The campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder is beautiful. With a stunning backdrop of the flatirons, the campus spreads out over 600 acres spanning from downtown Boulder out to the suburbs and plains beyond. Most buildings on campus adhere to the original style set out by Charles Klauder in the 1920’s – a sort of Tuscan vernacular of sandstone walls, clay tile roofs and cast iron decorative elements.
There are no really spectacular architectural treasures on campus. Rather it is the campus itself, its uniformity and scale, and consistency of form and materials that give it a coherence and presence. However, over the last couple of years, the strict conformance to these design guidelines have made for some pretty dreadful buildings. The Bear Creek Apartments and the Wolf Law Building both suffer from the same kind of problem. Although these buildings should be commended for their LEED design and construction, the buildings are huge (Wolf – 180,000 sf) and there is a point that the predominantly residential scale of the prototype, Tuscan vernacular, should no longer be so strictly applied to such a large building. I don’t know how much the unfortunate outcome of these buildings is due to the design guidelines and CU’s lack of vision or the architects in charge of the projects. In either case, the result is dissappointing, each building a conglomeration of shed and gable forms piled up to make a larger whole.
So let me make a plea to the university and their architects: loosen up on the Tuscan vernacular handcuffs. First of all there is a lot more to central Italian, fourteenth century architecture than just the same masonry and roof materials.
Second, the confines of these guidelines inevitably make for designs that are cumulative aggregations of forms. At this scale, unless this is handled by an extremely deft hand, the result is more often than not an unfortunate pile, not the wonderful, organic aggregation that is an Italian hilltown.
And last, with some 450 million dollars with of construction in the pipeline over the next few years, take a brave step out of the fourteenth century and into at least the industrial age. I am not advocating for a radical departure from what has made the campus, but good architects, when not too handcuffed, can make buildings that take the Tuscan vernacular as a starting point and would go on to make really great buildings that stand as a testament to university’s past and future. Certainly Rafael Moneo knows how to build strkingly beautiful buildings in a historic context that respects that place and simultaneously posits a new vision (Prado extension, Atocha Railway station). And take a cue from universities and colleges that have fulfilled their building programs and enhanced their campuses with some really good buildings. Take a look at what has been done at IIT by Koolhaas or better yet, William Rawn Arts Center at Williams College.
If the campus at CU can’t get some better buildings, some inspiring buildings, something other than warmed-over fourteenth century Tuscan vernacular, then there is at least one thing that can be done:
to take a page from Louis Sullivan, we can at least insist that the faculty and students dress the part: