- Culture + Design
Take a crash course in architecture at the country’s most beautiful college campuses.
Cornell University: Ithaca, NY
America’s Most Beautiful College Campuses
Cornell University: Ithaca, NY
Ambitious campus planners wanted to create a main quad over dramatic Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes. “It’s the idea of putting education on a high platform,” says architect Mark deShong. That original plan evolved, and the beautiful setting now accommodates both historic structures (McGraw Tower) and contemporary ones like the I. M. Pei–designed Johnson Museum of Art—whose walls screen movies on summer evenings—and the new Milstein Hall by Rem Koolhaas. Prospective students (and their parents) are always impressed by Cascadilla Gorge, whose eight waterfalls drop more than 400 feet from Cornell’s campus to downtown Ithaca, the 25-acre botanical gardens, and Cornell Plantation’s 150-acre arboretum. Climb to the Newman Overlook for a sweeping panoramic view.—Ratha Tep
“If you ask freshmen why they chose their colleges, they usually say one of two things,” says Baltimore architect Adam Gross, who’s worked on projects at the University of Virginia and Swarthmore. “Either they got a good financial aid package or they thought the campus was beautiful.”
America’s most beautiful college campuses have the power not only to sway indecisive high school students, of course, but also to attract tourists. Their appeal comes through varying combinations of awe-inspiring architecture, landscaping, and surroundings. To choose among more than 2,600 four-year American colleges, we considered these three key factors as well as architects’ expert opinions.
“The most important thing to realize is that how landscaping and buildings interconnect is as important as the buildings themselves,” explains Boston-based architect Mark deShong. At Princeton University, for example, “It’s really about landscape,” he says. The campus connects its ivy-covered gray stone buildings with footpaths, idyllic small greens, and courtyards that create an intimate village-like scale.
Architectural coherence also plays a role in making a campus beautiful. Take the University of San Diego, which sticks to one architectural style: the Spanish Renaissance, with its elaborate façades, delicate ironwork, and carved wood. Ocean views and palm-tree-lined courtyards are extra selling points.
Yale can’t compete when it comes to location, but it has embraced one architectural movement after another. As Robert A. M. Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, puts it: “Our campus is a living history of the architecture and urbanism of its three centuries in New Haven.” Whatever your taste, you’ll find a structure to your liking on a campus stroll, perhaps dorms designed by 1960s starchitect Eero Saarinen or James Gamble Rogers’s imposing Gothic bell tower.
But no assessment of America’s campuses would be complete without the University of Virginia. “You might think it looks like all these other campuses, but it’s the first to look like that,” says deShong. He cites founder and architect Thomas Jefferson’s then-novel concept of flanking a lawn with pavilions linked by colonnades and a grand library at its head. New York-based architect Alexander Cooper concurs: “UVA remains the masterpiece of American campus planning.”
So plan your own trip to check out these campus masterpieces. Think we missed a beautiful campus? Tell us why it should make the grade by posting a comment below. —Ratha Tep