I have a son who’s a high school junior this year. So for the past six months or so, our mailbox has been full of college pamphlets, and our weekends have been spent embarking on road trips for campus tours. In addition to course catalogs, extracurriculars, and internship programs, it turns out the look and feel of the campus itself is an important factor in my son’s decision-making. He’s envisioning what his afternoons will look like hanging out on the quad or how late-night sessions in the library will spark inspiration for that term paper. He wants to spend his university days somewhere with beautiful college campus architecture. (Can you tell his mom is an interior designer?) There are many ugly campuses that he’s immediately scratched from the shortlist, and we have even more alluring campuses to tour with that old-world academic feel. All of this has gotten me thinking about the architecture of higher learning and the role it plays in our studies. Travel + Leisure even has a whole vacation guide planned around beautiful campuses! So, until we have an acceptance letter in hand, we’re adding some of the nation’s most beautiful college campuses to our all-American style road trip.
A Brief History of College Campus Architecture
It’s not surprising that the history of American college campus architecture starts with one of the biggest names in academics, Harvard. Harvard was founded in 1636, shortly followed by William & Mary, Yale, and Princeton. These early colonial colleges were modeled after their counterparts across the pond in curriculum and architectural style. Many colleges were designed similarly to monasteries, blocking out the external world to focus on academics. Other early universities with religious affiliations, like Brown and Columbia, were influenced by the architectural stylings of European churches.
Campus Styles Through the Ages
The term “campus” came from the Latin word for field and was first used to reference Princeton’s greenspace that separated it from the town. The term initially only referred to college green spaces but came to encompass the entire property.
The 1700s: As America came into its own, early colleges and the nation were dominated by Greek Revival and Federalist architecture. This style pulled inspiration from the Classics, embracing structured symmetry.
The 1800s: Academic leaders of religious-based institutions, like Columbia, began to embrace the Gothic Revival style, pulling inspiration from old-world European churches.
Post-Civil War (The late 1800s): Views on education changed after the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed, paving the way for agricultural and industrial research colleges that were intended to serve the general population rather than the wealthy elite. As a result, these campuses needed to be more functional than decorative in their design.
The early 1900s: Many college campuses built in the early 1900s played off the vernacular styles of the region, taking inspiration from the local landscape, architecture, and lifestyle. Some of these play off the Arts and Crafts and Craftsman movements of the time.
Post-WWII (The late 1900s): The Brutalist movement originated after WWII as a practical way to rebuild with one of the cheapest materials at the time — concrete. As more Americans were enrolling in college than ever before, the Brutalist style was adapted on college campuses as an affordable and quick way to expand.
Today: As higher learning focuses on the rapidly expanding tech sector, new campus buildings aim to reflect a cutting-edge, ultra-modern style. The modern campus has retired stone and brick for sweeping glass and steel structures.
4 Main Types of Architecture Styles Seen on College Campuses
From coast to coast, the four main college campus architecture styles are Greek Revival, Collegiate Gothic, Brutalist, and the new addition of ultra-modern.
The Greek Revival style flourished in the States through the 1700s and 1800s, inspiring classic American styles such as Colonial and Federalist. It can be seen on many East Coast campuses, including Princeton, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brown, and Cornell. The style pulls from elements of Classical architecture, including symmetry, columns, domed roofs, and brick or stone construction.
The Collegiate Gothic style is a subcategory of the Gothic Revival movement and is what you most likely picture when you think of a college campus. This style was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was used on campuses nationwide, including Yale, Duke, Harvard, and even West-Coaster UCLA. Collegiate Gothic borrows English Tudor and Gothic architectural elements, including tall towers, pointed archways, ribbed vaults, and intricate stonework. Cherokee Gothic, a subcategory of the subcategory, was coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe the vernacular style used at the University of Oklahoma that combined Gothic elements alongside indigenous designs.
The Brutalist movement began after World War II in the United Kingdom to speed up the timelines of post-war construction projects. Brutalism got its name from the French word béton brut, meaning raw concrete, because it relied on affordable concrete instead of more expensive steel. By the 1960s, the style made its way to American college campuses. It features strong, angular designs centered around function over aesthetics. Many find the style to feel oppressive and domineering. Most American colleges, including Yale, Harvard, and Northwestern, have one or two Brutalist buildings from the era. However, UMass Dartmouth’s entire campus is designed in this style.
Today, information seems to run at lightning speeds, and newer college buildings are embracing the tech-driven world with ultra-modern, experimental designs. Many new campus buildings feature contemporary steel-and-glass designs with futuristic details that highly contrast older buildings on campus. For example, Tulane’s Business School looks like a sheet of glass weaved through the century-old campus oaks.
Universities We’re Visiting
Here’s the list of (beautiful) colleges my son and I are touring.
- Reed College
- Lewis & Clark College
- Trinity University
- Puget Sound University
- Bard College
- Rochester Institute of Technology
Higher Learning and Higher Style
So far, the O’Neil Ford-designed Trinity is one of the most beautiful campuses we’ve visited. However, Rice and Bard are both coming up on the travel itinerary, and I think they will be strong contenders. Once the choice is made, the real fun part will start — dorm room decorating. I’ve honestly been thinking about the day since before I was even pregnant. Now that I know firsthand some of the realities of raising a teenager, I realize I probably won’t get much say in the design. However, I’ll be there to make sure his dorm is comfortable.
After all, higher learning deserves higher style.