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When University Architecture Aims Nowhere

After a century of distractions from educating students, college buildings now have ends only in themselves.
Rubenstein building image

The University of Chicago was founded in 1896 with the support of John D. Rockefeller in order to give the Baptists a worthy rival to the Ivy League’s prestigious East Coast universities like Harvard and Yale, not to mention England’s ancient Cambridge and Oxford. It was fitting, then, that the school was built in an ivy-strewn neo-Gothic style, using a special limestone that Rockefeller himself picked out to age in appearance much more quickly than normal rock. Today those original main campus buildings sport a weather-hewn visage comparable to those of schools centuries its elder, paying homage to a university that became known for its dedication to the Great Books tradition and curriculum.

Mr. Rockefeller’s aesthetic choices have not exercised terribly strong sway over the school’s more recent additions, however, and the newest addition provides a perfect symbol of why. Established deviations from the plan stretch from the brutalism of the main Regenstein Library (appropriately used for a dystopian prison in the YA blockbuster Divergent), to the multicolored Lego blockland of Max Palevsky dormitory, to the concrete blight of the central administrative building, which sits squarely on Rockefeller’s original quad. (The university website notes that “Gothic designs for the building were floated, but progressive critics were quick to deride the medieval template as obsolete.”)

Now the university’s latest building project has been announced, and the “post-post-modern” architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro has unveiled its design (see above). It is, in short, clutter.

While the Gothic architecture of the original campus was expressly developed over centuries to communicate order, beauty, and orientation to the divine, and even the midcentury modernism that followed had a certain appreciation of symmetry, the David M. Rubenstein Forum is a disordered stack of boxes jutting out, one over another, in order to provide a vaguely defined collection of meeting spaces.

While, as mentioned, the Rubenstein Forum is not unique to the campus in garishness and departure from the Gothic core, it does serve as an apt culminating symbol of how universities abandoned education for buildings.

As I recalled in a fall piece, last winter Patrick Deneen delivered a lecture on how university architecture had gone “From Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship,” in which he detailed how the change in university purpose over the past century had been reflected in its buildings. When universities were first and foremost places of learning in which the accumulated wisdom of the ages was to be transmitted to a new generation, they followed classical forms. Gothic architecture pointed to heaven, the source of ultimate wisdom to Christians and Platonists alike. Libraries facilitated serendipitous encounter with books, students, and scholars alike, bringing the various sciences into dialogue with each other on the shelf and in the halls.

As John Dewey’s ideas took hold in the classroom (fittingly at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School), and Le Corbusier’s in the architectural journals, the orientation turned away from learning as it had classically been understood and toward a fusion of personal development for students and research accumulation for professors. Libraries were built to store “publish or perish” books that would never be read, and classrooms to become plastic spaces of generic creativity. In time, classrooms would fade from focus altogether.

So appears to be the case with the Rubenstein Forum. The university is replete with lecture halls and auditoriums of all sizes, several in the same Gothic buildings and lending a sense of excitement and authority to visiting guest lecturers. The university administrators, however, called “for a flexible space for intellectual and educational exchange” that “can be devoted to a small, intimate academic symposia [sic] or combined for larger conferences or meetings.”

The Rubenstein Forum stands across the park from Rockefeller Chapel, John D.’s final bequest to the university. The Chapel is a stunning Gothic achievement, built entirely out of stone with no reinforcing steel, sporting the second-largest bell carillon in the world. Kriston Capps finds the Rubenstein’s cantilevered upper levels to echo the Chapel’s transept tower, which emerges out of the Chapel’s foundational cruciform footprint; this echo was so clever as to have been duplicated in an early draft by a rival New York firm for a performance venue built down the street. Crucially, as Deneen noted, the Chapel tower points upwards, while the Forum caps itself with a horizontal deck that provides a nice view of Lake Michigan.

Towering above the university’s campus, the Chapel serves as a convening venue for each incoming class of undergraduate students, who gather before a faculty member to receive an address on “The Aims of Education,” an address which will then be discussed and debated with their new residential house community. The full pews and grand chamber summon hushed attention, while the stone statues around the entrances orient one to education, faith, and philosophy.

If the Rubenstein Forum were to one day host an Aims of Education address, what would its hodgepodge of boxes orient its students towards? Likely nothing. There is no coherence, no direction towards ideas either noble or base. But Mr. Rubenstein got his starchitect, and the university administrators kept the capital rolling in.

How post-post-modern.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.