College is about developing your inner beauty, and that’s a good thing. As for the colleges themselves, from a purely aesthetic point of view, campus exteriors are sometimes beautiful, often plain, and occasionally so downright ugly that students use the term “warts” to describe building elements.
In defense of California’s Harvey Mudd College and other offenders, we admit that a campus commission must be challenging for any architect. When the results fall short, campuses begin to resemble hospitals, shopping malls, or even prisons.
Many of today’s least attractive campuses date to the post–World War II era, a heyday of free education that, unfortunately, coincided with Modernism, Brutalism, and a general love affair with concrete—and with the car.
“We became suburbanized, and the campuses became suburbanized,” says Richard Wilson, professor and chair of the University of Virginia’s department of architectural history. It’s no surprise then that sprawling commuter campuses like the University of Minnesota may bring to mind Dunder Mifflin, the uninspired setting of TV show The Office.
They don’t stand up well to the ideal of beautiful college campuses, which is still influenced by early institutions like ivy-covered Princeton and UVA, where Thomas Jefferson located the library at the center, emphasizing the importance of knowledge over faith.
Yet there’s more to good campus design than a pretty façade. It isn’t worth a Pritzker Prize if the spaces don’t encourage students to put down their iPhones and actually connect. “I like to argue that half the learning experience takes place in the hallways,” Wilson says. “Ultimately architecture is like music; you can’t put it all into words.”
You can, however, put it into surveys. We consulted the Princeton Review, Unigo.com, and other forums where students hotly debate all aspects of campus life. While our resulting selection of campuses certainly won’t win any beauty competitions, if you’re choosing a college based on looks alone, you’re probably doing it wrong.