THE SPIRIT OF CAMPUS DESIGN: A reflection on the words of Werner Sensbach #Campus #Planning #Design #University #Architect

Montclair State University
Photo Credit: Mike Peters

In 1991, Werner Sensbach, who served for over 25 years as Director of Facilities Planning and Administration at the University of Virginia, wrote a paper titled “Restoring the Values of Campus Architecture”. The paragraphs that follow were excerpted from that article. They seem particularly appropriate to Montclair State University as it looks at its present campus facilities and forward to the planning of future facilities on a piece of land of spectacular beauty.

Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that architecture should provide firmness, commodity, and delight. It is the definition of “delight” that still troubles us today. This is especially so on college campuses. Many who try to give voice to what it is that brings delight in a building or an arrangement of buildings may mention the design, the placement on the site, the choice of building materials, the ornamentation, or the landscaping. But mostly it’s just a feeling, or a sense that things are arranged just right, or a sensation of pleasure that comes over us. So academics, like nearly everyone else, often are unsure when planning for new campus construction about what is likely to be delightful. Even though the United States has 3,400 colleges, while most other advanced nations only have a few dozen, we simply have not developed in the United States a sensibility, a vocabulary, a body of principles, an aesthetic for campus architecture.

That each campus should be an “academic village” was one of Thomas Jefferson’s finest architectural insights. Higher learning is an intensely personal enterprise, with young scholars working closely with other scholars, and students sharing and arguing about ideas, religious beliefs, unusual facts, and feelings. A human scale is imperative, a scale that enhances collegiality, friendships, collaborations on research.

I believe the style of the campus buildings is important, but style is not as important as the village-like atmosphere of all the buildings and their contained spaces. University leaders must insist that architects they hire design on a warm, human scale. Scale, not style, is the essential element in good campus design. Of course, if an inviting, charming campus enclosure can be combined with excellent, stylish buildings so much the better.

The third imperative for campus planners, the special aesthetic of campus architecture, or the element of delight, is the hardest to define. It is the residue that is left after you have walked through a college campus, a sense that you have been in a special place and some of its enchantment has rubbed off on you. It is what visitors feel as they enjoy the treasures along the Washington Mall, or others feel after leaving Carnegie Hall, Longwood Gardens in southeastern Pennsylvania, Chartres Cathedral, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, or the Grand Canyon.

On a college campus the delight is generated by private garden spaces in which to converse, by chapel bells at noon or on each hour, by gleaming white columns and grand stairways, by hushed library interiors, by shiny gymnasiums and emerald playing fields, by poster-filled dormitory suites, by a harmony of windows and roofs, and by flowering trees and diagonal paths across a huge lawn. The poet Schiller once said that a really good poem is like a soft click of a well-made box when it is being closed. A great campus infuses with that kind of satisfaction.

In my view, American’s colleges and universities—and especially their physical planners—need three things to become better architectural patrons. One is a renewed sense of the special purpose of campus architecture. A second is an unswerving devotion to human scale. The third is a sense of the uncommon and particular aesthetic—the delight—that a college or university campus demands.

A surprisingly large sector of the American public has conceded a special purpose to higher education. College campuses have provided a special place for those engaged in the earnest pursuit of basic or useful knowledge, for young people devoted to self-improvement, and for making the country smarter, wiser, more artful, and more able to deal with competitor nations.

Therefore, college and university campuses have a distinct and separate purpose, as distinct as the town hall and as separate as a dairy farm. For most students the four to seven years spent in academic pursuits on a university campus are not only an important period of maturing from adolescence to adulthood but also years of heightened sensory and creative ability, years when the powers of reasoning, feeling, ethical delineations, and aesthetic appreciation reach a degree of sharpness as never before. During college years, young minds absorb impressions that often last for a lifetime: unforgettable lectures, noisy athletic contests, quiet hours in a laboratory or library, jovial dormitory banter, black-robed commencements, encounters with persons of radically different views, the rustle of leaves, transfigured nights. The American college campus serves superbly as an example of Aristotle’s idea of a good urban community as a place “where people live a common life for a noble end.”

Montclair State University
Photo Credit: Mike Peters

No architect should be permitted to build for academe unless he or she fully appreciates that his or her building is an educational tool of sorts. New buildings should add to the academic ambiance and enrich the intellectual exchanges and solitary inquiries. They should never be a mere personal statement by the architect or a clever display of technical ingenuity or artistic fashion.

Campus facilities planners need to be sure that the architects they choose are able to incorporate surprise, touches of whimsy, elegance, rapture, and wonder into their constructions. This special campus aesthetic is definitely not a frill. It is what graduates remember decades after they have left the college, and what often prompts them to contribute money to perpetuate the delight. It is what captures high school juniors and their parents in their summer pilgrimages to numerous college campuses to select those two or three institutions to which they will apply.

I think the best way to preserve the particular values of the American college campus is through a three-pronged effort:

The first is to recognize that the village-like university campus is a unique American architectural creation. No other nation has adopted the “academic village” as an architectural and landscaping form, though the ancient Oxbridge colleges came close. Academic leaders should become more knowledgeable about the distinctiveness of their campus communities and more proud of and assertive about maintaining the values of this inventive form.

Second, universities should have a broadly representative and expert blue-ribbon committee to watch over all new construction, not leave it to the vice president for administration, a facilities planner, or a trustee committee. The campus environment should be guarded and enhanced as carefully as the quality of the faculty.

Third, each college and university should draw up a set of design guidelines to help it become a patron who can list what is essential in its campus architecture. These guidelines will differ from campus to campus, but nearly all institutions should include concern for the three fundamentals: academic purpose, human scale, and a special campus aesthetic. Architects can de- sign more effectively and sympathetically if they understand the expectations of the college.

Although these words were written in 1991, they remain true today as Montclair State University continues to grow its enrollment, academic programs, research programs…and the facilities that serve them.

Source: “Restoring the Values of Campus Architecture” by Werner Sensbach (who served for over 25 years as Director of Facilities Planning and Administration at the University of Virginia)

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We would love to hear from you about what you think about this post. We sincerely appreciate all your comments – and – if you like this post please share it with friends. And feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss ideas for your next project!

Sincerely,

FRANK CUNHA III
I Love My Architect – Facebook



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