NEW YORK — "First men and architects shape buildings," Winston Churchill said. "After that, buildings shape us."
If so, American colleges and universities are reshaping on a grand scale. From the Gothic campuses of the Ivy League to private colleges and state universities, schools are commissioning remarkable buildings by "signature" architects, putting education in the vanguard of contemporary architecture. With high-profile projects, the schools hope to upgrade not only their image but also their education system.
"An amazing tendency I've seen really blossom at universities ... is the desire to commission buildings that raise questions and become polemics themselves," says New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, designer of dazzling buildings for several universities. He adds, "Architecture should make students sense something's going on to encourage their exploration in all fields."
"There's been an enormous shift in attitude at the university level," says John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State. "We're manifesting our commitment to be a major center of learning by creating buildings of distinction."
No longer considered venues of political patronage where campaign contributors reap construction contracts, state universities in Arizona, California, and Ohio have won the right to award commissions to world-class rather than local architects.
The most daring bid to grab attention through architecture is stacking up at the University of Cincinnati. At a cost of half a billion dollars, the state school has commissioned seven buildings from famous architects like Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, and Peter Eisenman.
Its new master plan, developed by Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco and Boston, calls for signature architecture and open space to replace parking lots and roads. Before the make-over began, "the university looked essentially like a commuter-oriented university," says Jay Chatterjee, dean of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (D.A.A.P.). "Now it's becoming a campus of great significance, which has caught the public imagination."
New buildings get the ink
"The reason why universities are going to signature architecture is they use it for advertising," says New York avant-garde architect Eisenman. "Signature buildings are big media," he says, which help with fund-raising and recruiting students and faculty.
National and international design magazines have devoted gallons of ink to describing U.C. projects (which, students joke, stands for "Under Construction"). The buildings include Eisenman's Aronoff Center for Design and Art, which critics compare to tumbling blocks; Mr. Graves's imposing Research Engineering Building with its barrel-vaulted copper roof; and Mr. Gehry's puffed cubes that will house a molecular studies center.
"Anything we can do to produce greater visibility and provide a sense of identity helps our marketing," says Ronald Kull, associate vice president and university architect at U.C.
Although it's impossible to gauge the influence of these buildings, applications to the College of D.A.A.P. have "gone through the ceiling," Mr. Chatterjee says. Only 1 in 12 qualified candidates, who have the highest test scores at the university, can be admitted.
At the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, applications tripled after Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott of Boston completed an $8.1-million library. Calling the building "a smashing success - the best investment in the world," college president James B. Gallagher termed the digital library "really a learning center - an educational juggernaut," which students have embraced as a social hub.
Many schools have turned to architecture not just to enhance their image but to change it. Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., known as an engineering school, commissioned a $33-million arts center to show its resolve "to be a more total, integrated university," says Tony Corallo, assistant vice president for facility services and campus planning. "This building had to be proud of itself to prove we were serious that the image of the university will change."
California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo was known as an agricultural school before Antoine Predock's stunning Classroom/Laboratory/Administration Building put it on the map as a full-fledged polytechnic university in 1992. "This building stands for a new age," dean Marvin Malecha said at the time.
In an era of fiscal austerity at colleges, where even sky-high tuition cannot cover operating costs, it's surprising so many schools are investing in aesthetics. Critics like Rives Taylor, architect and campus planner at the University of Texas, Houston, contend that "a durable, sustainable building using green technology" is more important than ostentatious design.
New York architect Robert A.M. Stern criticized academic buildings "that express the autobiography of an architect rather than a portrait of the school," or where form follows fashion. A building should not be a monument to an architect's ego, he says. "It's not my vision to impose on a campus but the vision of the school." In his new six-building, $37-million complex for the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Mr. Stern's design echoed the Neo-Classic architecture of the original campus by Thomas Jefferson.
No more faceless blocks
Stern, a professor of architecture at Columbia University in New York, stresses continuity with the past, but many schools are trying to rectify past mistakes, when a hodgepodge of high-rise buildings were slapped up for baby boomers. "We went through a dreadful period in the '50s, '60s, and '70s when college buildings were faceless, square blocks. Now people want buildings with more character," Mr. Corallo says.
Michael Graves, professor of architecture at Princeton University (N.J.), notes that the former rapid expansion, which occurred when architecture was "not at its zenith," resulted in "behemoth buildings that threw the scale of college campuses way out of kilter." Now, administrators competing for students, he says, "want to make environments that are friendly, so prospective students will say, 'I'd like to be here for four years.' "
Campus architecture is important for more than just recruiting and ambience. "Architecture sets the image of a campus that alumni take with them all over the world," says Philadelphia architect Denise Scott Brown of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. "Buildings mean a lot to universities because they breed loyalty, nostalgia, and affection."
Stern agrees: "People have their most vivid architectural experiences in universities, which they carry with them for the rest of their lives."
Beyond creating a campus aura, architecture also plays a pedagogical role. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the physical environment of a campus is worth a million words," says Bruce Jilk, an educational design specialist at the Cunningham Group in Minneapolis. "Architecture can articulate everything an institution is about."
Columbia University is spending $650 million on construction that symbolizes its values. A new $68-million student center by Bernard Tschumi features 100-foot-long glass ramps to embody college president George Rupp's vision of a holistic university without walls, not "divided by the boundaries of schools, departments, and disciplines."
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has hired California architect Gehry to design a business school for the 21st century. Scott Cowen, dean of Weatherhead School of Management at Case, wants the building to "promote innovation and creativity" by its "inspiring and transforming" physical presence. "If we really believe the craziness about thinking outside the box," Mr. Cowen says, "we should ensure that future business leaders are exposed to a totally different environment."
Another factor driving construction is the changed nature of what goes on inside classrooms.
"I'm convinced students see and read differently today. How we teach also has to change fundamentally," says Mark Taylor, professor of humanities at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Instead of the former concept of empty vessels into which professors pour knowledge, students are now considered interactive learners.
The model is not so much passive instruction as active construction and production of knowledge in a variety of settings, from classroom to library, computer center, cafe, dormitory, or campus green.
Creation of community
"The single most important factor" in the design of a new business school at the University of California, Berkeley, "was the creation of community," says David Irons, public-affairs director at the Haas School of Business.
The late Post-Modern architect Charles Moore of the Santa Monica firm Moore Ruble Yudell designed a central courtyard, interior forum, window seats, benches, and wide staircase to encourage interaction.
"Convivial, social learning has a lot to be said for it. Perhaps that's the wave of the future," Ms. Brown says.
Other factors that promote collaboration are modularity, mobility, and flexibility. The philosophy of academic architecture should "move from 'cells and bells' to fluidity and the connectivity of elements," Mr. Jilk says.
Rapid technological change also makes infrastructure obsolete. New buildings are wired with fiber-optic cables and computer ports for telecommunications, distance learning, and interactive video. Wall Street's prolonged bull market has loosened donors' purse strings to pay for high-tech, high-visibility halls.
At Rice University in Houston, where new homes for new disciplines are sprouting like spring radishes, Mr. Predock is building a four-story Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Even in a complex technical setting, the architect stresses human interaction. He decided to "let the social life of the building predominate." Terraces spiral up the rear elevations, with views into labs bristling with sophisticated equipment.
As technology mutates at a brisk clip, architect Robert Venturi believes "a building should fit more like a mitten than a glove." He designs generic interiors that can be adapted to multiple uses, with what he calls "whammo, fanfare" elements for accents, as in the firm's fanciful library addition at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
"Because computers are still in their paleotechnic phase, you should leave room for their evolution," Brown says. "To plan for change that you can't foretell is an art in itself."
Form That Fits Function
land is out; customized is in. When it comes to the appearance of new college buildings, administrators and architects are taking great care to make the building - sometimes almost literally - reflect school values.
* Located on the coast of Maine in Bar Harbor, the College of the Atlantic specializes in marine biology. Architect Turner Brooks compared his design of COA's new community center to a lobster "that crawled out of the briny depths and wedged itself into the heart of the campus."
The building is topped by a barrel roof resembling a lobster's carapace, with an office wing set crookedly to one side like a claw.
* The exterior walls of the Paul J. Gutman Library at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science feature 30-by-30-inch terra-cotta masks made from plaster casts of actual students' faces. These modern "gargoyles" represent the diversity of the student body, with faces from all ethnic backgrounds and 12 countries. Sculpted bricks also contain emblems like shuttles, looms, and quiltlike panels to symbolize the school's textile program.
* Vermont Law School in South Royalton, a leader in environmental law, is erecting a new classroom building that will be a model of "green" construction and operation, including self-composting toilets.
What is 'signature' architecture?
'Architects always transform what the client thinks he or she has in mind, and in the changing is the art.... That particular twist, or signature by an individual architect, is what makes it architecture.'
- New York architect Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners as quoted by architect Peter Eisenman
Architects on How We Respond
To Our Physical Environment
Do we need big views (and not just big bucks) to inspire big ideas? How much do our physical surroundings shape behavior? These questions were put to architects and scholars. Here are some answers.
'I'd talk myself out of a job if I didn't believe the physical environment has an effect. Environments imprint themselves upon our physicality and spirit, and we respond to them.'
- Antoine Predock, architect, Albuquerque, N.M.
'There's a straightening of the backbone and a spreading of the shoulders that comes to an institution when it knows it's housed in an admirable setting.'
- John Meunier, dean, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, Arizona State University, Tempe
'For design you should be in an environment that talks about design. A building dealing with the arts has to be creative - that was my job. The physical environment makes an enormous impression on young people. A high school kid from Kentucky should walk in and get blown away.'
- Peter Eisenman, New York architect, speaking of the influence of his Aronoff Center for Design and Art on University of Cincinnati students
'Like any work of art, architecture can transform awareness and engender different ways of thinking. What you think is in no small measure a function of where you think.'
- Mark C. Taylor, humanities professor at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
'When we [he and partner Denise Scott Brown] were teaching at Yale, students moved into Paul Rudolph's grandiose Art and Architecture Building. There was student unrest. They resented working in a building they felt was imposing on them. There's a reason besides poverty why artists work in lofts rather than palaces. A place for working must have a recessive background where they're not distracted. To ask people to work in a sculptural, expressionistic building and still be original themselves is asking too much.'
- Robert Venturi, Philadelphia architect
The late Buckminster Fuller, thinker and inventor, had no doubt. He said:
'Stop trying to reform people. Reform the environment, and - if the environment is right - people will reform themselves.'