My dad said that all campuses look alike the same in this part of the world. We were crossing Harvard Yard and I was reminded of William and Mary and of Johns Hopkins. Apparently the University of Virginia looks similar too. The Harvard architecture is a mixture of red brick with white window sills and black roofs, green lawns and gray diagonal paths. Dense tree cover and a pattering of yellow lamps make for a strict and uniform campus with no room for deviation. The poorly lit and slippery paths show the university’s age – two years younger than Georgetown by some counts – and the vehemence with which Mrs. Widener insisted not a brick nor a stone be moved from the Widener Library. An intense conformity is displayed within this original part of the campus.
If you look at early drawings of the Hilltop, we’re no different. That strange model in the foyer of O’Donovan Hall exhibits the red-brick conformity of the early Georgetown campus. With no Healy Hall (1879) and no Copley or White-Gravenor Halls (1932-1933) to stare down the rest of Georgetown and Washington beyond, it was a university that looked like the others already mentioned. Of course, come the 1970s, Georgetown added residences rapidly and the campus quickly became a dense hodgepodge of architectural styles. This is sometimes true even within the same building, as with the Internationalist east face of the part-stone Rafik B. Hariri Building.
Few campuses demonstrate the devotion to uniformity Harvard does. Its major undergraduate library, Lamont, is thrown deep under grass lawns so as not to detract from the neoclassical Widener Library next door. Stanford follows suit: By hiding its Meyer Library from prime positioning, it retains both the seemingly obligatory 1970s Brutalist-Modernist library while showcasing its older and more aesthetically pleasing original architectural style first. Along this vein, one could bemoan Georgetown’s lack of foresight in terms of the placement of the Brutalist interpretation of Healy, Lauinger Library – most imaginatively described to me and an old friend by a visitor as a “squatting spaceship.”
One must, however, laud Lauinger for providing homage to Healy without being nauseatingly art nouveau. Lauinger is an excellent example of its genre, just as Healy, Old North and even the Intercultural Center are emblematic of their architectural styles. On the other hand, Village C, the Car Barn and the Southwest Quad are weak in comparison. Here we see the mega-sizing of the more humble federal and colonial styles to poorly merge the needs of the modern university with a nostalgic nod to that which existed 200 years ago.
At Harvard I asked if they had a common undergraduate study area, hoping and thinking this would reveal something about how most students here spend the bulk of their time. The fact that no one library serves this purpose possibly hints at a reason for the relative lack of campus unity there. Identification by residence hall seemed much more prevalent.
At Georgetown, where we live is simply that; it is not a function of identity. The unequal nature of freshman residences does, however, resonate with those placed in Darnall Hall, whose distance from the other dorms is hardly conducive to unity among freshmen. Harvard’s quad and the first-year dorms at its edges may be a way to combat that. After my experience as an architectural intern, my first reaction to Harvard was to notice its buildings and think about how students relate to their environment.
City universities like New York University and The George Washington University, both of which I have visited, are even more perplexing. Where, exactly, is this university? Is it a nominal concept? Is it in the air you breathe in Washington Square Park or Foggy Bottom? The Hilltop is quite clearly Georgetown and a part of Cambridge is quite clearly Harvard. Greenwich Village, meanwhile, is not really NYU nor is Foggy Bottom GWU. To me this is a shame because it requires students to intermingle with an urban environment as if already part of a city. While an excellent head start, it isn’t really necessary and it dilutes the university experience.
Conclusions are hard to reach on campus architecture. It is easy to get lost in symmetrical and uniform places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, even more so in “urban campuses” like NYU or GWU. Georgetown might be an answer: distinctive, uniform, landmark buildings in front, a case-by-case selection of architectural styles behind. But it is only a lazy attempt at solving the question still unanswered by great architects: how one designs a large urban community to be unified, heterogeneous and purposeful, without it being utopian, inhuman and blind to nuance.
Udayan Tripathi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at udayanthehoya.com. THE INTERNATIONALIST appears every other Tuesday.