This modern public research university was something very different from the exclusive private colleges for which Massachusetts was known, and its leaders believed that mission demanded a different look. Instead of mimicking the exclusive private schools that had long trained New England elites, UMass would proclaim its distinctive belief in excellence combined with broad educational access for the masses by embracing the architecture of the day. With plans developed by Sasaki and Associates, and with advice on architects from MIT’s Pietro Belluschi, Lederle ushered in the modernist icons that would be built over the course of the 1960s and early 1970s: the Southwest Residential Area, by Hugh Stubbins; the massive Fine Arts Center complex designed by Kevin Roche; the Lincoln Campus Center by Marcel Breuer; and the McGuirk Alumni Stadium, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. At the time it was built, in 1973, Edward Durrell Stone’s library tower was the tallest building in New England west of Boston and the tallest library in the world.
These daring buildings were met with enthusiasm, at least in the architectural world. Architectural Record devoted a sizeable section of its May 1966 issue to a survey of what it called “Distinguished Architecture for a State University.” The issue praised the new buildings as “masterful” and called the UMass approach a model for expanding postwar colleges.
Like many buildings of the period, however, UMass’s onetime landmarks have fared poorly over the years. The Brutalist concrete monoliths of the 1960s and ’70s have had an especially hard time finding support. In a story familiar to anyone who has spent time in Boston City Hall, what were initially bright, sculptural forms gave way over time to stained facades, chipped corners, and broken stairs.
The 1960s and ’70s boom was followed by two decades of disinvestment in the university’s physical plant, as a cash-strapped state government scaled down its ambitions. Student growth halted, few new buildings were built, and maintenance on existing ones virtually stopped. Many complaints about the buildings—including the Fine Arts Center, which houses my program, Architecture + Design—can be traced to the lack of maintenance during this period. At the same time, real failings in design, construction, and repair coincided with a growing conservative backlash against the New Deal and Great Society. By the end of the 1970s, the buildings that Lederle had envisioned as marking the start of UMass’s limitless, democratic rise came to be seen by many as hulking monuments to governmental excess and corruption.
At present, this campus of aging mid-century icons is in the midst of a new kind of building boom. “New Dirt” was the slogan of Chancellor John Lombardi, who during his term from 2002 to 2007 sought to have UMass finally join the ranks of top national research schools, with impressive facilities to match. Over the past 15 years, the land of this plateau has been dug up and concrete foundations poured at a rate matched only by the Lederle era.
Unlike previous growth eras, when the state and often the federal government footed the bill, this time the university itself is largely paying for it, out of its own operating budget. Architecturally, the new buildings are more cautious. Red brick has returned in force, as if the campus leaders were desperate to make the school more like Amherst College or Williams or Harvard. (After the Studio Arts Building had been fully designed with a contemporary metal exterior, Lombardi famously ordered it to be clad in brick.)
As the building boom has taken hold, the school’s older buildings have drawn the attention of architectural preservationists. Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide nonprofit organization, named the UMass Amherst campus one of the Bay State’s “10 Most Endangered Historic Resources.” Preservationists have pressured successive campus administrations to deal more thoughtfully with historic buildings and landscapes, whether they be old barns (torn down to make way for the Recreation Center), the Campus Pond (whose edges are being remade to accommodate the New Academic Classroom Building), or the Fine Arts Center (which has been nipped and tucked in all manner of ways).
No one wants or expects the school to be frozen as a museum of 20th century Brutalism. But under the watchful eye of Preserve UMass, a new appreciation of the campus’s unique architecture is growing, among the campus planning and facilities staff, as well as the broader UMass community. The challenge UMass leaders face now is twofold: preserving and sensitively restoring the most important buildings and landscapes, and, at the same time, spending the time and energy (and state money) necessary to attract today’s visionary architects, so that we will have buildings worth saving 50 years from now.Continued...