In “Laboratory Conditions” (New Yorker, September 19 2011), Paul Goldberger waxes lyrical over the architectural details of new science buildings like the Rockefeller University Collaborative Research Center, Columbia University’s new “fourteen-story tower for scientific research,” and the University of San Francisco’s “new center for stem-cell research.” Goldberger clearly likes what he sees:
[A]ll three of the new buildings I recently visited managed to satisfy a daunting list of functional demands and still have room for poetry….scientific research can be conducted in an environment of both zest and dignity….scientists have become the architecture profession’s most optimistic clients. They believe that well-designed buildings can help them.
To which my reaction is: I’m glad someone is happy with the buildings now under construction for centers of learning. The recipients of Goldberger’s admiration appear to be exceptions to a broad regularity, for a ghastly fact staring us in the face is that university buildings are on a Road to Architectural Perdition, wherein their buildings get uglier and uglier, hankering apparently, for some summum bonum of sheer architectural banality.
Most newly-constructed university buildings now seemingly aspire to the status of Generic Corporate Park Resident, with an exterior that resembles a thrown-together assembly of dull, mass-manufactured, pre-fabricated parts. My own academic home–Brooklyn College–has provided a particularly undistinguished addition to the pantheon of Ugly University Architecture. Our most recently erected building stands, in dramatic and depressing contrast, across Bedford Avenue, to the older Georgian structures on the older quad; its ugliness defies reasonable description. Many years ago, when a graduate student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I heard Cullimore Hall, a nondescript lecture hall, described as Ham-n-Cheese Hall. Nothing else quite captured its sheer ordinariness, its sinister and yet dull color scheme, than that little nickname, nothing quite deflated a component of the university like a naming after a boring, run-of-the-mill, easily-made-shapeless edible item. All too many modern samples of university architecture aspire to, and emulate, the two samples I have just noted.
But even corporate park buildings i.e., actual Generic Corporate Park Residents, come off better than most modern university buildings. Their glass, steel, aluminium, their straight-lines and metallic countenance, all speak to corporate efficiency, to a streamlined mode of operation that no matter how mythical in denying its own rough edges and inefficiencies, is at least true to a dream-making associated with it. In the case of corporations the Corporate Park Look might work; in the case of universities, the Corporate Park look is jarring. What part of the academic mission is this architecture speaking to?
Only in the context of a throughly-corporatized university do its new architectural inclinations make any sense. That is, the modern, ugly university only makes sense if one understands it to be no longer committed to its older mission of fostering inquiry but rather to be pursuing considerably less-elevated bottom-lines (perhaps “outcomes”, “deliverables” and the like?). That is, if one accepts as concrete the clash between that older mission and the visible goal of the contract awarded to the lowest bidder. Then, all of a sudden, all is made clear: the architecture of the modern university is a loud testament to the race to the bottom that is sought to be enacted within its walls.