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Buildings of Distinction

Older, more established institutions often will opt for a more classic design to match the architectural context of the campus.

The ‘front doors’ of a campus are those buildings where most people encounter the campus as they approach and enter it.

The signature building of a campus is a structure that seems to define the institution. Typically, it is an administration building, a library or other structure containing public space. It probably will be found on the cover of the recruiting brochure and in the memory of all who have ever worked or studied at the school. Such buildings serve as key landmarks on a campus and symbolize permanence and mission. Examples include the large Gothic spire at Georgetown University, the gold dome at the University of Notre Dame and the rotunda at the University of Virginia.

Many colleges and universities without a classic signature building are recognizing the value of such a building to the school's institutional image and identity, and are designing new buildings to create a memorable image. Even major universities with famous signature buildings are choosing to boost their stature by adding new buildings of distinction.

The new buildings don't have to be “flashy” in design or concept. Older, more established institutions often will opt for a more classic design to match the architectural context of the campus. In fact, there often is great debate on the role of signature buildings compared with contextually sensitive buildings. For universities that were established in the last half of the 20th century, the choice often is a more adventurous modern design. Such a building might still use some of the classic materials of stone and brick designed for a long service life, but may include a large atrium or glass curtainwall for added drama.


Much of modern architecture for commercial use is designed for a relatively short life. These buildings are conceived to be low in cost, speedy to construct and easy to demolish. When they have served their purpose after perhaps 30 to 40 years, they are simply torn down and replaced.

But schools should not plan a signature building with a short-range outlook. A sense of permanence and continuity is an important part of a signature building's mission. It should become a building that was there for the last generation and will be here for the next. This is achieved by using durable, traditional materials such as stone, brick or glass. Though most universities will never be willing to build the Gothic “cathedrals” of granite that once were common, buildings of distinction must be designed to endure over long periods.

Instead of looking at the cheapest “first cost” of a building, colleges and universities should look at the life span of a building, the systems that are put into it, and the maintenance and energy costs that will be required over time. Taking this approach, you may find that, for instance, terrazzo floors that last virtually forever become a more practical decision than carpet, which has to be replaced on a regular basis.

On many campuses where a classic spire already exists, a new building may play a background role. However, many universities with a signature building also add a world-class art museum, concert hall or laboratory building that also could qualify as a signature building.

Such additions tend to build stature for the university, rather than cloud its image. At the University of Nebraska, for example, it has the classic cupola-topped library that meets everyone's expectations of a classic signature building. Yet, a block away, Philip Johnson's acclaimed design for the Sheldon Art Gallery, erected in the 1960s, has added luster to the institution's image.


The “front doors” of a campus are those buildings where most people encounter the campus as they approach and enter it. Every campus master plan must take into account the fundamental movement of people, vehicles and goods that flow across the campus. Most institutions will identify those major routes on their campuses, and their campus edge conditions as front doors where most people come through and meet the institution. On a campus with heavy vehicular traffic, one of the major routes may be next to a parking garage. What students who drive to campus first see when they come out of the garage can be an important front door for that campus. If the main movement of people on the campus is pedestrian, the major footpath could determine front-door status.

Front-door buildings should create a sense of arrival. They also should serve as reference points for those people finding their way around campus. Other buildings that fill in the campus tend to be viewed as background or the fabric of the campus. In a sense, the sameness of these buildings actually can enhance the prominence of signature buildings.


At a more established campus, there often is strong pressure not to violate an established architectural vocabulary. At Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Campus, for instance, the central formal precinct is very Georgian, with quadrangles featuring buildings at 90-degree angles to each other. The vocabulary is so strong there that the university is understandably protective of it. Buildings planned for this portion of the campus must respect the context of the site. Regardless of whether the building will house language arts or engineering, the contextual palette must be respected. To Johns Hopkins' credit, its campus master plan identifies other quadrants on the campus that might allow for more varied architectural expression.

Another example is the University of Virginia, where blending laboratory buildings into the context of the Jeffersonian campus was achievable without compromising either design integrity or functionality.

In planning a signature building, a school must take care to place it in the setting it deserves. In most cases, it will be appropriate to place it in a prominent front-door setting, but every building and site is unique. The scale and relationship to surrounding structures is critical. If a new structure's design contrasts sharply with an existing signature building, it may be wise to place it in another prominent position at some distance from the older building.

The basic nature of an existing campus and its buildings are referred to as the elements of its architectural vocabulary. Particularly in a situation where no dominant signature building exists, there might still be elements that are working well and could be pulled together in the new signature building. Even when a campus appears to have little continuity, a practiced eye can find the principles and components that are the beginnings of a concerted look. An architect can pull these elements together contextually through the use of the palette of materials, in the landscaping, and in the way the building is situated. This can serve to unify and define a campus that previously had no strong focus.


Planning a new signature building inevitably creates intense interest from many parties at the university. Particularly at a newer institution that does not yet have a signature building, many individuals will voice strong opinions about where it should be situated, how it should be placed, who will be in it, what it will be used for, how much it will cost, and so on.

As a result, an architect can wind up working with 50 or 60 different “clients” on a single project. In these instances, a school can form an executive steering committee to develop consensus on behalf of the interested parties.

Also, carefully consider the campus master plan in determining the location of the signature building. When a campus plan has not been defined clearly, a signature building can be surrounded and hidden by the fabric of the campus with little return on the investment.

The key to a successful signature building on a campus is to remember what the building stands for and what it represents beyond its function.

Draheim is vice president and director of architecture of HDR, Inc., Alexandria, Va. The firm, headquartered in Omaha, Neb., has 60 offices worldwide. The firm worked on the University of Kansas, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University projects.

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