Th e campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst—founded 150 years ago—has all too often been summed up with a simple word: ugly. At least one online source awarded it the dubious distinction of being the second ugliest campus in the nation, behind only Drexel University in Philadelphia.
In a state filled with manicured campuses of picturesque red-brick dormitories and gothic classrooms, the architecture of our flagship public university is another thing entirely. Colossal concrete slabs, dark subterranean spaces, vertical dormitories—these are the images in the minds of all too many prospective students and alumni. And the criticisms aren’t new: In 1974 the Globe’s longtime architecture critic, Robert Campbell, called it “a jumble of unrelated personal monuments that looks more like a world fairgrounds than a campus.”
Today the university is being reshaped. The building boom that began at the end of the century promises to remake the campus and its image. As the buildings of the great postwar boom head toward middle age, there are many who would be happy for the university to start over, wipe the slate clean, and make way for a completely new look.
But the past several years have seen the stirrings of a different way to see the university. A growing number of faculty, staff, and students have come to appreciate the campus as something distinctive, not just oppressive. And in 2007, a new organization, Preserve UMass, was founded with the goal of saving not just the campus’s handful of surviving 18th- and 19th-century buildings, but also some of the modern structures that people find so uninviting. As a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts who grew up in Amherst watching those monumental structures rise from farmland, I count myself among the appreciators.
In part, this revived enthusiasm is because UMass is home to examples of significant works by some of the most important architects of the mid-20th century. At a moment when Americans are starting to reassess the long-unloved architecture of the 1960s and ’70s, the UMass campus offers an outdoor museum of design from that period, including buildings by Marcel Breuer, Edward Durrell Stone, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Kevin Roche.
But something deeper is at work as well. Built into UMass’s campus, and the story of why it looks the way it does, is a set of ideals about what a public university was and might again be.
After three decades of a broad national push for smaller government and privatized institutions, and in the midst of our own statewide debate about taxes, the monumental buildings that helped transform UMass into a major research university remind us of very different principles: the belief that long-term public investment is a value rather than a burden; that working-class as well as wealthy students deserve outstanding learning facilities; and that excellent higher education should be affordable to all.
THe UMass campus almost had a very distinguished beginning. The school was born of the Morrill Act of 1862 as the Massachusetts Agricultural College, and in 1865 the trustees of the new school asked famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to look over the initial campus plans. Olmsted recommended a plan that reflected the layout of a New England village, with a series of small buildings built relatively close together on the eastern slope of the college’s property, and added to as needed by the growing institution. The trustees ignored most of his advice and sent him on his way. Instead, they built a single large institutional building to house dormitories, offices, and laboratories. (Feeling his expertise had been pushed aside, Olmsted put his displeasure into print; a version of his report to the trustees was printed in The Nation, titled “How Not to Establish an Agricultural College.”)
Well into the 20th century, the Massachusetts Agricultural College did not look so different from other New England colleges. It remained a quiet, open campus of modest buildings serving no more than 500 students at a time. North and South Colleges were joined by a collection of Colonial era homesteads, an elegant Romanesque chapel, and a couple of Queen Anne-style scientific “experiment stations.” Its first significant expansion—when it became the Massachusetts State College in 1931—included a spate of Harvard-inspired red-brick, neo-Georgian buildings.
The campus we see today was born after World War II, when the GI Bill, which offered virtually free higher education to returning veterans, led the institution to take on bigger ambitions and a new name: the University of Massachusetts. President John Lederle, who led the campus in the 1960s during its era of greatest growth, saw this expansion as an opportunity to build “a great public center for excellence in higher education.” “We have in the University of Massachusetts,” he said, “a potential giant.” By 1972, the university had over 23,000 students, and over 10 million square feet of space was built during the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate them.Continued...