Campus Places and Placemaking
Tradition and Innovation in the Architecture of
American Higher Education
Gretchen Buggeln

One reason that I am a professor is that I love schools as places, places filled with history and tradition, but also with constant newness and energy. Those of us who work in such places are privileged to do so. My task here, as I see it, is to survey the development of the American campus and the ideals that have shaped it and to highlight some current trends in architecture and planning. I would like to provoke thought about these real places, about bricks and mortar, concrete and glass, landscapes and pathways. If a physical environment specifically designed for higher learning is a reality we want to preserve, in whole or in part—what, exactly, are we preserving?

There are about four thousand place-based colleges and universities in the United States today. These increasingly share the territory with institutions that have bucked this centuries-old pattern—most notably the University of Phoenix, a for-profit enterprise that currently enrolls over four hundred thousand undergraduates, decentralized on two hundred “campuses” worldwide. The landscape of higher education is tremendously varied. But for many—prospective students, their parents, faculty, and administrators—the ideal is still a residential campus community based on a model that has been around since the seventeenth century in America.


The first American colleges consisted of one or several multipurpose buildings, designed in the stylistic idiom of the day, which housed students and tutors as well as classrooms. By 1726, Harvard College, for instance, consisted of three main buildings, arranged in an open U-pattern (Figure 1). The second Harvard College building (1672–1682, burned 1764) was the largest building in New England when it was built, with a hall, kitchen, and buttery on the ground floor, a library and chambers on the second floor, and two more stories of chambers. Educators built this type of multipurpose college building throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries up and down the eastern seaboard from Virginia to New Hampshire. Although the style is now long out of favor, the idea behind this form, that of a college as a separate, contained, residential community on an English model, has widely persisted. Here students and tutors lived, studied, and dined together. Education was measured not only in terms of information transferred, but of lives transformed by study and conversation. The idea of college education as a broadly transformative experience has persisted to this day, putting a burden not just on educators but on campuses. If the question is not only, “What skills will a student acquire here?” but “What will a student become here?” the physical environment, as a facilitator of a range of experiences and interactions, must be a teacher itself.


 Any discussion of American college architecture must take into account Thomas Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia. On a hill outside of Charlottesville, Jefferson developed the idea of a central mall surrounded by neatly placed, architecturally united buildings, what he called his “Academical Village” (Figure 2). The architectural focal point at the end of the mall was a domed rotunda that housed the college library—notably not a chapel, as was often the case on other campuses following this basic mall plan. Professors’ classrooms and living spaces faced each other across the grassy mall, alternating with student rooms and united by a front colonnade. Jefferson preferred smaller connected buildings on a human scale rather than a few larger ones, yet the whole nonetheless is grand. He emphasized specific geographical setting—the rural Virginia Piedmont that he loved so well; yet within that natural landscape he created a campus of great urbanity. Indeed one of the features of American campus architecture has been its celebration of the best of civilization and culture in the midst of nature.

In the nineteenth century, the meaning of a campus’s architectural style became more deliberately symbolic. Greek Revival buildings, for instance, signified the arrival of civilization and learning. One magnificent campus in this style was Girard College founded in Philadelphia in 1833, an unusually literal interpretation of classical architecture. The first Gothic college architecture, such as the main building of Kenyon College, built in 1827 on the Ohio frontier, was notable for crenellation and pointed arches. Although this was hardly the full-blown collegiate Gothic of later years, the sense of tradition, age, and permanence of this style was immediately attractive to college builders, particularly Episcopalians and Catholics.

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 greatly accelerated the progress of campus building by providing funds for the large-scale growth of state universities. Access to higher education increased along with the number of courses of study. Students were able to pursue agricultural, scientific, and technical subjects along with elements of the old classical education. Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, summed up the ethos behind these rapidly developing institutions, stating, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,”  (Turner 1987, 140). The democratization of higher education changed not just the student body and educational content but the architecture of the campus as well. Buildings that seemed to mesh with this democratic ethos were no frills structures, a good match for economic as well as ideological reasons. Land grant college campuses showcased technical improvement and flexibility.


 That the campuses of these exuberant institutions did not end up as architectural free-for-alls (at least not in this period) was in large measure due to the influence of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., designer of New York’s Central and Prospect Parks and some important garden suburbs, who served as architectural planner for several dozen of these new institutions, including Cornell in 1867–1873. Olmsted held a finely tuned belief that beautiful, natural landscapes—architecture in harmony with nature—shaped good citizens. Breaking from the preferred rural model, Olmsted reintegrated college with city, preferring to develop campuses at the quiet suburban edge of a growing urban area, where there was room to plan a park-like setting, while not isolating the university from urban life (Figure 3). Despite the rapidly accelerating size and complexity of these institutions, Olmsted insisted that they be built on a human scale. His preference for the picturesque resulted in buildings that were loosely arranged, yet still carefully planned on campuses with winding roads, stands of tall trees, and other prominent natural features. Many schools renovated their older campuses according to Olmsted’s principles.

 Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the first graduate schools were introduced in the United States. They were initially simply workplaces, urban offices and laboratories without affiliated dormitories or any provision for extracurricular functions. It was in the rapid fusion of the two forms of higher education, college and graduate school, that the huge and complex modern American university arose. These new universities were massive institutions, cities of architecture housing multiple departments, technical schools and facilities, law and medical schools, scientific research, along with dormitories and cafeterias to house and feed large populations of students.

One of the most significant changes to college campus in the later nineteenth century was the accommodation of rapidly growing competitive athletic programs. Competitive sports became an integral part of college and university life, for team members, other students, and local fans. As Valparaiso’s historian Richard Baepler writes, “nothing in other nations’ experience compares to the way US universities became intensely identified with the mass popular entertainment of college sports” (2001, 91). It is hard to overstate the effect sports have had on the ethos of American institutions of higher education and their campuses.


The increasing power and importance of the turn of the century university was reflected in expansive Beaux-Arts campuses, with their grand axes, monumental buildings, and public courtyards, campuses made possible by enormous private gifts. In California, Leland Stanford, in memory of his son, created Stanford University’s Mission/Mediterranean-style grand campus. John D. Rockefeller pumped $30 million into building the University of Chicago, its Gothic quadrangles reflecting a monastic, cloistered vision of the scholarly life (Figure 4). In style of architecture, these two campuses reflect different regional and cultural preferences, but they are quite alike in the formality of their overall plans. Although these campuses were ambitious and modern in many ways, the emphasis on historic style and cloistered spaces shows a traditionalism and introversion reflecting the mood of the country during the early decades of the twentieth century. Gothic building programs became especially popular from coast to coast. The Gothic seemed to give brand new buildings instant weight and authority.

In sum, the legacy of the first three hundred years of places of American higher education is this: a residential model giving extracurricular activities such as social organizations and athletics a prominent, extensive place on campus; buildings in traditional architectural forms and styles, having connotations that were local and historical; integrated landscapes with picturesque outdoor areas; central libraries for the storage of knowledge and laboratories for its creation; small- to medium-sized classrooms or larger lecture halls—important if not luxurious spaces that facilitated face-to-face academic interaction, professor to student, professor to professor, and student to student. Even the most massive campuses were comfortably scaled walking cities. When you were on a college campus, you knew it. It was unlike any other place.

After World War II, rapidly increasing enrollment of a more diverse student body and the rise of the commuter campus placed enormous demands on the physical university. The pace of building was furious, as colleges scrambled to create spaces for new students, new programs, and automobiles. Things might have turned out differently for the campus if this demographic upheaval had not coincided with a new type of modern architecture that made building much less expensive. Initially, modern architecture had not been immediately appealing to most college communities, except for a few notable showcases, such as the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed by Mies van der Rohe beginning in the mid 1940s. Even at midcentury, many institutions preferred to build in historical styles. Wake Forest University, newly moved to Winston-Salem by the Reynolds family, built an entire Georgian campus. But Wake Forest’s decision was controversial, and the architectural profession lambasted the institution for its conservatism. By this time, most institutions were choosing a new form of steel and concrete building and consciously making their campuses less formal, emphasizing flexibility and a fresh approach to higher education.

New modern campus architecture often paid little heed to existing architecture on the campus around it, and this was not often seen as a bad thing. Architecture had an experimental feel, as did the university of the time. From classrooms to dormitories, new ways of learning and living were being explored on campuses. Yet the impulse to preserve small college communities persisted. The epitome of these trends, both exploratory and conservative, is probably the University of California at Santa Cruz, designed and built in the 1960s and early 1970s. Students in the “Creating Kresge Col­lege” course contributed to the design of a new ­self-­­­con­tained campus, a village of white-faced buildings that meandered up a hillside in a redwood forest. To commemorate the opening of the dormitories students, formed in “kin groups,” “stood in a circle around a bonfire while they burned their unwanted possessions” before walking “single file, holding hands, up through the woods to their new home” (Turner 1987, 283). Although this is a striking example of 1960s countercultural campus behavior, it is also reminiscent of the isolated, communal, utopian ideal that marked many American campuses from the beginning.

In the midst of all this change, including architectural innovation and expansion, historic campus centers—embodiments of tradition—held on. Colleges and universities preserved core campuses, and those remain the heart of many schools. The persistence of a distinctive central quadrangle is especially important when research campuses, dorms, and athletic facilities can now be literally miles from these centers.

Today the general consensus is that the majority of campus architecture built in the boom decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s isn’t much to write home about. Many of these inexpensive, unornamented buildings lack character, distinctiveness, and beauty, and later administrations have had to reign in sprawl and deal with deferred maintenance. In the 1980s, there was a general renewed interest in historical places and styles, and the most recent wave of building has often returned to older forms of architecture—postmodern neo-Georgian and neo-Gothic buildings in particular. Universities also restored and remodeled landmark buildings, and campus planners looked back to Jefferson’s and Olmsted’s ideas about human scale and open, natural space, and once again asked architecture to resonate with its local context. This isn’t just nostalgia, but a hardnosed sense of the real value, even marketability, of tradition, and, of course, beauty. This is particularly important because studies suggest that the primary factor influencing the choice of college is most often the physical campus.


Turning from the general to the specific, I will now focus on the particular story of one typical campus as it has grown and changed. Valparaiso University was founded in 1859 and reflected the spirit of its time. If you recall Ezra Cornell’s sweeping vision, this also was a place intended to teach, cheaply and efficiently, many subjects to many students. The original campus consisted of a small number of boxy buildings with classical details interspersed with residential and commercial buildings at the southern end of the town of Valparaiso. By the early twentieth century, the south end of campus, then known as College or University Circle, looked more collegiate, with lawns and curved pathways, a little bit of Olmsted trying to dignify the university’s haphazard origins (Figure 5). Many American schools of the time, especially teachers’ colleges and technical schools, had a similar, utilitarian feel.

By the time the Lutherans bought Valparaiso in 1925, the buildings were mostly tired and insufficient, and Old Main had burned down in 1923. Nonetheless, a handsome, collegiate core anchored the campus. The new administration renovated existing residence halls and classroom buildings, but large scale campus growth was deferred. After President O. P. Kretzmann took the helm in 1940, and it became clear that the university was poised for expansion, Valparaiso’s leaders began planning a new campus on about one hundred acres of farmland that the university had purchased to the east of the existing campus.


As early as 1926 Valparaiso’s administration had been considering the construction of a full Gothic campus (Figure 6). The coherence of this vision is impressive. A Gothic chapel would sit on the highest point of land. The rest of the campus would be filled in on a quadrangle model. The architect, Edward F. Jansson, was known for his church work, as a consulting architect for the Bureau of Interdenominational Architecture, and Gothic architecture was the preferred style of church building at the time. A related plan from the same period shows a slightly different arrangement, emphasizing a rectangular mall (like Jefferson’s at Virginia) opening out to Route 30, intended to offer a clear view up an incline to the chapel. Guild and Memorial dormitories were the only structures ever built from these plans.


Something very different, spatially and architecturally, transpired. In a plan from 1956, the main items of interest are Dau-Kreinheder dorms, the Union, the shadow of the proposed deaconess building, and, most importantly, the chapel—indicating how far to the east the campus was going to move (Figure 7). The first of these buildings erected were the Union (1955), Deaconess Hall (1956), and two of six new dormitory structures, five of them to be clustered on the north side of the campus expansion.


An aerial view from about 1971 shows the postwar campus near the end of the boom (Figure 8). In the center of campus, in a place of prominence, is the distinctive 1959 chapel. In the process of building the chapel, the university acquired a young, well-trained campus architect, Charles Stade, and a professional planner of some renown, Jean Labatut, one of Stade’s professors at the Princeton School of Architecture. Labatut encouraged the administration to use topography to greatest effect. In one letter from Stade to Labatut, he responded to a request for specific coordinates of all the existing trees on campus, probably because Labatut hoped to preserve them and integrate them into the new campus (20 August 1956, Labatut Papers).

By the later 1960s, it was apparent that the university had charged ahead with building without following Labatut’s advice. In a 1965 letter to O. P., he registered his disappointment about recent campus additions, particularly regarding the placement of new buildings. He noted “so much wasted space for so few buildings.... buildings designed as if unsympathetic to each other, or designed by different architects at different times and without consideration for the quality of space between them,” and he questioned the orientation of new buildings (18 October 1965, Labatut Papers). Labatut advocated “better land use, higher density of buildings, more order and greater economy of land, better landscape treatment and consequently more beauty” (Ibid). At Valparaiso, as was the case with many postwar campuses, the rapid speed of building had left insufficient time for careful planning.

Certainly one of the biggest reasons to discard the Gothic campus in favor of a modern one was financial. Modern steel and concrete structures could cost less than half as much per square foot and could be built much more quickly. But more than architectural style was altered, for in a few short years this administration, and many others, had rejected a closely built, inward looking plan for one that flung its Midwestern, midcentury modern buildings outward. The buildings were experimental within the constraints of time and materials, but overall one gets the impression of cost-effective functionality.

In the last two decades, Valparaiso University has been moving back toward Labatut’s vision of a higher density, better landscaped campus. The Valparaiso University Center for the Arts, dedicated in 1995, marked the beginning of a new wave of building, one that is still in process.

What are the particular challenges facing Valparaiso and other campuses today? There are many. M. Perry Chapman, a principal planner with Sasaki Associates, the Boston architecture firm that designed Valparaiso’s new Harre Union, writes about the “seismic forces affecting the shape of the twenty-first century campus,” including the digital information revolution, globalization, the increasing diversity of campus populations, and skyrocketing costs (Chapman 2006, 53ff). Universities are expanding (and occasionally contracting) to remain competitive, raising enrollments and building new facilities, economizing through adaptive reuse of adjacent non-university buildings, increasing the appeal and safety of their campuses, and just frantically trying to keep ahead of the game. What principles should guide campus planning as we face these challenges?

Chapman argues that “The home campus has to be the center of gravity for the virtual hinterland created when institutions disperse functions, relationships, and activities outside the borders of the core campus” (73). In a similar vein, MIT media guru William Mitchell writes that “the more global the enterprise becomes, the more integrity and intensity the mother ship must possess” (cited in Chapman 2006, 73). Universities must respond by creatively engaging the centrifugal forces taking learning activities away from the core and simultaneously strengthening the centripetal forces that pull students and faculty back to the center.

Consider the architectural dimension of two of the most important changes facing universities—the digital revolution and the recasting of the structure of community in a decentralized, global marketplace. Expensive, rapidly evolving technology is changing the way we teach and learn. As teachers, we will continue to be able to do more and more online that once required a physical classroom, and we can’t assume business as usual, regardless of our disciplines. There are better and worse ways, architecturally speaking, to bend to this trend. Chapman notes that “the challenge is how to make the breathtaking speed, capacity, visual quality, ubiquity, and flexibility of digital communication an organic, enriching part of the place-based collegiate realm” (62). One intriguing, creative response is the “Math Emporium” at Virginia Tech. In the late 1990s, in an old downtown department store, the university created a self-paced program for math instruction in core courses necessary for many majors. Open twenty-four hours, and staffed by math professors fourteen hours per day, here students work interactively around five hundred computer workstations. This is not an isolated online course model, but a collaborative system of learning that has resulted in better grades and test scores for students. Virginia Tech created a space both digital and social, freeing up many classrooms for other purposes and concentrating resources efficiently.

In The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business, 2000), authors John Seely Brown and Pual Duguid make a distinction between information and knowledge. Information is data; knowledge is deeper and transformative, generally the result of personal encounters that take place within developed social networks. Open discourse and hands-on discovery, they argue, are critical for the development of knowledge (cited in Chapman 2006, 63–64).  Chapman writes, “The campus is the working, experiential habitat of learners… gathered where they can see the eyes and sense the body language of their compatriots, where the resistance and reinforcement of human encounter is a tactile, sensory experience” (64). People and technology need to work together in places that encourage collaboration. Learning, like all human events, literally takes place. There is no such thing as “place-free learning.” Cyberspace doesn’t remove place from the equation; it simply changes it. Rather than a classroom, perhaps memories will be tied to a desk chair and a computer screen, as well as the spaces and things that surround them.

Digital media, globalization, the expansion and diversification of the student body—these are all trends that are affecting the way we learn. They also challenge the ways that colleges and universities function as communities. Frederick Law Olmsted articulated the idea that the total environment of learning develops not only our skills in subject matter but also our character and values as citizens of a community. Universities are still wonderful places to learn about place, to become skilled in genuine community. One strong argument for the continuing importance of the well-designed and built college campus is that Americans are sorely lacking in their ideas of good civic space that is lively, beautiful, and inspirational. Giving students the opportunity to inhabit a model civic space teaches them to care, and provides them with a benchmark for such places for the rest of their lives. And now, more than ever, universities also need to make sure that students are not isolated from the communities that surround them. Campuses have a responsibility to enrich the life of their larger place. If our campuses are going to connect with our communities, we can’t be islands of university buildings and manicured lawns surrounded by seas of parking. The actual, physical borders between campus and city need to be permeable and inviting in both directions.

Perry Chapman argues for a new ethic of place, applicable to university campuses, and centered on three themes he sees as the critical issues for future campus building: sustainability, community, and regional authenticity. Christian colleges and universities should find a ready match between these themes and their institutional missions. The material expression of faith might be something as overt as a big Jesus painted on the wall of a building, but perhaps a more effective message is sent when the campus conveys an ethic such as the one Chapman advocates. There are better and worse ways to mark Christian identity. Architecture and landscape can indicate the welcome presence of religious faith among us. Charles Stade’s Chapel has anchored Valparaiso’s campus for fifty years. Even for those students who never worship there, it is an ever present reminder that life and learning on this campus takes place under the cross. And there are many other ways that we might develop a Christian ethic of place, consonant with sustainability, community, and regional authenticity.


In conclusion, consider one recent addition to the Valparaiso campus, the Christopher Center for Library and Information Resources (2004), a place that attempts to address concerns of both technology and community (Figure 9). The oldest library building on campus is Heritage Hall, now the law clinic and recently rebuilt. When I arrived on campus six years ago, the old Moellering Library was still in place, although slated for demolition, having been well over capacity for decades. According to Rick AmRhein, who came to Valparaiso in 1999 to become Dean of Library Services, the first conceptual studies for a new library had been following the model of “a place to protect books and to house lots of them” (Interview, Valparaiso University, 11 October 2010). Under AmRhein’s direction, the planning committee took a different approach: “libraries are not boxes for books, libraries are places for learning.” Valparaiso’s library must, AmRhein insisted, be about people. Working with the San Francisco-based architectural firm of EHDD, the driving question for design was “how will we use space to enable interaction between people?” Marc L’Italien, the lead designer for the project, was asked to design “a real range and diversity of collaborative spaces” with “seamless, open flexibility” to accommodate inevitable future changes (Telephone interview with Marc L’Italien, 13 October 2010).

Spaces were arranged to facilitate a wide range of activities, all organized under the concept of an “information commons.” An automated storage system enabled the main library floors to be open and spacious. AmRhein wanted books, computers, and comfortable furniture on every floor, to encourage the use of the entire space. With a fireplace lounge on three floors, an outdoor terrace on the fourth floor, a large community room, natural light coming from at least two directions throughout the building, a basement café, and minimal restrictions on eating and drinking in the entire building, the Christopher Center has proved as welcoming as the design team intended. AmRhein stressed the need to conform the library to contemporary student learning behaviors. For instance, he notes, “if you don’t create a multitasking environment, it’s not comfortable for them... If we create an environment where they can’t live their life,” he argues, “then they don’t want to be there” (Interview with AmRhein).

Based on use patterns and my unscientific polling of students, the Christopher Center is a hugely successful building. In fact, given the natural inclinations of students, and what they say about other buildings on campus, their admiration for the Christopher Center is striking. In the first fall it opened, library use was up 433 percent over what it had been the last year in Moellering. AmRhein hopes the building offers a “sense of arrival,” and more than one student has spoken of the thrill she gets while walking down the main staircase into the student centered ground floor, with its café and busy computer work areas. The siting and exterior treatment of the building is designed to respect the primacy of the chapel and to blend in with the materials used in other campus architecture, while making a fresh statement.

L’Italien noted that, except for being very protective of the chapel, the Valparaiso committee gave the architects a lot of freedom. How to work with the chapel became the most difficult aspect of the project and, in the end, one of its greatest achievements. L’Italien believes they succeeded in finding the “magical separation between the two buildings,” that preserves the primacy of the campus’s central icon. Indeed, he was delighted when, at the opening reception, he was frequently complimented not on the Christopher Center itself, but on the way it offered a “renewed perspective on the chapel,” enabling the community “to see and appreciate it in a different way” (Interview with L’Italien). This building works because it blends technology and community while architecturally connecting with the institution’s identity and mission. It has already changed the way we learn and live on this campus, becoming the central place the design team hoped it would be.

The architectural historian Paul Venable Turner, whose 1984 book Campus is still the standard work on this subject, closed his study with a statement that captures the spirit of these special places very well. “Americans,” he wrote, “normally have preferred open and expansive schools that look confidently outward to the world” (1987, 305). This is our architectural legacy, a legacy that reminds us of something important. The spaces on our campuses, when working as they should, provide places to dwell in community. But for most of the people who share these spaces with us, their stay is temporary. Our mission is not to turn inward. We are called to look outward, to lead and serve, and to prepare our students to do the same.


Gretchen Buggeln is the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts and Associate Professor of Art History and Humanities in Christ College of Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Baepler, Richard. Flame of Faith, Lamp of Learning: A History of Valparaiso University. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001.

Chapman, M. Perry. American Places: In Search of the Twenty-First Century Campus. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.

Labatut (Jean) Papers. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.

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