February 3, 2017

Boyer Talks History of Buildings With Architecture Professors

John Boyer, dean of the College, moderated a “Building the University” talk on Thursday. The event examined the history and sociology of buildings on university campuses. 

Paul Hardin Kapp, an associate professor at the Illinois School of Architecture and an expert on historic university campuses, spoke first, followed by Carla Yanni, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in 19th and 20th century architecture in the United States and Great Britain. Sharon Haar, a professor and chair of the architecture program at Taubman College at the University of Michigan, spoke as well. 

Kapp explained that the first universities in America strove to create an “academical village” inspired by Thomas Jefferson and discussed how this layout spawned imitations in universities around the world. Before Jefferson’s idea of the academical village was implemented, a common construction on university campuses was a multipurpose building which housed all of the university’s amenities, from dorms, to laboratories, to classrooms.  

“It wasn’t really until Jefferson, with his idea of the academical village, that we really started to develop what we think of as a campus, with buildings being dedicated for certain purposes,” Kapp said. The Universities of Alabama and Virginia became templates of the academical village, which, according to Kapp, showcased “major ideas of learning” through libraries with rotundas.

This template was also mimicked by schools in other countries, such as Tsingshua University in China, which includes an auditorium designed by a UIC graduate, and the University of Birmingham in the UK, which incorporated a bell tower like the modern towers on American campuses such as that of Cornell. 

Yanni spoke about the role of social interaction at colleges and universities, specifically the housing of women on co-ed college campuses, and its effects on university architecture. Yanni pointed to Oberlin, the first school to admit male and female students on equal terms. Though Oberlin initially used a large multipurpose room, similar to that of the first universities it eventually started using smaller, cottage-like buildings to house its female students. This move was caused by “a fear of lesbianism” that resulted from circumstances at Vassar College, an all-female university which housed all of its students in a large building together. These cottage-like buildings eventually evolved into dorms. 

Haar discussed the relationship between a campus to its city, and how the two communities influence each other. “Urban universities in particular cannot be understood as entities separate from their host cities,” she said. The founders of universities in big cities tried to separate the schools from the distractions and influences of the cities by placing the universities in areas removed from the main city centers. “Many universities of higher education are marked by an anti-urban bias,” Haar said.

According to Haar, the campuses of these universities were built to face “conceptually to the West…to train individuals to go out and conquer that land.” College students in large cities had the opportunity to do this on their campuses and in their cities, just as University of Chicago students have the opportunity to progress in Chicago.