Thomas Jeffersonrsquos design for the campus at the University of Virginia is based on the Roman Forum idea He designed his forum as a terraced lawn with an open end to view the mountains beyond The long sides are colonnades in front of student rooms and faculty houses Courtesy of Adam Fagen, via Flickr

Thomas Jefferson’s design for the campus at the University of Virginia is based on the Roman Forum idea. He designed his forum as a terraced lawn with an open end to view the mountains beyond. The long sides are colonnades in front of student rooms and faculty houses.

The College Campus

Mulling and blending different approaches to building a community of learners.

What do we mean by community in an academic setting? And how can the campus setting support or reinforce the idea of community? Usually, communities survive because a group of people have a common purpose. This might describe the situation in a village, where the citizens work together to make their community thrive. In a college situation, the faculty, staff and students have a common purpose: to educate the students, to support scholarship and inquiry, and to help the college thrive.

For the community to exist, it needs collective endeavors — a group of people helping to make the village center more beautiful or more effective as a business district. The collective effort at a college or university might be directed toward academic excellence, attracting students to the campus, raising the level of scholarship, improving the physical environment.

In the age of the Internet and online courses, it is conceivable that students might exist in a virtual community, learning and receiving college degrees without meeting any of their classmates. While that situation might be expedient, it eliminates the benefits of common endeavor. For example, when you enter the main reading room at the Harvard Law School Library, a palpable energy arises from the students working at the long tables. That energy comes from the intensity of their efforts and the subdued clatter of multiple keyboards. In schools of architecture, students work in a common studio, perhaps where as few as 12 or as many as 150 classmates may be visible to each other. They could be working together on one design project or individually on different projects, but the presence of others working in a similar manner increases the energy level in the studio. Many other activities on college campuses, such as eating, socializing, entertainment and cultural events, can work to contribute to the sense of community and common purpose.

Communal space prototypes

In his book, Campus: An American Planning Tradition, Paul Venable Turner cites three precedents that have determined the physical form of most American campuses: the Roman Forum, the Village Green and the Monastery. (Most American campuses are based on combinations of these precedents.)

The Roman Forum

Piazza Ducale in Vegevano, Italy (Photo by Peter Gisolfi)

The Roman Forum was the major outdoor space of the Roman Colonial town that spread throughout the empire. Typically the forum was an elongated rectangular space surrounded by colonnades on three sides and focusing to a temple or other important civic building at one end. The forum in Pompeii, for instance, follows this model with the focal point being the Temple of Jupiter. This type of open space was revived in Italy during the Renaissance, notably at the 15th-century Piazza Ducale in Vegevano, where three sides are used for commercial purposes with residential uses above; the focal point is the church.

Thomas Jefferson’s design for the campus at the University of Virginia is based on the Roman Forum idea. He designed his forum as a terraced lawn with an open end to view the mountains beyond. The long sides are colonnades in front of student rooms and faculty houses. Within the faculty houses at the lowest floor level are the classrooms. At the uphill end of this 19th-century forum is a building that resembles a Roman temple; it originally housed the college library. It is noteworthy that Jefferson borrowed a communal prototype from ancient times, borrowed residential use from the Renaissance, and initiated a new mixture of activities in a rural setting in America.

The Village Green

Harvard Yard (Photo by Travis Rothwell, via Flickr)

The Village Green is an American creation, although it, too, has ancient antecedents. It was common, especially in New England towns, to reserve a green space at the center of the gridded plan. The earliest greens were reserved for grazing, but around these greens, civic buildings started to appear. These included churches, libraries, post offices, town halls, banks, sometimes a school or college. As the greens evolved, the presence of these civic endeavors contributed to the culture of collective purpose. Gradually, grazing ceased, diagonal paths appeared, and deciduous shade trees were planted.

The main communal space at Harvard College is the Harvard Yard — an academic Village Green. The word “yard” refers to the green grass that covers the surface, just as the green grass covered the surface of the early town greens in America. The Harvard Yard includes dormitories, classroom buildings, the library and the chapel. It is the place where the community comes together.

The Monastery

Oxford University

Monasteries in Europe date from the early Middle Ages. A prototypical 8th-century plan for St. Gall in Switzerland includes a cloister surrounded by Monks’ cells, a library, a chapel and a dining room. The community of monks lived together, ate together, worked together, and prayed together. When the idea of a college or university came to Europe in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, the original teachers were monks.

At Oxford University in England, a prototypical college plan developed that closely resembled the plan of the monastery. The students were children of the wealthy and powerful; they lived in rooms around a cloister, just as the monks did. Situated around the cloister were the library, the chapel, and the dining hall. Oxford University is an assemblage of many separate residential colleges, each resembling a monastery, that have been sited and intertwined over hundreds of years.

This tradition of European colleges, such as Oxford and Cambridge, came to the United States at the end of the 19th-century as part of  the Gothic Revival movement. At Yale University, between 1920 and 1940, eight residential colleges were constructed on the Oxford model. The significance of the monastic or ecclesiastical quadrangle is that a prototypical community model was transferred to an academic setting. The young men at Oxford in the Middle Ages became part of a community of students and teachers, as did the young men at Yale in the first half of the 20th century.

A sense of place

For a college campus to succeed as an educational community, there must be a sense of place and unique identity. That sense of collective place is unequivocally present at the University of Virginia. When you are on the lawn, looking uphill to Jefferson’s library, you know where you are. When you walk out of your student room along the colonnade, you know where you are. And you know where you are when you go to one of the professor’s houses to find your classroom. At Columbia University, the central grandiose quadrangle facing toward Low Memorial Library holds the entire campus together. You might not remember any individual building other than the library, but you do remember the sense of place with the red brick and limestone.

Columbia Low Library (Photo by Robert Mintzes)

Some campuses are unified with stylistic rigidity. At the end of the 19th century, Grosvenor Atterbury, architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, designed Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The pattern of orthogonal-linked quadrangles and Spanish Colonial architecture is pervasive and unifying. Other campuses are more diverse architecturally and spatially, but still hold together. The Harvard Yard unifies such diverse buildings as Richardson’s Sever Hall (Romanesque revival), the Memorial Church, (Neoclassical) and the red brick freshman dormitories. All of these varied structures are in tune with the collective nature of the Village Green — the Harvard Yard.

The choreography of communal activity

Just because buildings and outdoor spaces relate to a certain prototype does not mean they will be successful. More is required. Outdoor space and outdoor circulation have to be planned so that the they are occupied by students and faculty, lingering or walking from place to place. Indoor circulation often relates to outdoor spaces. For example, students passing through corridors that face out to the quadrangle might observe the activities in that outdoor space.

The Roman Forum and the Renaissance piazza were places for civic purpose and commerce. When planning commercial centers, the anchors are important. The anchor in the forum might be the temple; in the Renaissance piazza, it could be the church; and in a college quadrangle, it might be the library, a chapel, or the main gymnasium — places that many will use or visit.

Yale University (Photo by Peter Gisolfi)

The most successful examples of these major gathering places involve a type of layering: the primary exterior pedestrian path mirroring or reinforcing the path of circulation within the building; the main reading room of the library looking out over the quadrangle; the main dining hall offering views over a campus open space. All of these situations can enable a gentle intertwining, a choreography that reinforces the communal nature of the college campus.

The communal campus

Why does the physical setting of a campus matter? And how do we develop it successfully? The Turner prototypes show that American campuses are derived from planning solutions that already worked as community settings.

To improve and enhance an American campus, the first step is to understand the existing identity of the campus. Is the plan clear? Is it legible? Is it understood by the members of the campus community? Are there rules of engagement? For instance, are particular materials preferred? It is often clear when you first see a campus that it either works as an identifiable place, or it does not. We cannot attribute this to any specific flaw or virtue, but the most common reason for failure is to have a series of individual object buildings — those unrelated to each other or to the landscape they occupy — designed to attract attention to themselves, and then hope that collectively they become a place. In some cases, the worst offending buildings might be eliminated or transformed.

Cornell University (Photo by Norman McGrath)

As an example, consider I.M. Pei’s Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University from 1973. The museum is adjacent to the Arts Quad. The buildings that surround the Arts Quad are relatively similar, Neoclassical buildings constructed in gray stone. The Johnson Museum stands on pillars and is almost white so as to advertise its unique identity. It is not part of the collective aesthetic of the campus. Of course, object buildings can work successfully if they are designed as focal points within the pattern of buildings and open space. Remember Jefferson’s library at the University of Virginia, and the Low Library at Columbia University.

The most straightforward way to approach the concept of community on campus is to design or transform the outdoor spaces to support human interaction. These changes might incorporate benches, paths, fences, trees, lampposts — a common vocabulary of elements that supports communal activities. If the campus already works as a place owing to the nature and configuration of the existing buildings and open space, then those buildings should be retained — renovated or transformed — not replaced.

It is important to understand the qualities that successful campus buildings have in common. When new campus buildings are added, there should be some rules of engagement concerning configuration and materials. It is not necessary to be stylistically autocratic, only that the new buildings should belong on the campus and help enhance and define the outdoor spaces. To a great extent, we are trying to create groups of buildings that define active outdoor rooms. Think of the campus as a place, a community with a semblance of order, where the new intervention shares important aspects with its predecessors.

Instead of dramatic, individual changes, seek gradual changes — a series of smaller steps that can tie the campus together and enhance its collective nature. Pursue changes that look as though they have been there, and that strengthen the sense of community and place. The American college strives to be a successful community; its communal aspect should express itself in the physical nature of the campus.

Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP, is a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City University of New York. He is also the founding partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, Architects and Landscape Architects, LLP, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut. His articles and essays have been widely published nationally. His book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape, expresses his ideas about architecture and landscape architecture and their relationship to setting. Contact him at [email protected]

TAGS: Architecture
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