PRINT January 1976

“Such Good Intentions”: Architecture for the Arts at Purchase

THE NOW HALF-COMPLETE ARTS college of the State University of New York at Purchase is clearly a problem child. It is the product of strong cultural aspirations wedded to a governmentally sponsored education system, conceived in a climate of high expectations. Its program, that of a professionally oriented school for the performing and visual arts coupled with a liberal arts college, was to be unique in the state-supported educational system. Yet, as it seeks to establish itself as a cross-disciplinary interactive community of artists and scholars, it stumbles on weakened financial support. Its architectural setting, infused with the same utopian visions, falters and disappoints. Because Purchase has had so much money ($250 million or more) and talent poured into its physical setting, there was at least official reason to expect a college other than that taking shape now: barren, alienating, monolithic and institutional.

Admittedly the campus is not finished. The student body, which will have its first graduation this year, has been studying there under less than ideal circumstances. But certain response patterns may betoken weaknesses that won’t disappear when the campus is finally completed. In fact they may be aggravated. Generally the reaction to the physical environment on the part of the students is a feeling of oppression. The community of artists and scholars talking, sharing ideas, working together, doesn’t exist at this point. Instead the campus clears out on weekends; the faculty often leaves at night.

The dream for this arts community is a good one, the motives fairly sincere and honorable. If those hopes, fantasies and aspirations are not realized, the failure stems more from the reluctance to face certain critical realities early enough than from the concept itself. And the most significant of these realities concerns the physical milieu—the sort of locale and assumptions that the architectural solution required.

Purchase thus becomes an architecturally compressed metaphor for conflicting attitudes about a physical environment and how it is created. The campus design reveals most of the pitfalls of creating, from scratch, an architectural embodiment of cultural aspirations; it also reflects certain intriguing contradictions. For behind Purchase is a paradox: The college emblemizes a set of architectural values in the vanguard of the years (around 1965) when it was designed. These values—reliance on vernacular forms, antimonumentality, historic continuity, sense of place, and variety or surprise—were previously forgotten principles that dominate architectural attitudes today. Yet Purchase reveals the antitheses to this set of values, in some cases in undiluted strength.

Along with nominally low-scale vernacular buildings is a monumental sense of space; with variety and assymetry is an overwhelming classicizing order and rationality; along with the search for ambience and sense of place is a looseness and deadening separation of parts; along with the overture to historic continuity is a striving after noncommunicative, timeless abstracted form.

Before analyzing these architectural contradictions, it’s best to glance quickly at the historical genesis of the campus itself. The SUNY educational system, now comprising 72 separate campuses, was spurred by a post-World-War-II effort to educate Americans (veterans and their children) to shape this country’s “democratic way of University Construction Fund, a public-benefit corporation, was created in 1962 to plan, design and build new facilities. From there the university system rapidly expanded, existing teachers’ colleges were given more broadly based liberal arts curricula; new campuses proliferated. While the college at Purchase is the first professional school of the arts created in this system, one or another of the arts is represented in the other colleges: For example, Buffalo and New Paltz have fine arts departments; Fredonia and Potsdam, music schools. And despite the hoopla about “the first professional arts school” in the university system, it should be remembered that the liberal arts college students at Purchase outnumber arts school students by almost four to one. Of the approximately 2,000 students there now, about 550 of them are in the performing and visual arts programs. When the school realizes its full population of 6,000 students (around 1980) the ratio is expected to stay the same.

Rockefeller, of course, had his own reasons for pushing Purchase (and the political and economic wherewithal). Besides Purchase’s educational role, Rocky reportedly saw its possibilities as an exurban arts complex for the Westchester County region: a Lincoln Center of the suburbs. Hence he was able to obtain state appropriations for a museum and performing arts theaters as integral parts of the campus. Fortunately, he was able to capture the Roy Neuberger collection for the museum and thus justify the $3.4-million price tag to the state.

If Purchase’s cultural aspirations were high, its goals for this arts school were equally optimistic: this cohesive cross-disciplinary community of scholars and artists would be created in a pastoral setting 25 miles from New York City. The physical milieu was to provide that density, compactness and sense of place needed for interaction and dialogue. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was selected as the master planner for the campus and designer of five of its 18 buildings.

Since Purchase residents had initially expressed much concern that the architecture should blend discreetly into the landscape, Barnes was given the task of creating an “architecture for the arts” that would be dense, active and unobtrusive. He enlisted a team of talented, well-known and not-too-well-known architects to add a certain personal dimension to the overall execution of the “arts village.” But Barnes wanted to keep the architects working within a certain framework of restrictions dictating lot size, building placement and exterior material. All buildings were to occupy lots 130 feet wide, fronting a large 900- by-370-foot-wide mall, and all linked by an arcade passing along their entrance facades. Thus the plan would create a situation where the buildings could neither be seen in the round, nor read as front-facing facades. Little opportunity could be taken to engage in any attention-getting tricks, in case the architects were so tempted. To further unify possibly disparate forms, one material would predominate—a grey brown brick. Similarly all glass would be grey tinted, and even the roofing would be the same color as the brick.

The main public plaza onto which the buildings open was lifted one level above ground—and in fact bridges the old tree-lined service road cutting through the campus. This elevated mall feeds onto 32-foot-wide streets between the buildings. Along one side are the student activities building, humanities,museum, visual arts, drama and performing arts theaters at the far end. Across the mall are the music, dance, natural sciences, social sciences and (another) student activities buildings. A library/bookstore and post office building erupts through the middle of the plaza. The picturesque, winding streets of other campuses had no place here. Barnes opted for “vistas and sense of expansion one sees in a city grid and its open-ended plan.”

About as picturesque as the campus gets is the rolling lawn that meets the end of the long paved plaza. It has been built up at a slope of 15 feet in height to ease the transition from elevated plaza to original ground level. On this end of the mall, flanked by the dormitories, is a gymnasium placed on the center of the mall axis with the performing arts theaters.

At a glance, the plan is unabashedly Beaux-Arts. Its strong longitudinal axis, the mall, with the streets running on cross axis to it, the placement of a performing arts center at the top, a gymnasium (is that symbolic?) at the bottom, all create a definite symmetry and organization of some bygone era. From a modern architect known for his adherence to quiet unassertive forms, his Harvard training under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, this overriding axiality of Barnes’s plan and the grandly proportioned open spaces may come as a surprise. Nevertheless, modern architects have given in to their secret Beaux-Arts fantasies before. While considered an aberration since the modern movement substituted shifting balances for symmetry (among other things) as the chief means of ordering design, various forms of classicism and neo-Palladianism have made repeated forays onto the architectural scene. One could read the tendency in the work of Mies van der Rohe, see it full-fledged in Philip Johnson’s architecture of the 1950s, and of course always find it somewhere in the work of Louis Kahn. Even urban-planning thinking has often been ( consciously or not) Beaux-Arts-oriented. As Vincent Scully recently remarked, while the Beaux Arts suffered much unpopularity in the ’40s, by the ’50s architects visiting Europe began to “discover that Beaux-Arts streets and squares made sense urbanistically.”

Barnes himself was not immune to them. A classicizing order began appearing in his houses, then gradually seeped into campus schemes in the ’50s and ’60s. So it is not unusual that Barnes should “return” to those preoccupations to create the highly dense urban situation at Purchase. He had never really gotten away from it—and neither had many of his other colleagues in the modern movement. The important question here, however, is why bringing back the Beaux Arts fails to work at Purchase. If Paris was the city of expansive vistas and grand boulevards in the 19th century, a “phantasmagoria of space to which the flaneur was addicted,” as Walter Benjamin noted, Purchase’s pedestrians seem less than ecstatic.

The bankruptcy of Beaux-Arts inspiration at Purchase could be attributed to any one of a number of factors. For example, this campus is nowhere near the size of a city—and lacks all of its already built-in vitality and dynamism. In addition, the spaces themselves are grandiose, while the architecture is not. Purchase’s architecture, conceived as fragments of abstracted volumes, is flatfootedly placed around the mall. One can understand why the individual pieces of architecture were purposefully played down. Urban totality, like that for which Paris is famous, was to take over.

But instead of the buildings being wedged up against each other to form a wall, as they do on a true urban street, each one is treated as a separate block. The streets in between force this perception simply because they are wider than pedestrian paths should be (the state university wanted the streets wide enough for fire trucks). Thus the tight setting is loosened up, but not enough for buildings to be perceived as architectural identities. Barnes’s own predilection for vernacular forms, the shed roof and simple planar geometries of New England architecture, sets another tone anyway. Barnes is trying to avoid the “object-fixation” pattern of modern movement architecture and its disdain for the urban setting. In doing so, however, he resorts to a planning organization derived from the Beaux Arts that itself used “objects.” Despite the importance of the “settings”—the plazas, squares and avenues—in Second Empire Paris after 1848, monuments made the grand open spaces meaningful. A differentiation between foreground and background architecture was emphasized: the Parisian background, or vernacular, buildings receded because of their general consistency and conventionality of detail, size, and spacing of elements. While Purchase is not designed to play up one building over another, neither do its “vernacular” buildings achieve the understatement of Paris.

If Purchase’s spaces seem unnecessarily large for pedestrians, so do the buildings. At the same time they have been designed to be perceived as unassuming unpretentious structures (and small in scale, considering their maximum four-story heights) they loom quite obtrusively over the plaza. One reason they are so conspicuous, occupying so much of the foreground and background of one’s vision, is the persistence of brick. Brown brick itself represents a reasonable selection: brick has a human scale, since it can be held in the hand, and carries its own time-honored “vernacular” connotations. The brownish color itself should present few problems, being unobtrusive, seemingly darkened with age, unlike those brick “state” college buildings of the ’40s and ’50s with their harsh orangey tinge. Neither would brick used as a taut skin wrapped around the buildings’ steel frames seem to present a dilemma. Barnes and others have successfully manipulated brick to emphasize the smooth surfaces of their abstracted volumes.

But here, wrapped around all the buildings, and the ground plane as well, brick turns the entire complex into a monolith. Building walls and pavement merge into one physical entity.

The library presents another obstacle—one that can’t be missed. Originally the library was located underneath the central plaza, and would only break through it with a skylight to introduce natural light into the space below. The building, a large geometric hunk designed by Barnes, grew, however, until it split the plaza into two smaller malls. Whether the larger unobstructed plaza would have been more desirable (especially on windy days) is moot. All one can say now is that its presence definitely augments the impression of built form everywhere, and adds to the pervasiveness of brick. Trees have been planted along the two sides of the mall next to the arcades, but have died. They will be replanted, but will hardly diminish the bricks’ allover assertiveness. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that an urban place can’t be created simply by paving open space.

The theme of urban versus natural environment constantly asserts itself at Purchase in all its irresolution. Barnes justifiably saw the need to encourage interaction among students and faculty through a compact and centralized scheme. Because the site was so untouched, he hesitated to erode its pastoral quality by designing a campus that could too easily sprawl over the 500-acre terrain as it expanded to meet future needs. But the buildings are oriented totally inward to the paved plaza, instead of outward to the landscape. The streets between the buildings, intended to lead gradually from the plaza into the natural milieu, actually stop at the parking lots surrounding the buildings.

As it is, the landscape functions solely as a painted backdrop of leaves and grass. One misses there the true joys of the rural campus: Walking to classes through woods and over hills, scuffling through leaves in the fall, trudging through snow in the winter, going barefoot over grass in the spring. Here seasons are denied as if the college were in fact in the heart of New York City. Indeed, if you took the Purchase scheme and plopped it down into one of New York’s low-scale neighborhoods it could probably work. Certainly its inward-turning orientation and cohesion of materials could give it an identifiability, like many of New York’s districts.

Any analysis of Purchase’s sense of place will inevitably raise comparisons between it and Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia grounds, to which Barnes looked for historical continuity. Though Jefferson wasn’t an architect, he built what Ada Louise Huxtable has called “probably the single most beautiful and effective architectural group of its kind in the country, or in the history of American building.” When Jefferson built the campus between 1817 and 1826, he did so to express his hope for this country’s democratic ideals as furthered through its institutions of learning. He too selected a rural site for his “academical village.”

Like Purchase, the center of the village is occupied by a gently terraced mall with a rotunda terminating its longitudinal axis. Five two-story pavilions are arranged on either side of the mall. All are linked by a colonnade, and one material dominates—brick. Each of the pavilions is treated in a different architectural style—their porticos bearing different orders of columns, including the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, which Jefferson lifted from Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture and Chambray’s Parallel de l’Architecture. And just like Purchase, the end of the mall was closed by a building on axis with the Rotunda, though not by Jefferson. In 1899 Stanford White built a classical-style auditorium there. (Barnes’s analogue is the gymnasium at Purchase.)

The dangers in appropriating principles of a successful model naturally abound in any situation. Virginia is no exception, if what was lost in the New York translation gives any clue to the complexities involved. One of the most noticeable differences, of course, is the hills, trees and grass integrated into the campus plan. Admittedly Virginia looked pretty raw when it was first built, according to early renderings. But a grassy mall rather than a paved plaza dramatically asserts the distinction between built form and landscape, while still meshing it. Here too, brick alternates with white wood columns, doors, window sashes, etc.

Another apparent difference is the scale of the place. Unlike Purchase, and even unlike a Beaux-Arts scheme, Virginia does not depend on large-scale proportions for its open spaces. (Nevertheless, it still employs a classical symmetrical organization—and a classical architecture.) The mall extends 600 feet in length from north to south, and 200 feet in width. One can easily see across to the colonnade on the other side. To further enhance the sense of intimate scale, Jefferson spaced the pavilions more closely together the farther away they were from the Rotunda, thus foreshortening the mall’s apparent length. Unlike Purchase’s arcade, the colonnade at Virginia is tied into all the structures along the mall, so that it functions as their front porch. But more important, each side of the mall reads as one continuous building, for the five pavilions are linked by one-story structures that also open onto the colonnade.

At first glance, all the pavilions resemble each other; a second glance reveals dissimilarities other than the changing orders: double-height porticos here, one-story high columns stacked two stories high there; arches instead of columns, a doorway with a recessed concave doorway cut away from the colonnade (not unlike Venturi and Rauch’s humanities building treatment at Purchase). Roofs, too, change their configuration from the conventional two-sloped saddleback to the four-sloped hipped roof. In other words, all buildings use the same classical architectural code; all are designed to approximate each other in height and general form. Variation may occur, but only at the level of shifting from one code element to another, within a similar envelope.

To add to Virginia’s complexity a second layer of open spaces and buildings flanks the mall on its long sides. The open spaces, the same width as the mall’s green, function as gardens separated from each other by serpentine brick walls. The more private gardens lie nearest the mall buildings; the more public ones are placed at the far side. Another row of housing forms the boundary walls for the whole village. These “ranges” of one-story rooms are linked to the larger “hotels,” the original dining halls, by a system of arcades. All these spaces tie back to the mall on a gridlike path system, some paralleling it, others cutting through the buildings. The paths, incidentally, are quite narrow.

The level of richness and variety the University of Virginia offers isn’t something that results from trees and grass and 150-year-old buildings (though it helps). Nor does it mean that Jefferson was a better architect than those actually trained for the job. (In fact, Jefferson received much advice from two architects, Benjamin Latrobe and William Thornton; two of the pavilions are now generally attributed to Latrobe, including the one with the semicircular concave doorway.) And Virginia has its mistakes: a flight of stairs abutting a window; an extra room tucked into the colonnade; the irregularity with which the openings on the colonnade line up with the alleys behind.

Nor does Virginia’s architectural quality necessarily guarantee that the educational institution will excel in its task of educating enlightened leaders of tomorrow. In the same way, Purchase will not necessarily produce good or bad artists because of its architectural environment. As Abe Ajay, an artist who is currently acting dean of the Visual Arts Division at Purchase, puts it, “Architecture can make life more pleasant, but has nothing to do with whether you are an artist or non-artist.” The best thing a building can do for artists, according to Ajay, is to provide adequate light and space; from then on it is the quality of the program and the faculty that count. Still, Ajay is quite excited about the size and space the new visual arts building will offer. For several years the visual arts program has been concentrated in a lightweight industrial warehouse in which many of the work spaces are partitioned by makeshift curtains. When the new building, designed by the Architects Collaborative, is completed next year, it could well be one of the largest visual arts facilities on any campus in this country. Several industrial ware-houses could fit into its envelope, which extends more than 600 feet from the mall.

If architecture has no direct visible effect on the quality of teaching or on the making of art, it does affect those aspects of the educational climate that determine the experience of the student. Purchase students in particular perceive the brick as boring and deadening, the architecture as alienating. Most faculty and student population agree that Purchase is almost perceived as a commuter college. Students evidently long to get away as much as they can. The faculty, most of which cannot afford to live in the town of Purchase, leaves every night—and on weekends. A traditional notion of the rural campus of course suggests that removed from the hubbub of city life, a community of scholars will have the opportunity for contemplation and serious pursuits.

With Purchase, however, the college is not large enough or pleasant enough to provide that self-sufficient community. And some faculty members question whether an arts school should be so removed anyway. According to one of the SUNY representatives who selected the site, the arts school wasn’t originally part of the program. Not until after the Chisolm estate was selected for a regional liberal arts college did the idea occur to Rockefeller to add the arts school and cultural facilities. Purchase struck some as less than an ideal setting for these activities if for no other reason than that the location was within earshot of the Westchester County Airport. Acoustical insulation would have to be beefed up in the theaters. Meanwhile, transportation posed another problem—and still does. Highways pass nearby; but only a rather limp bus service to nearby train stations suffices as mass transit. Students and faculty depend a great deal on cars, as the ,extensive parking lots surrounding the college attest. (And what about the students who cannot afford cars?)

When the plans for Purchase were first announced, Sheldon Pollack of the Regional Plan Association urged that the college be placed closer to a town with mass-transit capabilities,such as White Plains. He also pointed out that college construction generally induces other development. Across the street from Purchase’s entrance was already located a new Pepsi Cola plant, built before Purchase went into construction. Obviously the area now receives more cars and traffic than before. Yet the strict residential zoning does not allow the kind of ambience that would keep students and faculty at Purchase after class: the bars, restaurants, bookstores, movies that lie on the periphery of other campuses.

Under these circumstances perhaps the basic problem with Purchase is that too much was demanded from its architecture. Here a new modern campus would be created for an experimental educational program by some of America’s most talented architects. But the design had to provide cohesion and instant community in a setting completely lacking a framework to plug into. So it is not surprising that Purchase does not “deliver what it advertises,” in the words of one faculty member, either in terms of urban design or individual architectural solutions.

In our myth system buildings just have to be modern, functional, and designed by “good” architects (Gunnar Birkert, Venturi and Rauch, Johnson and Burgee, Paul Rudolph, Gwathmey and Siegel, and, of course, Barnes) for the public to learn to like them. But another way of looking at buildings has been developing in the last decade or so. Buildings need to communicate something about their symbolic and spiritual function, to set up a dialogue between themselves and their users. The increasing acknowledgment that buildings bear various kinds of messages and embody certain cultural values implies they could be consciously designed to use an architectural code (columns, doors, windows, conventionally scaled materials and details) referring to a cultural or physical context. In this way they can interact with each other—with the physical milieu—and with their users.

Ironically, both of the traditions to which Barnes consciously or unconsciously looked back on, the Romantic Classical style of the University of Virginia and the Beaux-Arts tradition of Paris, relied quite heavily on legibility. Buildings in both settings deliberately expressed their educational or cultural importance through hierarchical ordering and associative elements.

Wrapping the various buildings at Purchase in a brick skin and placing them regularly around a central space strung together by the arcade does not guarantee that interactive relationship. Thomas Jefferson seemed intuitively to know what to do. Instead, Purchase’s buildings convey the notion of hermetically sealed, noncommunicative sculptural fragments. As one architect who worked on the campus commented, “The way the arcade passes the buildings, not touching them at all, give a clue to the basic weakness of the whole design. Everything is separated from everything else formally and programatically.”

In time, the school at Purchase may rise above its detached and distant ambience, owing to the inevitable aging and maturing process, and the right infusion of faculty, students, and state monies. But architecturally, the campus will attest more to the confusion facing modern architects today than it will to the original intentions of the innovative program. The design, for all its order, lacks resolution about what kind of place it should be (even where it should be). Therefore, it ends up as a stage set: a Beaux-Arts rendition of the University of Virginia with its leading and supporting characters wearing modern garb, standing mutely against a painted backdrop of trees and grass. The scheme is strangely and profoundly eclectic. But its eclecticism doesn’t address properly the question of how the modern movement can be made meaningful and how new environments can be created as successfully as past ones. Purchase was a brave attempt to find answers that proved to be beyond its reach.

Suzanne Stephens is a senior editor of Progressive Architecture magazine.