OPINION: Apathy about campus architecture

George Mason University was founded in 1957 as a satellite school of The University of Virginia (photo courtesy of darkensiva/Flickr).
George Mason University was founded in 1957 as a satellite school of The University of Virginia (photo courtesy of darkensiva/Flickr).

There was a time when buildings were not built in the ugliest and most offensive manner possible. That time is now past, and its passing is in few places more apparent than on the contemporary college campus. When our nation’s capital was being built, the architects looked back to the experts—to Rome and Greece—for inspiration. They built columns and arches and domes; they raised up out of the earth the most beautiful ruins man has seen. What, then, is the muse of our modern builder? To look around our university estate, one would think the designers were inspired by a parking garage.

Some buildings are clearly members of the old Brutalist clan that was so dominant back in the 50s and 60s. Huge concrete monoliths stand sorely erect, daring the oaks and pines around them to challenge their hideous strength. Other more recent constructs offer a different sensation – those gigantic amalgams of glass and industrial steel, shimmering in the sunlight, unnervingly make me wonder if I am not attending lectures in the temple of some intergalactic alien race. Still, other buildings seem to me to have no definite architectural plan at all. And, of course, there are many buildings that have no single style, but are instead seem to be a hybrid of all the ugliness the other buildings have to offer.

One of the more notably revolting edifices, ironically enough, is the art building. It looks for like an enormous bulge of brick with a small neighborhood of well-kept barrios seated atop it. It has some windows, to be sure, that are reminiscent of the tin fences that shopping mall storekeepers pull down in front of their shops at night. And then there is the jagged metal sheet, jutting out right in the building’s middle—and that feature’s purpose confounds me utterly and absolutely.

Why is it that we fall victim to such foul structures? Why do we shrug when more of our money is spent to put up more shocking and unsightly modern ziggurats? Why do we not seem to care that our home away from home is not beautiful? Why do we not seem to care that the places in which we spend most of our time are flatly repugnant? Why is it that we care no more for elegance than for elephants, and no more for beauty than for burnt popcorn?

There do exist fine-looking colleges. I’ve found them to be mostly in the Northeast, but they can be seen all across the country. Some of the most stunning universities are the ones that are overseas; Cambridge, Oxford, Otago, Cape Town, Moscow, Queens in Belfast and Sydney are all universities of breath-taking aesthetic appeal. In the United States, we have the Ivies, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, UVA, Boston College and others. The splendor of all of these, though, comes partially through their age—they are all places of an ancient and cultured magnificence. They are some of the final bastions of beauty, standing out against the onslaught of modern bunkum, and will retain their grandeur through the ages.

We too should desire a handsome campus. We too should demand a beautiful home. We too should look forward to the day when we are able to return to our erstwhile residence, and behold its visual glory, and be glad.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.   

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