Science & Ideas; Colleges
Old is new again on campus Schools return to their original master plans
David L. Marcus
U.S. News & World Report
Inch by inch, the campus of Johns Hopkins University gradually succumbed to the 20th century. Lawns gave way to parking lots; roads crisscrossed each other on the way to nowhere; eye-pleasing rows of brick buildings were cleaved by a grim-faced laboratory made of concrete blocks and World War II surplus materials. “It was a complete mess,” says Luanne Greene, one of a group of local architects who visited the Baltimore campus not long ago. She and her colleagues watched as a young woman leading a tour for prospective students walked backwards—smack into a Pepsi truck that was cutting off the pathway.
As they embarked on their effort to restore order, the architects turned to the school’s original master plans from the early 1900s. The drawings showed lawns and buildings arranged in neat quadrangles. An oval road, surrounded by woods and ponds, ringed the campus. But the road was never finished, and over the years so many through streets were added that drivers found it easier to barrel across campus than to cruise around it.
That was then. Today, work crews are ripping up ugly loading docks and dismantling a street that led one part of campus to be nicknamed the “drive-through quad.” They’re getting ready to replace the old laboratory building with an elegant neo-Georgian that will line up with its neighbors as crisply as a cadet. And they’re also installing brick walkways, replanting oak trees, and encircling the campus with a road not unlike the one that was started 87 years ago.
Flush with donations, at least a dozen colleges are turning to old master plans as a way of bringing harmony back to collegiate vistas. These designs harken back to a time before the ruinous effect of the GI Bill years, when the drive to accommodate more and more students crowded campuses, and the asphalt-happy ’70s and ’80s, when parking lots proliferated. One of the most impressive efforts is taking place in Atlanta, where Emory University has banned autos from the center of the 600-acre campus and replaced streets with meandering brick paths. (Emory’s president, William Chace—who commutes by bicycle and electric car—likes to denounce Americans’ “obsessive relationship” with automobiles.) Even the University of Virginia, the classic American campus, has turned to Thomas Jefferson’s 200-year-old sketches of an “academical village” as it restores tree-lined paths and relocates parking lots that have made walking to classes an arduous experience. “American colleges look back to their beginnings because all the pieces fell into place: They had money and taste, a kind of architecture that could be understood, and a nice mix of modern technology and old-world craftsmanship,” says University of Pennsylvania Prof. Witold Rybczynski, an expert in urban planning.
Planners say the secret to a great campus isn’t the buildings—which often are essentially boxes with pretty decorations—but the way they are arranged in visually pleasing groups that have a human scale. People must be able to ramble naturally, without being blocked by fast-moving traffic, parked cars, or oddly placed buildings, says architect Adam Gross, whose Baltimore firm, Ayers/Saint/Gross, is currently working with 25 colleges. Johns Hopkins President William Brody refers to “the Walden Pond idea: Students and faculty work better in an environment that is conducive to interaction and contemplation.”
Of course, there is gold in those relandscaped hills. Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based educational consultant Robert Sevier says that prospective students and parents think “if it looks good, then it must be good”—and their notions of what’s “good” are the gothic spires and wrought-iron gates they see in movies and TV shows. Finding the idealized look is especially important for less well-known schools. Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania used limestone facades, ivy, waterfalls, and a suspension bridge to unite a campus that had resembled “Dresden after the war,” as President G. David Pollick puts it. He says the $13 million project is paying off: Applications rose almost 50 percent in the three years after construction began.
Pictures: Before and after: At Emory University in Atlanta, a quad and brick walkways replaced a parking lot. (AYERS SAINT GROSS (2))