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September 12, 2007

Dealing With Collegiate Gothic

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Collegiate Gothic was the epitome of architectural fashion for American colleges and universities during the whereabouts of the first third of the 20th century. I'm very fond of that style and enjoy seeing it when I visit Yale, Cornell, Princeton and other universities with significant concentrations.

But what do architects steeped in Modernist and Po-Mo dogma do when new buildings are added to a Collegiate Gothic core? There are three basic strategies for this situation: (1) ignore the past and build what you want; (2) grit your teeth and continue with Collegiate Gothic; and (3) create buildings that blend with Collegiate Gothic to varying degrees. The third strategy is the most interesting one because it shows what architects design when their hearts aren't completely in the game -- how much do they compromise and how do they go about compromising.

The University of Washington is an interesting test case because, since a campus plan using Collegiate Gothic first emerged in 1915, architects have had to acknowledge the style. The remainder of this post is a gallery of photos I took recently along with captions in which I explain and interpret. I'm sorry that this post is a little lengthy, but the subject can't be dealt with using only four or five illustrations.


This is the main quadrangle. Here and in many other parts of the campus vegetation is thick -- too thick, in my opinion. Major trimming is needed so that buildings are visible and free from potential damage to brickwork in the damp Seattle climate. The Japanese cherry trees in the photo have been in place for around 45 years and render the Collegiate Gothic classroom buildings nearly invisible when leaves are out.

The "Quad" sets the style for the main part of campus. Bricks are a reddish-orange color and trim is a pinkish cream. My other alma mater, Dear Old Penn, standardized on Burgundy-colored brickwork to unify the campus.

Here's a better view of a building done in Collegiate Gothic style. This represents the take-off point for architects working in the 1950s and later.

The Mechanical Engineering building was built in the 50s in a nondescript style that nods to Collegiate Gothic only in its standard UW brickwork.

At the center-left is an engineering school building completed around 1960. There apparently was a little pressure to compromise with Collegiate Gothic -- hence the fussy, abstracted-Gothic motif.

The main campus plaza. A parking garage is below ground level and the towers are ventilators. The area was built during the early 70s when Brutalism was the architectural fad. No Gothic touches, but the brickwork is UW standard.

Meany Hall performance center, sited on the plaza shown above, but completed in 1995. Note the odd little triangular windows along the roof line: the architect's reluctant tribute to Collegiate Gothic..

The engineering library and a classroom building dating to the 70s. Again the expected brick and no Gothic.

On the left is the Business School library, 1997, and to the right is a Business School classroom building completed in 1962. The older structure's only Gothic gesture is the vertical window treatment. The library isn't Gothic in detail, but has its spirit even though it bears more resemblance to an English country house. It's a bit odd, but I kinda like it -- especially the windows.

Here is a glimpse of three generation of library building sections. To the left is a wing of the original main library built in the 20s. The middle section is an early-60s addition that was Modernist aside from a few Gothic trim touches. On the right is a recent addition that we'll get to next. (Extreme-right is a Collegiate Gothic building from the 1928.) The ensemble is more of an architectural museum than masterpiece, given that the bits were built about 35 years apart.

The Allen Library is a late 90s addition to the main library building funded in part by Microsoft's Paul Allen whose father was a library executive at the UW. This building is perhaps the closest of the modern buildings to the form and spirit of Collegiate Gothic. I like it too.

The Electrical Engineering building is recent and nicely in the Gothic mode. Another winner in my tradition-oriented book. Peeking around the corner to the right is...

another Paul Allen project, this one for Computer Science. Unlike the adjoining EE building, it faces towards a peripheral road and away from the campus core. Perhaps that is why the architects figured they could get away with designing an undistinguished building with an especially pedestrian "warehouse modern" top. Clearly a step in the wrong direction, given the interesting architecture of the previous three buildings.

The new Law School building, named after Bill Gates' father. This is the third home of the school in the last 70 or so years. For some odd reason the lawyers do better in terms of new building than other departments. This structure is on the campus periphery, so it is less needful of being Gothic. What we find is typical architectural grandstanding reined in only by the use of those familiar bricks.

This Social Work building is across a major street from the main campus. The brick part was built in the 60s and the charming, warehouse-like upper part is recent. Cheap-looking ugliness, but maybe it's intended to get prospective social workers into the proper mind-set for plying their trade.

This is George Washington. He has turned his back to the campus. I wonder why.



posted by Donald at September 12, 2007


My favorite is the electrical engineering building. A very good modern variation of the traditional style.

Posted by: Peter on September 13, 2007 9:05 AM

Cheap-looking ugliness, but maybe it's intended to get prospective social workers into the proper mind-set for plying their trade.

Ah, come on, Donald, stop beating around the bush. Tell us what you really think of social work.

Actually, my office is right next to a social work operation in L.A., and an astounding bevy of attractive young women come in and out all day long. It's given me a whole new appreciation for social work.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 13, 2007 9:59 AM

Friedrich, Friedrich -- While it's true that I'm lacking the Social Work gene and have doubts that the public sector branch of the trade does the job efficiently, my feeble crack had to do with SW folks working in slums and other untidy environments.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 13, 2007 10:24 AM

Nice pix and topic, tks. The way some colleges are defacing their own campuses is a marvel, isn't it? That main campus plaza certainly radiates "municipal parking garage," doesn't it? Gotta say that the computer sciences building says the same to me, if in slightly chic-er tones ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2007 11:58 AM

The only new building with anything of integrity here is the Computer Sciences.
The rest is the worst kind of fake American hypocricy - what you would call compromise, I guess.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 13, 2007 12:15 PM

The University of Michigan has a traditional law quad in Collegiate Gothic, and of the examples you've shown, it most resembles Dear Old Penn. When time came to vastly expand the law library (around 1980) they chose a modernist glass and metal grid for the exterior. Horrifying, right? Wrong, because some genius insisted they dig a huge hole in the corner of the quad, and stick the new library down there. You only see the library if you're standing within a few feet of the guard rail that surrounds the hole. Frankly, I find this solution hilarious, heroic, endearing, and deeply, deeply satisfying, all at the same time.

I found some images: a confusing view of the glass wall, from the inside looking out, and the beautiful old reading room, where the robed priesthood gathers each day to chant praises unto the majesty of the law. Or something.

Posted by: Fredosphere on September 13, 2007 12:23 PM

No, I was too hurried. Another one is good, too - what you call Modernist building next to original Neo-Gothic Library, on the picture labeled Main%20library.
Makes good addition without surrendering its own style. Consistent with the prevailing line/structure of the adjacent building. Implies continuation of the same architectural tradition, albeit in language of a different time.

Unlike the oither cowardly bastards - not here, not there, something to please bunch of paying blowhards on the board.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 13, 2007 12:47 PM

Great entry. I have been meaning to walk around this campus specifically to see Suzzalo Library. As far as the postwar buildings go, I agree the electrical engineering building is by far the best IMO. And that main campus plaza is atrocious. Apparently there is a dorm on the campus that students say was designed by an architect who designed prisons and that it actually has the prison appearance, I think it is called Haggett Hall.

One thing is for sure... they sure dont build 'em like they used to. I guess crappy ugly buildings make us appreciate the beautiful and quality buildings we have.

Posted by: Jon on September 13, 2007 1:57 PM

Haggett Hall is one of the better dorms at the UW. The hexangle rooms are more spacious than the square counterparts in other dorms. The views, location, common areas, and food service are also superior to other dorms. McMahon Hall, next to Haggett is a mess. Balconies, "clusters" (which are small private common areas surrounded by a handfull of rooms), and long dark corridors. The UW police office in charge of the north campus residential area told me that he volunteered to peronally jackhammer off all the balconies from McMahon Hall.

Posted by: AP on September 13, 2007 2:54 PM

At the University of Oklahoma, the brutalists were alowed to clutter up the

Posted by: Bill on September 13, 2007 2:55 PM

BTW, did you guys look at this library thread?

Posted by: JM on September 13, 2007 3:54 PM

Great post, Donald. Actually the main campus square/parking lot looks like something out of "The Time Machine." You half expect those ventilators to suddenly emit a siren while college students walk zombie-like toward the open garage.

At the U. of GA, a 200+ year-old campus, they've managed to completely mix every style ever conceived since the advent of the neo-classical column. When my fellow graduates talk about how "beautiful" the campus is, I assume they mean the rolling landscape in general. Otherwise, the U. of Ga is essentially the campus that ate Athens. Essentially, it consists of a beaudacious football stadium surrounded by a thicket of buildings whose style has nothing to do with one another...unless quite by accident. Oh, and Donald, if you ever want an example of how hideous a campus building can really be, you have to see the journalism building at UGA. It defies speech...

(and trust me...that was the best shot of it they could come up with)

And right next to it is the eyesore called the Psychology department. You'd have to be crazy to want to attend classes in THAT thing...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 13, 2007 4:59 PM

I actually thought before posting this time - heh heh heh - and my conclusion is: the problem with modern, stripped down, architecture is that it takes a perfectionist to pull off the naked look. Otherwise the naked look looks shoddy. Louis Kahn is the only modernist whose work - not all of it - appeals to me. But the man had the most acute sensitivity to color, texture, mass (sculpted mass) and most important, proportion. Lacking those sensitivities and the obsessive pursuit of perfection that makes the very few, master architects, most modern architects come up with unappealing colors, materials, textures, proportions and LACK OF ORNAMENTATION, that would at least ameliorate the hideous ugliness of what they present.
It's not that most traditional architects weren't mediocrities. It's that they had classical rulebooks to follow and even when they didn't build with verve there was ORNAMENTATION: that great ameliorator. Hence the appeal of even ordinary Collegiate Gothic.

Posted by: ricpic on September 13, 2007 7:20 PM

A good example of continuity to look at is the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minn. (It was the "College of St Thomas" until recently, and I don't know if the new name is pretention, or embarrassment at the old initials-- CoST.)

Not only do the new buildings all fit in so well with the old that you can't tell where the one turns into the other, but the satellite graduate campus five miles distant in downtown Minneapolis looks like part of the main campus was transported. Now that's consistency!

Between the two campuses lies the University of Minnesota. I was just looking over the Mississippi at it the other day, noting how many of the newer red-brick buildings, while nothing to dance over, at least blend in with the older ones. And in the middle of this is a Frank Gehry monstrosity blinding bridge-crossers at sunset. And for years, we thought nothing could be worse for the area than the old Ralph Rapson "crack stacks" on the West Bank. (Now the tallest structure in Mogadishu.)

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on September 13, 2007 11:09 PM

One more note about U of St Thomas-- that's where the American Chesterton Society holds its annual get-together. And there certainly is something Chestertonian about the surroundings.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on September 13, 2007 11:46 PM

Americans have spent a fortune over the last decade on college and prep school buildings, and I think the results have turned out pretty good. The new buildings are typically highly respectful toward the old, pre-modernist classics on campus. Have we finally learned from our mistakes?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 14, 2007 6:55 AM

Whitman College at Princeton by Demetri Porphyrios is worth a look. It is a great brand new campus that is of quality construction and design that is built in the spirit of the main Princeton campus. It literally just opened.

Whitman College Photo tour

Posted by: Jon on September 14, 2007 10:13 PM

My theory of university architecture: the more artsy the field, the better its buildings. At UC Berkeley, the English department is in Wheeler Hall, a very cool early 1900s Grecian-looking building. The History Department and Philosophy Department are in nice art-deco buildings. Math and Computer Science are in an awful brutalist pile called Evans Hall, and electrical engineering and some of CS is in a nondescript ickiness called Cory Hall (where I had my office). As is often the case, the School of Architecture was in the worst building on campus, that had to be rebuilt at least once due to leaks and general bad construction.

The main exception to this rule was mining and other "statics" engineering, which had a cool old building with a wonderful glass dome.

Posted by: Foobarista on September 15, 2007 5:07 AM

Here's a page of photos of Gonzaga University, with architecture spanning over one hundred years. You have to click on them to get the full effect.

From memory, I'll say that the Ad building is the oldest, constructed in the late nineteenth century, with DeSmet being the next oldest, from around 1930 or so. After Bing Crosby left, that's very important, since there's an urban legend that he was expelled for pushing a piano off the roof. (He would have had to lug it up five flights of stairs first.)

The Crosby Student Center is a 1960s creation, I believe, and the Foley Library was completed around 1992 or 1993. Jundt was completed in 1995 and Hughes has been remodeled in the last five years. Regarding Jundt in particular, I know the architect was reportedly upset that he had to make the building harmonious with the rest of the campus, and was definitely upset that the beautiful copper roof had to be allowed to tarnish, since it was creating a visual hazard to pilots (!) because of its reflective nature.

Posted by: B. Durbin on September 15, 2007 11:30 PM

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