The Bilbao Effect


There is a big hole in the ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the future site of a $104 million computer sciences center designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry. Bard College, too, has wangled a signature Gehry structure for a new performing arts center. The University of Cincinnati, meanwhile, recently finished off its Gehry, a cartoonish molecular studies center with bulging brick panels. And Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has landed a curvaceous, beribboned Gehry that’s been billed as “an explosion in a steel mill.”

Is the ivory tower being re-clad with titanium? As universities pull down millions in endowment and gift money from donors who’ve cashed in their technology stocks—and as campuses confront now-dilapidated facilities that were thrown up pell-mell in the ’60s—you could almost think Frank Gehry’s stupendously popular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has been slotted in every ambitious university’s physical-plant pattern book. Goodbye Collegiate Gothic and vintage campus Brutalism: Bilbao has hit the quad.

“A lot of the hiring of these architects has to do with competitiveness. Schools are trying to attract new kids to come to campuses where the architecture is speaking to them. It’s about being cool and hip on campuses that are perhaps staid and traditional.”

And it’s not just Gehry. The Illinois Institute of Technology called in the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas for a new campus center. NYU is putting Kevin Roche to work on its embattled new Kimmel Center, and Columbia University last year unveiled a student center by its well-known architecture dean, Bernard Tschumi. While many American colleges have historically fought for progressive design, this latest burst of high-style patronage looks to some critics like “trophy architecture,” the recruitment of brand-name architectural stars to grab the attention of the fast-approaching baby-boom echo.

“A lot of the hiring of these architects has to do with competitiveness,” says Jim Wheeler, a principal with the architectural firm Ayers/Saint/Gross. “Schools are trying to attract new kids to come to campuses where the architecture is speaking to them. It’s about being cool and hip on campuses that are perhaps staid and traditional.”

Whatever their aspirations, schools can’t break ground fast enough. Colleges and universities in the U.S. spent more than $4.8 billion on construction last year, up almost 60 percent from 1998, according to the industry research firm F.W. Dodge. And this year’s construction starts are expected to reach $5.5 billion. As schools compete for the best and brightest, is a splashy building by Frank Gehry just one more brand-name amenity to lure style-conscious students?

“Frank has become such a rock star these days,” says William Mitchell, dean of MIT’s school of architecture and planning. “But I’ve known him for 30 years. We have no particular interest in brand names. We’re not doing little gem signature buildings. We’re really focusing on the everyday mainstream workaday structures.” Besides, says Mitchell, boring design has no place at MIT. “I felt very strongly that we have an obligation to intellectual leadership in the field of architecture,” he says. “Good universities are in the business of taking architectural risks.”

Similar terms have shaped discussion of Lerner Hall at Columbia. Wedged in tightly amid the fabric of Columbia’s neoclassical campus, the $85 million student center was a replacement for a ’50s structure that hadn’t worn well physically or aesthetically—and was a chance to put Columbia back in the architectural avant-garde. “We were always clear that we weren’t advocating a Colonial Williamsburg-like building of replicas,” says Emily Lloyd, Columbia’s executive vice president for administration. “There was a strong feeling on campus that we are a research university. This is a place not just for passing on what was known, but also for innovating.”

Architect Tschumi, in collaboration with Gruzen Samton Architects, placed contextual building masses around Lerner’s striking glass wall and ramp system, which Lloyd says was meant to be an all-weather version of the plaza-like steps of Low Library, where students gather as if upon an “urban beach.” But even with the building’s technical innovations, which include a structural system never before deployed in the U.S., Lerner Hall opened to mixed reviews. The architecture critic for The New York Times considered it a “dud,” while the building received a lukewarm reception from students, one of whom told the campus newspaper that the ramp system was “not very friendly,” and added that the oppressive interior “looks like a prison.” Campus officials respond that students are gradually claiming the space, which they hope will continue to evolve when Lerner’s major dining facility opens this fall.

“These so-called star architects are in fact less stars than leading lights in the old-boy network.”

Despite the rash of star-studded campus projects, critics say it’s ludicrous to suppose that colleges are lining up on the cutting edge. “The overwhelming majority of buildings built on college campuses are incredibly mediocre,” says Michael Sorkin, an architect who teaches at City College. “These so-called star architects are in fact less stars than leading lights in the old-boy network.” And if you think New York’s schools are breeding the next Bilbao, think again, says Sorkin. “New York universities are in the rear guard in terms of enlightened architectural patronage. In the last 20 years, they’ve managed to rise to the level of acceptable architecture from nauseating.”

“Universities are generally incredibly conservative and unbelievably cheap,” adds Michael Benedikt, director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at the University of Texas at Austin. At large research universities, Benedikt and others point out, architecture is typically chalked up as overhead on research contracts, and is viewed by facilities managers as a cost to be minimized. In addition, building committees are vigorously punished when a project goes awry, but rarely rewarded for innovation. “University administrations are deciding, Look, we either have a great name building here, or we get the most damn chem labs per square foot that we can possibly get,” Benedikt says. To top it all off, those empowered with making building decisions are often trustees with no particular background in architecture, or else donors with checkbook in hand but little grasp of aesthetics. As Benedikt puts it, “Some donors are like helpless puppies: Here’s $4 million for a new microbiology building, I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.”

The Austin campus, in fact, has recently been ground zero for one of the most widely reported architectural battles in decades. “Beverly Hillbillies vs. Bauhaus” was how one local newspaper headlined it when the renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron abandoned the job for the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, following the UT regents’ rejection of the contemporary design. Amid the fallout, Lawrence W. Speck resigned his position as dean of UT’s school of architecture, commenting in his letter of resignation that the regents’ treatment of the architects and lack of aesthetic awareness “compromise standards of performance in my field beyond what I can accept.”

As Benedikt says, the dispute highlights another pitfall for progressive campus architecture. “Herzog & de Meuron were going to create a very spare, one-story, mostly glass building. And the regents weren’t going to have it. It simply wasn’t Texan and it wasn’t contextual. But I think the whole conflict was mainly a kind of class thing.” Lamentably, an architectural project intended to enhance UT’s reputation now had precisely the opposite effect: “Quite a lot of damage has been done. It makes us more parochial than we need to be.”

In light of such damage, some planners insist upon a reciprocity between the mission of an institution and its buildings. Flocking to the latest design fashion, they say, can be fatal a few years down the road. “If you look at the history of campus planning, the wheels came off during the 1960s and you got all these wacky buildings by the stars of the time,” says Wheeler. “But now they stick out like sore thumbs. My concern is, are we just chasing trends? Or do these buildings actually reinterpret the pedagogy of what’s happening inside?”

While not what you might call star-quality architecture—it’s been compared to a beached ocean liner—another New York campus project aims at just such a reinterpretation. Baruch College’s hulking $270 million Academic Complex, currently under construction at Lexington and 24th Street, has been hailed as a new building type, a sort of supercollider for academic life. Billed as a “vertical campus” for Baruch, which has been spending $18 million per year to rent commercial facilities for its classes, the new complex was designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates to put faculty and students from the school’s major business and liberal arts programs, currently strung out around the neighborhood, in one dynamic building. Baruch administrators boast that the school’s Information and Technology Building won awards for the William and Anita Newman Library, which opened in 1994 inside the shell of a century-old cable-car power plant. On a recent visit to that building, however, it was clear that no matter how commendable or innovative a school’s architecture may be, the ineffable qualities of space are powerless to alter certain verities of campus life.

“As you can see,” says fourth-year journalism major Shan Wu, indicating a group of students stoically encamped under the sun-washed atrium, “the new architecture hasn’t done anything for the line at financial aid.”