I went for a walk. As a city center and tourist attraction, the Altstadt is flooded with people—businessmen, shoppers, bohemians sipping coffee and reading Thomas Mann, locals jogging with their expensive dogs in tow. Along the way, I heard a series of bells chiming. This went on for several minutes, and I followed the sound until I stumbled upon a crowd that had assembled at the base of a huge neo-Gothic structure, the unforgettable town hall of Marienplatz square. Everyone was looking up at the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, a clock with dancing miniatures that tell the story of a duke’s marriage and, I think, of locals dancing to fend off a plague.
Like the town hall of Munich’s Marienplatz square, the vast majority of our college campuses have a figurative “center.” Located at this center is an architectural structure with a striking and often grand exterior, one designed to captivate and inspire all who visit it.
We can look to such central structures, whether on campus or in towns and cities around the world, and develop a strategy for understanding the correlation between architectural aesthetics and their symbolic function(s). Think of your own campus and its most coveted, postcard-worthy building. Most likely, it is here—at this campus “center”—where we can identify the institution’s core values and cultural identity.
Architectural Exteriors and Meaning-Making
To illustrate my point regarding the exteriors of buildings and the meaning(s) they can generate, let’s briefly reconsider the town hall of Munich.
The building is dramatic and unusual. All of the major architectural elements (tower, gable, bay window) of the main façade are asymmetrically positioned, and figurine decorations are placed in windows, on corner turrets and balconies. The design says something about the city of Munich and how its citizens view themselves—as grounded in historical tradition but who are also unconventional, and who have a playful sense of humor.
On the afternoon I first encountered the town hall, I was most surprised by the contrast of the neo-Gothic structure and that of the modernized department shop windows located along its ground floor. There were clothing stores, a jeweler, a tourist shop, a sign pointing the way to a restaurant called the Ratskeller on the basement floor.
At first glance, the pairing was jarring, something akin to a man in blazer, tie, and white button-down, but who has traded slacks and loafers for swimmer’s shorts and flip-flops.
However, as I spent more time in this densely packed region of Munich, the meaning of the town hall’s competing aesthetics became clearer. What I interpreted as an incongruency was instead an evocation of how Munich elects to represent itself to the world—as a hybrid of old and new, as a city that embraces history, governance, art, as well as commerce.
The Exterior Aesthetics of Oberlin College’s Bibbins Hall
Located in rural northern Ohio, Oberlin College has the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States. It is one of the few American conservatories to be completely attached to a liberal arts college, allowing students to pursue degrees in both music and a traditional liberal arts subject via the five-year Double-Degree program.
The signature structure and main classroom building on the nearly 500-acre campus is Bibbins Hall, completed in 1963. It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, and the façade served as inspiration for the Japanese-American architect’s most well-known project, the original World Trade Center in New York, built the following decade.
Bibbins Hall is the cultural “center” of Oberlin College. Loosely inspired by Gothic architecture, it is completely white, comprised of load-bearing exterior walls with long, narrow windows and limited vistas, which draw the eyes skyward. Aesthetically, the windows are almost church-like, thereby imposing a reverential quality that complements the music made within its walls.
Renovating While Preserving the Aesthetic Value of Bibbins Hall
Housing music studios and faculty offices, the design of Bibbins Hall was structurally and acoustically advanced for its time—but the 50-year-old building, whose exterior walls lacked vapor barriers and suffered from failing joints and deteriorated window caulking, was in need of an overhaul.
A major challenge was to upgrade Bibbins while preserving its aesthetic qualities, those which continued to be meaningful to Oberlin’s community of students, faculty, and staff.
The renovation began in 2010, and a key aspect of the project included the replacement of all windows and interior perimeter walls. Another goal was to create a much-needed recital space. Oberlin’s initial plans called for combining two classrooms, only the 10-foot ceilings were too low either to accommodate proper sound distribution or to create reverberation (the persistence of sound after it has been produced).
The design team soon realized they would need to locate space on the third floor and then elevate the roof. This was hardly a straight-forward task. Because Bibbins features limited interior columns, the exterior walls—composed of diamond-shaped precast-concrete panels up to 10 ½ inches thick, with exposed aggregate—serve as the main vertical load-carrying elements. It was determined that the best way to insert a pop-up while maintaining the roof diaphragm was to implement steel trusses that would not require additional vertical supports. Wood dowels, 5/8 inch in diameter and spaced between 1 ¼ and 1 ½ inches apart, were rearranged to visually reinforce the diagonals of the trusses. The composition creates a delicate veil on the interior that lets in filtered sunlight during the day through the new clerestory’s insulated glazing units. After dark, the transparent box becomes a lantern, with the area below in use at all hours of the night, as both an informal rehearsal area and a recording room.
To control reverberation and facilitate the spreading out of sound in multiple directions, sound absorptive and sound diffusive materials were integrated behind sound-“transparent” perforated metal panels. Elsewhere in the building, several acoustic solutions were implemented as part of Yamasaki’s original design—for instance, the use of supported concrete floor slabs in faculty studios and other sensitive rooms, which help to avoid sound transfer vertically and horizontally.
A connection of the exterior wall and the window frame to the interior construction could cause sound transfer, known as “flanking,” between rooms. To combat this, new windows were mounted throughout Bibbins. Moreover, the new interior wall system is isolated from the exterior concrete walls.
Such challenges reflect the delicate balancing act between reaching today’s performance standards in an older building while also maintaining the aesthetic integrity of Yamasaki’s iconic and beautiful original design.
Architecture as Performance: Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College is located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, approximately 90-minutes north of New York City. The campus is idyllic, covering nearly 1,000 acres of fields and forested land overlooking the Hudson River.
The mission statement of Bard College reflects its core values, that of inspiring “curiosity, a love of learning, idealism, and a commitment to the link between higher education and civic participation.”
Emblematic of such values is the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a building designed by the distinguished architect Frank Gehry, whose other projects include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Experience Project in Seattle, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry worked with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and a team of theater consultants to produce an enthralling theater-going experience for all patrons.
The Fisher Center is undoubtedly the “center” of Bard’s campus, and its exterior is a marvel of innovative technology and design. At 107,000 square feet, the building is made of fir veneer, concrete, stainless steel shingles that cover the roof, and over 1,000 tons of conventional and curved steel.
Its most striking feature is its front façade, in which a series of silver-shingled “roofs” appear to defy gravity, giving the appearance of sheets of paper floating in the breeze. The entire structure glimmers, reflecting sunlight overhead, and the face of the central building is comprised almost entirely of widows. When the building opened in 2003, Gehry explained that the design represents “a theatrical mask that covers the raw face of the performance space.”
In light of Gehry’s explanation, the artfulness and mystery of the design signal the metatextual elements at work as well—namely, architecture as a form of performance, which in turn calls attention to the performances that take place on the inside.
The exterior of the Fisher Center adeptly aligns with the core values listed in Bard College’s mission statement. Its unforgettable design engages the public’s curiosity and encourages a love of learning through the experience of performance theater; and similarly, it serves to promote communal participation.
Opulence and Local History at Flagler College’s Ponce de Leon Hall
Flagler College, a small liberal arts college located in St. Augustine, Florida, is home to the former Hotel Ponce de Leon. Known today as Ponce de Leon Hall, the opulent structure stands as the unquestionable “center” of the Flagler campus.
Designed by John Carrère and Thomas Hastings—architects who later worked on the New York Public Library and the House and Senate Office Buildings in Washington, D.C.—the original hotel was built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in 1888 in the Spanish Renaissance style. It was constructed entirely of poured concrete, using the local coquina stone as poured aggregate.
The Edison Electric Company originally powered the hotel with steam heat and 4,000 electric lights, making it one of the nation’s first electrified buildings. The opulence of the building is incredible. In the Dining Hall, one can marvel at 79 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows as well as Spanish expressions painted into the ceiling frescos. The Flagler Room, once the hotel’s Grand Parlor, has Austrian crystal chandeliers (also created by Tiffany) and an onyx Thomas Edison clock, one of the first ever to be used in a public building.
From a distance, Ponce de Leon Hall could be mistaken for a Spanish-style castle, with its twin towers on either side and its central dome. The dome is part of an 80-foot ceiling that is partially supported by eight ornately carved oak caryatids; and under the dome is a solarium with adjoining roof terraces, together offering unparalleled views of the city.
The exterior is cream-colored with a darker terracotta trim. It is a vast structure, originally designed with 540 guest rooms, the majority of which are used today as a women’s on-campus dormitory.
Flagler College has worked diligently to preserve the building’s aesthetic elements, both inside and outside, while also enhancing it with modern technological conveniences. Indeed, the college has remained true to its tagline, “Welcome to a Higher Standard.”
First Impressions Matter
The exterior of any building serves as a first impression, one that informs how visitors and prospective students reflect upon the overall feel and character of the campus. The exteriors of “central” buildings located at Oberlin, Bard, and Flagler are each special in design, and of course not every private university or college has access to innovators like Yamasaki, Gehry, Carrère, or Hastings.
Not out of bounds, however, is our capacity to reexamine the exteriors of our most “central” buildings, to consider how such buildings align with and reflect the core values of our institutions. The pursuit of excellence in exterior design and upkeep makes a world of difference, whether it is to attract prospective students or to keep current ones satisfied and happy.