Michael Dennis







    Despite the Elysian connotations of the word “campus,” American universities have until recently been one of our most original and poignant models of urban form. Rousseau’s Union College and Jefferson’s “Academical Village” provided an enlightened direction in the early nineteenth century. Like physical mirrors of the American Constitution, these campuses projected an image of balanced reciprocity between the public and private realms, between the ideal and the circumstantial. Through the land grant colleges of the nineteenth century to the educational wing of the City Beautiful movement in the twentieth century this campus planning tradition served us well. It was a tradition that was even able to absorb and accommodate the large and functionally complex modern building programs, such as libraries, science buildings, and physical education buildings that were introduced in the first half of the twentieth century.

    Most of the bad things that have happened to our campuses, however, have happened within the last fifty years. Since the Second World War, the decline of the physical environment through bad planning, bad buildings, and bad landscaping is everywhere evident. This is not to say that all modern buildings are bad — they are not; nor is it to say that all traditional buildings are good. It is to say simply that we have made an embarrassingly greater proportion of bad things in our time.

    There are three important and interrelated reasons for this:

      the anti-urban characteristics of modern architecture

      the demise of the “Plan”

      the emphasis on “Process”

    In the 1940’s modern architecture began to arrive sporadically on our campuses. Then in a burst of expansive optimism after the Second World War it rapidly became the norm. Some campuses have been built entirely since that period. Modern architecture offered a vision of progress, promise, and newness. Any campus with money could project an entirely new image — an image of the future without nostalgia. Unfortunately, as has happened at “Tomorrowland,” belief is difficult to sustain over time, and tomorrow quickly becomes yesterday. Indeed, we could easily be convinced that many of our campuses had at one time been host to a world’s fair, due to the sad collection of what appear to be theme pavilions.

    Thus, we now have two codes, or two sets of conventions on most campuses: traditional and modern.


    Traditionally, buildings and landscape cooperated to define and shape the space of the public realm. The facade of the building was especially important as it was the enclosing wall of the public space. Because the facade articulates the public realm outside from the private realm inside, traditional buildings could be quite fat, or deep, without appearing to be so. Block buildings or courtyard buildings also offered an almost endless array of typological variants.

    In contrast, modern buildings do not define and shape the space of the public realm. Rather, they usually sit in the middle of their sites with their irregular shapes implying that they have been generated only from the inside out with no regard for the external environment. Because they have no facades, only skins or enclosures, one has the feeling of always being on their backsides. Landscaping must then be picturesque and profuse to try to provide some continuous matrix for these suburban buildings. Finally, because they are frequently tall elevator buildings, and because they withdraw from their site edges, they often appear to be bigger than their traditional counterparts even when they are not.

    This distinction is especially important as campuses become more dense and impacted — as they become more literally urban. The civic responsibilities of both buildings and people increase exponentially as they come into closer proximity.

    A rural campus with widely spaced buildings, such as the University of California at Santa Cruz, may achieve almost complete independence of buildings, but in so doing it becomes more like a summer camp or a resort than an academic community. To be a community requires density and proximity; ie., it requires urbanity.

    The most successful American campuses have this quality of urbanity. They are generally of two types: those where the campus is like a city, such as Cornell University or the University of Virginia, and those where the campus is (or was) literally a continuous part of the city fabric, such as the University of Southern California or Virginia Commonwealth University. The great midwestern campuses such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois may be combinations of both. In this regard, and although the point may have been excessively belabored of late, the importance of Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia can not be ignored.


    It is no accident that Jefferson referred to his plan as an “Academical Village,” for it is, if anything, a metaphor of society and the city — a neoclassical ideal “adapted to the circumstances of the place.” Like the American Constitution, it is an elegantly balanced debate between public and private interests.

    For almost two hundred years Jefferson’s University has been the most compelling image of American social, political, and academic ideals.

    The delineation of his idea is still as strong and clear as a Mozart composition — so much so that its physical manifestation transcends time to touch each new generation in a fresh and profound way. And if today it seems less academically practical than in Jefferson’s time, its continuing success should only reinforce our conviction that a true plan for the future must provide for the ideal as well as the circumstantial. Indeed, without the civilizing presence of the ideal, circumstance and practicality have no meaning. The Lawn might therefore serve as both a useful model and as a critique of other campuses (and especially successive parts of “the Grounds”).

    The formal concept of the Lawn is in fact quite simple. As in the traditional city, it is the clarity and stability of the central public square and the clear pattern of the public streets that allow, indeed promote, variation in the form of private pavilions and gardens. Leon Krier has said that “a clear center is a necessity, but clear edges are a luxury.” If that is true, Jefferson’s academical village is truly luxurious in that at least three of its edges are also clear: the two outer ranges define a public street to the west and the crest of the hill to the east; the rotunda forms a picturesque public face to the north. Only the south side — originally open to the landscape — is today ambiguous.

    The point is that campus design is urban design, and urban design is the design and management of the public realm — ie., public spaces — rather more than the private realm of individual buildings. Therefore, the most important lesson of the Lawn for campus planning is that precise control of public space allows for flexibility and change in individual buildings, and therefore it should be the principal instrument of physical planning. From Jefferson’s time until almost our own this concept was thoroughly understood.

    With the advent of modernism, however, we lost sight of this basic principle and our campuses, like our cities, have become ever more random accumulations of separate buildings, each serving its own ends but contributing nothing to the whole. Many campus plans in fact appear to be a kind of urban petri dish in which little architectural viruses swim erratically and aimlessly.

    Try to imagine the University of Virginia without the Lawn, for example, or with modern “practical” buildings and plenty of parking in its place. Such a plan would resemble countless other nondescript American campuses where “well programmed,” but bland, buildings have been randomly distributed between underground utility lines and the only continuity is provided by the landscape.


    Jefferson’s plan was consistently completed after his death, but due to limited campus development during the nineteenth-century it exerted little influence until the end of the nineteenth-century or shortly thereafter. Between 1890 and 1915, however, small sometimes heterogeneous colleges began to transform into large, complex, modern universities, and many new universities were founded. This required a vision, a plan, and a process, and these were provided by the American extension of the French Beaux-Arts, the “City Beautiful” movement.

    Countless American campuses were formed during this period. The instruments that guided their formation were usually a plan, which described the physical layout; an aerial perspective, which described the intended character and three-dimensional development; and a president, or university governing body, that interpreted the plan and image. In other words, there were campus designs — designs that were intended to guide development either by consistent completion, or by reinterpretation.

    Most of these designs were highly unified compositions, and even though people at the time realized the improbability of exact completion, the designs at least served as a guide for their decisions. One example of a highly unified design during this period was Henry Hornbostel’s reinterpretation of Jefferson’s plan in the competition winning entry for Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1904. His plan developed with reasonable consistency until after the second World War. Another, more city-like, example was Cass Gilbert’s spectacular 1910 plan for the University of Minnesota, a large portion of which was carried out. Both of these campuses suffered greatly from thoughtless post-war additions, but the strength of their cores allowed them to survive later mutilations just as Jefferson’s Lawn still deflects attention from continuing inept modern additions.

    In fact, most of these campuses benefited not just from one plan, but from a series of plans. The University of Illinois, for example, had at least thirteen plans in nine years between 1905 and 1914. The official Plan for the Development of the Campus, by Charles A. Platt, was adopted in 1922 and revised in 1927. Thus, far from being absolute, these early campus designs, or Campus Plans, were used as part of an organic process of development.

    As an instrument of traditional planning, the Campus Plan fell into disrepute following the Second World War. In the postwar period the Campus Plan became the Master Plan, and, unlike its predecessor, the Master Plan was too often taken literally rather than as an instrument of speculation and reinterpretation. Since the Master Plan appeared finite and incapable of change, and since it was frequently a legal document, it could never be current enough to guide the dynamic unpredictability of the evolving modern campus. The fact that it could provide a vision (and implicit guidelines) was lost to the modernist mind due to the pressures of expedience and rapid expansion in a time of increasingly participatory campus governance.

    The modernist answer was of course Process. Since most Master Plans were out of date even before they were completed and approved, it was thought that what was needed was a rational decision making process — one that would substitute the deliberations of a democratic bureaucracy for unilateral decisions based on often capricious taste and judgment. The great irony is of course that an elegant process is the result of ideas and goals (informed by taste and judgment) and rarely emerges from bureaucratic considerations. Consequently, what happened more often than not was the politics of power rather than process, and the results are around us everywhere. Nor is anyone ever responsible for the results. Either they “were not in the room when it happened,” or “it was already too late,” or it was “not their department,” or it was “a result of the budget and schedule.”

    If traditional campus planning conventions are like those of urban design, modern campus planning conventions are more like those of homesteading. Despite the seductive urban implications of campuses, however, they may have suffered more than cities with the demise of conventions and consensus precisely because they are not like cities in one fundamental way. A city is composed of connected public space and smaller private plots, and laws and codes govern much of this form. Campuses have no such distinctions. There are usually no laws, and property lines exist only in the imaginations of Deans. Campuses (even state ones) are more like courts, such as those of the Louis’ at Versailles, where favors are obtained in curious ways and even tenure does not guarantee authority. Campus design is therefore subject not only to the power of Deans and the unpredictability of funding by donors, but often to the imposition of their tastes as well. This was difficult enough when taste and judgment were embedded in convention; now the problem is infinitely worse.

    As our campuses are becoming more and more dense, the conventions of homesteading have become obsolete, useless, and undesirable. We are now faced with the task of developing a modern architecture that acknowledges and is compatible with traditional environments, and a planning strategy that promotes the civic responsibilities of individual buildings.


    By now it should be apparent that there is not an easy answer to producing a high quality campus environment. Minimally, three things are required:

      a Vision

      a Plan

      a Process

    Another requirement is to choose architects very, very carefully. No vision, plan, or process can protect you from a bad architect. Conversely, no good architect will be repressed by a vision, a good plan, and an intelligent process. Good architects can even provide these things, but it is more logical for the university to suggest and continuously monitor its own identity.

    VISION   A vision can be elusive and difficult to describe. It is even more difficult because it varies from campus to campus. For our purposes, however, there are two important ideas that underlie any vision: one is that the physical environment matters; the other is that there is a relationship between academic ideals and physical reality.

    A university is not a summer camp or a resort, although on occasion our typical campus may appear so to the European eye, accustomed as it is to another mode. Nor is a university a city, though some campuses form part of one, and others would be large enough to qualify if size was the only criteria. Rather, a university is quasi-urban. Like a model for the city, it is at once more ideal and more practical — a text book of civitas. Thus, campus design is urban design, and there must be a balance between the public interests of the larger environment and the private interests of users and donors. It is therefore not enough for a university to have an intellectual vision. That intellectual vision must also have a relation to society as a whole, and the campus should mirror that idea. In order to accomplish this both a plan and a process are required.

    PLANS & GUIDELINES  Actually, three levels of plans and guidelines are required before the design of any individual building: A Campus Plan, Precinct Plans, and Site Plans.

    The Campus Plan establishes the overall intent of the university. It defines the primary spatial anatomy (the hierarchical pattern of public spaces) of the campus as well as its relationship to its surroundings. As such it should be a design plan that suggests the quality of buildings and spaces — not a generic plan such as a use and circulation diagram. The Campus Plan should also be accompanied by general design principles that apply to the whole campus and by specific design guidelines that apply to the primary public spaces.

    The Precinct Plan is, in practice, the most effective tool for managing campus development. As a “neighborhood” plan, it bridges the gap between the Campus Plan (traditionally the Master Plan) and the siting and design of individual buildings. The Precinct Plan adds flexibility and precision to the Campus Plan and saves it from having to be specific about everything. A Precinct Plan should also be accompanied by specific design guidelines regarding the form of public open space and the architectural character of buildings.

    The Site Plan is really the result of Feasibility Studies to determine the conceptual, economic, and environmental feasibility of a given building program. The Site Plan conveys to the architect more specific requirements not covered by the Precinct Plan, and should be accompanied by guidelines unique to the particular building.

    Together these three types of plans and guidelines are the tools or instruments of campus development. They are an indispensable part of the Process.

    PROCESS  To be effective any process must address both private and public interests. In the recent past this balance has been difficult to achieve due to the hegemony of private interests resulting from no vision and no design authority. To maintain a balance, active participation and cooperation is required by four entities: the Users, Physical Plant, a Design Authority, and the Architect. While each of these participants has a more focused role or agenda, each must be involved with all phases and accept responsibility for the implications and effects of their individual agendas. For example, it is not enough for a Design Authority to make requirements in the early (design) phases of a project and then be absent in the later phases when budget considerations threaten to undermine those requirements. Most importantly, everyone involved must agree not to knowingly make a bad thing. There can be no excuses for making bad things — not schedule, not budget, not process.

    The Users have a largely “private” agenda. They are primarily concerned with getting the most square feet possible and the best functional arrangement. This is especially true of technical facilities as opposed to more symbolic public buildings such as Performing Arts Buildings. Every user group’s special requirements must be acknowledged, but their needs must also be put in the context of the larger whole — financially, formally, socially. For example, the exterior of the building and the site development should be subject to appropriate budgetary attention in order to fulfill the facility’s responsibilities to the public realm.

    The Physical Plant (or Facilities Management) also typically has a largely “private” agenda, as they are concerned primarily with budget and schedule. To the degree that they are also a planning authority they may also be concerned with the long term viability of the project and with engineering and maintenance. It is in this last sense that they also have a public agenda.

    The Design Authority of a university, in contrast to the Users and the Physical Plant, has an almost completely “public” agenda. Like the Physical Plant, the Design Authority is concerned with the long term viability of a project, but primarily it is concerned with the promotion, development, and maintenance of the quality of the public realm. It thus plays a large role in the development of plans and guidelines, in architect selection, and in the design review of individual projects. A Design Authority may be an individual, a group of individuals, or a Design Review Committee. Its power or authority — and therefore its effectiveness — may be delegated from the top down or developed from the bottom up. Both are desirable, but without support from the top the effectiveness of consensus is drastically diminished. Design Review, long the domain of the User and the Physical Plant, should be extended to the Design Authority or Committee. After an initial meeting to clarify the university’s intent, there should be formal intermediate and final reviews of the Schematic Design and Design Development phases of all projects, and if there are significant changes there should be equivalent reviews for Construction Documents. A post-construction assessment should also be done by the Design Authority.

    The Architect alone among the above parties should have an acutely developed understanding of both public and private obligations. This is frequently a problem since architects in our time have become very adept at servicing and delivering ­complex programs, but they have also become less adept at designing — ­indeed, even understanding — the public realm. Specialists in a particular building type have an understandable appeal to users of that building type, and yet such firms may have no credentials at all for design in the environment in which the facility is placed. Indeed, specialist firms are too often merely poor to mediocre firms with good marketing departments. Thus, the importance of a Vision, a Plan, a Process, and wise Architect Selection. Associations or teams may be one way around this problem; ie., by selecting a good design firm and requiring them to have a specialist as a consultant rather than the reverse. In any case the Design Authority should play a central role in architect selection and design review. Finally, each architect should be required to show their project “in context” using area plans, models, and perspectives as prescribed by the University.

    As campus design has become more complex and dynamic in the second half of the twentieth century it has also become less successful. If we are to again achieve a high level of quality, we must find a new way of planning and guiding. This will not result in completely unified campuses, nor should it. Most campuses are now already heterogeneous. But it should produce a new order, one that promotes community and a high quality physical environment rather than preventing it, and that environment will necessarily be more urban.


    We have been fortunate in recent years in that both practice and academia have provided fertile ground for campus design research. The design studio has allowed for the willing suspension of disbelief, and therefore odd but provocative investigation that would not be well received by paying clients. Two such projects, for Cornell University and Carnegie Mellon University, involved the device of making an existing campus plan as dense as possible — as if it were a city — in order to render more visible the presence of delicate but elusive structure. Strangely, the exaggeration of urban density made plausible a condition between campus and city that was at once urban and elysian. It also identified strategic sites where one building or complex could firmly indicate a new pattern of development or reinforce an existing one. In short, such a heuristic device or exercise allows one to “see” possibilities that would otherwise be unlikely.

    This last point is crucial because as an architect one often gets only one building to design, and if that building is to be more than just another “homestead” it should be imagined as a fragment of a larger plan. In other words, each new building must produce its own master plan or reinterpretation of a master plan.

    The language or style of each new building should also be considered in a similar way to the form or type. Donors usually want their legacy to be as different as possible  — to be a monument (a “signature” building) — but few campus buildings merit such complete and autonomous distinction. Rather, it is possible for buildings to have their own independent identity, but also relate to the continuity of the place, to be part of the campus fabric.

    Over the last few years our campus design work has explored these issues through competitions and actual commissions. From fragmentary additions such as the Music Building Expansion at Arizona State University to precinct plans for Syracuse University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Southern California to the extensive campus design plan for Carnegie Mellon University, the same principles have been pursued, transformed, and adapted to circumstances of the place.

    return to top