Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

10 11 2011

So, this is a question that I often wonder about when I play the role of armchair architecture critic. Cornell has pontificated that “each new building should reflect the spirit of Cornell as a pioneering institution and should represent an awareness of its time and place”. Back in the day, that was symbolized by A. D. White’s passionate desire to develop the campus into a New Yorker’s version of Oxford, hence his well-documented derision of red-brick buildings such as Morse Hall and Lincoln Hall, as these were very un-Oxford-esque. Lincoln Hall was built while White was overseas as the U.S. ambassador to Germany (effectively, they sneaked it in when he wasn’t looking), and it’s been said that White smiled when he first heard Morse Hall was destroyed by fire back in 1916. I’m guessing he never counted his own house, but maybe he considered that to be tucked away from the main campus, which it was back in the early days.

Cornell’s architectural preference has evolved with the times. By the 1920s, the fashion was Collegiate Gothic, as seen in buildings like Willard Straight. By the 1950s and 1960s, function was deemed more important than form, and we eneded up with buildings like Clark Hall, and Hollister et al. on the Engineering Quad. Today’s buzz is about “Starchitects” like Rem Koolhaas (Milstein Hall), Richard Meier (Weill Hall) and Thom Mayne (Gates Hall), who designed ultramodern structures that are meant to represent Cornell’s forward-thinking.

My question lies in what is interpreted as forward-thinking. It seems college campuses these days follow two rather discordant trains of thought – one of the modern or ultramodern designs as we have seen lately at Cornell (I was tempted to call them avant-garde, but I don’t think they’re radical enough to merit the term), and then a second line of thinking that delves into the Neoclassical and Gothic themes that conjure images of the romantic colleges of our grandparents’ youth.

Take for instance Princeton and their new Whitman Residential College, or Notre Dame’s new Eck law school building:

Image Property of Notre Dame University

Granted, comparing the new STEM buildings to Dorms and Social Science buildings is a bit like apples to oranges. But what are the pros and cons for the new Houses on West Campus? Were we better off with new and contemporary, or should we have revived the original 1920s era plan and constructed new Gothics?

The original West Campus Plan. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Any casual reader of this blog probably recognizes that I fall more into the traditionalist point of view. I guess my concern lies with the aesthetically pleasing value of a campus. Cornell has some tremendously wonderful natural spaces both in the confines of the main campus and surrounding it (the many gorges and waterfalls throughout the area assure that much). The built environment can either enhance that or detract from it, and I’d venture at Cornell it’s been hit-or-miss over the years.  I wonder though, if the increasing traditionalism of some of our peer institutions gives them a recruiting advantage for top students. I think the West Campus structures are quality constructions, but they don’t quite garner the same level of fondness as the arches and turrets Collegiate Gothic.

So I’m going to go out on a limb and throw the question out there for debate. What role does architectural style play in prospective students’ decision-making? Is Cornell being bold and progressive in its current architectural plans, or are we foregoing traditional architectural styles at a detriment to the physical appeal of the university? I’m really curious to hear others’ take on this, so please leave a comment if you’d like to contribute your opinion.

P.S. I don’t want to downplay the importance of interior design, which is important from a livability angle. But I am more interested to hear about opinions about building exteriors, since they often set the first impression.