America's Ugliest College Campuses
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.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ
Administrators describe the New Jersey Institute of Technology as the “crown jewel” of the state’s public university system. The 126,000 students responding to the Princeton Review 2013 survey, however, awarded it a very different honor: the least beautiful college campus in America. NJIT, founded in 1881, suffers from a mishmash of architectural styles, from the Gothic Eberhardt Hall (formerly an asylum for orphans) to Redwood Residence Hall, which might be described as crematorium-Modernism in downtown Newark. Things are looking up thanks to a recent building boom that includes a pizzeria, a fitness center, and a 600-bed student village as part of the Campus Center development.
Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA
Architect Edward Durell Stone considered Harvey Mudd College (completed in 1955) to be a Modernist masterpiece with a twist. His take on Modernism involved layering the drab slab-sided buildings with Beaux-Arts decoration. The result: knobbly concrete squares that students of Harvey Mudd affectionately call “warts” and use as hooks for skateboards. They even created an unofficial mascot, Wally Wart, which appears on college paperwork, in the shape of a personified concrete wart.
University of Dallas, Irving, TX
Administrators at the University of Dallas, Irving, boast about a curriculum that “really pushes students to use the greatest amount of brainpower.” Perhaps they hope the students will use their imagination to see beyond the low-profile, boxy architecture that bears uncanny resemblance to a public car park. The surroundings didn’t stand in the way of success for two graduate school alums: Satish and Yasmin Gupta. Their $12 million donation, made in 2013, funded a new 50,000 square-foot facility, the eponymous College of Business structure. The building is expected to be complete this fall and sits on the highest point in Dallas County.
SUNY Purchase, NY
A shortage of windows gives SUNY Purchase a rather ominous vibe more appropriate for New York’s Sing Sing Prison. When the campus was constructed in 1967, Modernism was at its zenith and such an expressive school of uninterrupted expanses of dark brick was a sight to behold. Still, the blank canvas of SUNY Purchase conceals a vibrant campus life. One student commenting on Unigo.com declares “a huge two-day music festival, Zombie Prom, and Pancake Madness! pajama party” as highlights. Fortunately, a number of construction projects have been taking place: Farside dorms are undergoing a major interior renovation, while J-street residences are being converted, Humanities classrooms are getting new furniture, and various buildings are getting much-needed exterior rehab.
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, MA
Not only did architect Paul Rudolph cleverly disguise a concrete spaceship as a college library, the founders had the wherewithal to hide it in plain sight in Massachusetts. This much beloved and derided structure dating back to the early 1960s is an icon of Brutalist architecture—and got some welcome renovations in late 2012. This summer, construction began on a 22,000-square-foot expansion of the Charlton College of Business' new Learning Pavillion. Clearly, the campus is hoping to redeem itself with the so-called "architectural gateway" that will cost an anticipated $15 million, and conclude in fall of 2016. Ivy Leaguers need not feel smug; Rudolph also constructed Yale’s hulking Art and Architecture Building.
Stony Brook University, NY
Applications to Stony Brook University will likely quadruple in the event of a nuclear winter; the 1960s bunker-like buildings create an unparalleled sense of Cold War safety. In 1980, two futuristic buildings were added in an attempt to introduce some visual lightness. The result? You really need to see for yourself. The octagonal hospital, for instance, appears to be receiving an IV from the Health Sciences Center. Not all is bad and gloomy here. A new LEED-certified Computer Science Building, with a massive atrium lobby, was opened in July.
University of California San Diego
In 1956, UC San Diego received overwhelming support from local residents, who voted to transfer 59 acres of coastal land. Alumni have since included eight Nobel Laureates and 71 National Academy of Sciences members. But with this success came new construction, and each successive building adopted its own disparate style. The resulting campus looks like a cupboard full of kitchen appliances whose function you can’t quite fathom. (Case in point: the terraced spaceship-like Geisel Library.) But hey, you’re still in sunny San Diego.
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago
The message to students at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology is that the school will “settle only for excellence.” Buildings designed by none other than Mies van der Rohe support that mission. Unfortunately, the parts of campus that double as an office park would beg to differ. Even the addition of the Rem Koolhaas–designed McCormick Tribune Campus Center railway station fails to impress. Students ranked IIT the thirteenth least attractive in the Princeton Review survey of 387 campuses.
Georgia State University, Atlanta
The design of some GSU buildings may be deliberately trying to send a message: who needs windows in a library, anyway? You should be reading books. The university is entwined with a gritty section of downtown Atlanta. Still, there are some unexpected benefits: “Georgia State University is what keeps downtown Atlanta alive. Many of the corporations in Atlanta provide connections for many of the students and eventually become our employers,” says a student on Unigo.com. Oddly enough, the most attractive feature on campus may be the 2-year-old, 18-hole championship golf course: a 167-acre stretch of green.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
With a lack of green space and a road slicing the campus in half, the brick and concrete environs of the University of Tennessee could double as a skateboard park. The John C. Hodges Library is a notable eyesore. Not only was the original 1969 building unappealing, in 1987 more brick cascades were added, accentuating the squat proportions. Fortunately, any daytime dreariness is in stark contrast to night, when, according to one student on Unigo.com, “The campus is a wonderland, with all of the buildings lit up and the pedestrian walkway lined with gorgeous lamps.”
Hampshire College, Amherst, MA
The DIY curriculum and gradeless approach of Hampshire College seem designed to bolster the spirits of fragile young minds. It’s ironic then that the plain poured-concrete forms seem intent on preparing students for life’s disappointments. But maybe it was all a clever ploy by the school’s master planner, Hugh Stubbins (whose work for Princeton University was criticized by faculty as resembling a “low-income urban renewal project”). Set in bucolic countryside, the dull campus may well encourage students to look beyond themselves for inspiration.
Rochester Institute of Technology, NY
Architect Kevin Roche designed the plan for New York’s Metropolitan Museum and other lauded projects. But his work at RIT proves that you can have too much of a good thing—at least when that thing is bricks. Students have dubbed the campus “Brick City” for its monotone look. It’s also a prime example of the suburbanization of college campuses. One student commenting on Unigo.com complains that, “It is in a terrible location, with almost no bars or youth activities within walking distance.” New structures have attempted to break away from its reputation for ceaseless Belden ironspot brick structures, with flourishes of the ultra modern, like curved glass walls.
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Many great architects including Steven Holl and Frank Gehry have tried their hand at turning the commuter campus of the University of Minnesota from Brutalist to Pritzker Prize–worthy. It’s no small feat. Take, for example, the Coffman Memorial Building: the only feature that could make it look more industrial would be the addition of smokestacks. With more than 30,000 undergraduates all on one campus, the University of Minnesota is the one of the most populous in the country. “It’s simply too big,” complains one student on the Unigo.com message board. The eclectic and seemingly random collection of architectural designs is only continuing: a new microbiology research facility will be completed this year (BWBR Architects, Inc.), JLF Architects will errect a campus wellness and recreation center in 2016, and a Perkins + Will Natural History Museum & Planetarium, with its staggering horizon views will debut in 2018.