some interest in recent years. There are two books titled Old Main, one by Samuel Schuman (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) and one by Richard Dober (Society for College and University Planning, 2007).

Differing educational philosophies are reflected in the early uses of Old Main. For early Catholic colleges, the sisters who were its principal faculty members often lived on the top floor, while classrooms, a chapel, and the president's office filled the lower floors. For early Protestant colleges, however, it was often students who lived on the top floor. Another variant of this form is found at Flagler College (Fla.), which today occupies the magnificent turn-of-the-century Hotel Ponce de Leon, used for both residential and administrative purposes.

Not all uses of space follow predictable lines. Southwestern University (Texas), with guidance from Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Group Two Architecture, has developed a highly unified campus master plan. One of the campus's more unusual features is the result of its planners' determination not to turn everything inward toward a central quadrangle. Rather, visitors are conscious of the openness of Southwestern's campus and its connection to the surrounding areas, reminiscent of the early 20th-century Garden City movement in Great Britain. Focus and coherence in students' experience are achieved in other ways-including a welcoming, modern student center-rather than through prescribed patterns of pedestrian traffic that lead all students to the same pathways at the same time.

The importance of the physical campus as an expression of an institution's educational values is easily overlooked once functional needs are met. We need to remember how fundamental architectural facilities and spaces are to gaining a broader understanding of the campus community. The visual and historic appeal of a campus's architecture can be an endearing manifestation of a college or university's educational mission.

Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges,

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