Modern Architecture and the U.S. Campus Heritage Movement: Improvements in Attitudes Are Noticeable, but Modernist Campus Heritage Is Still Threatened

By Buono, Jon | Planning for Higher Education, April-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Modern Architecture and the U.S. Campus Heritage Movement: Improvements in Attitudes Are Noticeable, but Modernist Campus Heritage Is Still Threatened


Buono, Jon, Planning for Higher Education


Introduction

The history of an educational institution is maintained both in its traditions--the customs and practices of the school-- and in its physical dimension--the buildings, landscapes, and other cultural resources that define its "campus" In the past 15 years, the memorialization of the American college and university campus--whether in urban, suburban, or rural contexts--has become a centerpiece of both the Society for College and University Planning's (SCUP) annual programs and the practice of its membership. But within recent history, it could be argued that campus preservation has largely existed by default, such that institutions maintained existing buildings for reasons of pragmatism or finance but not necessarily on the basis of cultural or historic significance.

Despite exceptions to this characterization, it is worthwhile to note a paradigm shift toward the deliberate conservation of existing and historic buildings in the contemporary approach to campus planning and development. The evolution of modern architecture at American colleges and universities, characterized by reconception of traditional learning environments and intervention within preexisting contexts, has led to our current appreciation for the campus as a rich architectural assemblage that is managed through time. Today historic preservation is more broadly understood as an act of institutional stewardship, a successful tool for strengthening diverse stakeholder relations, and a companion to sustainable development goals.

Early American Modernism and the Educational Environment

An examination of 20th-century architecture in the United States cannot begin without referencing the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although his body of work did not include many educational facilities, Wright's approach to design was influenced by reforms in educational practice occurring at the turn of the 20th century. In his 1932 autobiography, the architect passionately reminisced on his formative experience with the kindergarten exercises of Friedrich Frobel (Wright 1932), and his exposure to this method became a touchstone for his philosophy of autodidacticism. In the early decades of Wright's independent practice, he frequently worked with clients who were either educators themselves or advocates of the progressive educational reform espoused by John Dewey. The educational principle of "learning by doing" was central to two of Wright's earliest commissions--the Hillside Home School (1901-03) designed for his aunts in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and the Playhouse (1912) designed for the Coonley Cottage School in Riverside, Illinois. (1)

Ultimately, Wright's greatest contributions to the character of American educational buildings were his concepts for complexes and site design. His career spanned a period in the evolution of architecture and planning that was significantly influenced by innovations in construction methods and the expansion of the automobile culture. Wright responded to these global technological changes with a theory of organic architecture that was determinedly both "modern" and American. Organic architecture grew from Wright's early "Prairie School" style and maintained tenets previously defined by the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as a respect for the properties of materials. However, his formal manner of integrating spaces into a coherent whole and the inspirations he drew from site and context were a bold departure from the Beaux Arts tradition of design that dominated the architecture of his era.

After the closure of the Hillside Home School (figure 1), Wright took over the property, which was adjacent to his own Taliesin home, and further developed the complex as a school for architects (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation n.d.). Conceived with then wife Olgivanna, the curriculum included a liberal assimilation of the fine arts and continued the principles of practical education through apprenticeship. …

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