Masters of Campus Placemaking

Designs for Learning: College and University Buildings by Robert A.M. Stern Architects reviewed by Clem Labine.
By Clem Labine ,

Context dictates architectural style: Departing from the style used at Marist College, at Drexel University in Philadelphia Graham Wyatt and Kevin Smith adapted the Modernist vocabulary of nearby urban buildings for LeBow Hall. LeBow’s triangular plan also helps define a new central quadrangle for the Drexel community.

Designs for Learning: College and University Buildings by Robert A.M. Stern Architects 

By Robert A.M. Stern, Graham S. Wyatt, Alexander P. Lamis, Melissa DelVecchio, Preston J. Gumberich, Kevin M. Smith, Gary L. Brewer

Edited by Peter Morris Dixon

The Monacelli Press, New York, NY 2016

460 pp; Hardcover; 450 Full-color images; $85

ISBN: 978-1-58093-481-7

The central argument of this impressive 460-page monograph is that two worldviews compete when new buildings are added to college and university campuses. The first approach, and the one that seems dominant today, is that each new building should be a work of art . . . a unique piece of standalone sculpture . . . an “iconic building” created by a brand-name starchitect. Or as Robert A.M. Stern acidly observes in the text, many college administrators “. . . . see themselves as art collectors buying different paintings.” After a few decades of such “collecting,” a campus becomes an unsettling jumble of visually disconnected buildings.

The alternative approach—advocated by Stern and his associates—is that a new building should relate to and enhance the existing character of its setting. To buttress this argument, the volume presents more than 30 projects on 20 college campuses built by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) in the past seven years. Despite its title, this monograph is about more than just designing buildings. Rather, the volume is a master class on creating entire environments for learning; it’s as much about a special type of urban planning for educational communities as it is about creating individual structures. The authors demonstrate that a well-designed campus is one of the few places in the U.S. where you can find coherent architectural space.

Using the Columbia University campus as an example, in the introduction Robert Stern describes approvingly how traditional architects build respectfully on the work of their predecessors: “Architects . . . enter into a literal language established by others. Brunner’s and others buildings are very much in the spirit of McKim’s, directly participating in the language. Rogers introduced a more abstract Beaux-Arts approach but still stayed in the game and played according to the rules. We’ve lost that. Architects just don’t want to fit in and the worst part of it, in my view, is that on many campuses the facilities people and the administrators don’t want architects to fit in.”

RAMSA’s campus work during the past seven years illustrates how skillful the firm is at “fitting in”—while still making functional contemporary spaces. One key to the firm’s success is that it isn’t wedded to any particular “RAMSA style.” Although the practice is best known for its historically inspired buildings, the firm’s designers work in varied architectural vocabularies depending on the context. When adding to an existing campus, RAMSA architects first try to respect whatever master plan might exist, and then shape new buildings so they strengthen the institution’s sense of place and community.

For the Hancock Museum at Marist College in New York's Hudson River Valley, RAMSA partners Graham Wyatt and Kevin Smith used Hudson Valley rubblestone facades to enhance campus character established by earlier Gothic Revival buildings. Extending a rubble stone wall to form an arched opening over the adjacent walkway heightens sense of place.

As with previous monographs from the firm, this latest RAMSA compendium is a massive and heavy book; it won’t sit comfortably on your tummy if you like to read in bed. Its pages are filled with handsome full-color images of each project—but it’s not just a compilation of “beauty shots.” Multiple views are provided of every building—both interior and exterior—so the reader can comprehend the character of each structure. To add to project understanding, photography is supplemented by campus ground plans plus floor plans of each building that was added.

It’s also notable that senior partners in the firm figure prominently in the book, giving the impression that Robert Stern, 78, is deliberately thrusting his associates into the limelight to ensure that the 320-person practice carries Stern’s vision far into the 21st century. RAMSA’s long-term continuance would indeed be fortunate for our nation because no other large firm since McKim, Mead & White has been as successful in bringing traditionally inspired architecture back into the public realm.

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