Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Colonial Revival (among students)

While my 1930s Architecture seminar students conduct their research on the campus architecture of William Lee, we had a chance to contemplate a new colonial revival building that was just completed at F&M's campus. The New College House was designed by Robert A. M. Stern and adheres to the traditionalism of Stern's campus buildings, anthologized in a new monograph Robert A. M. Stern: On Campus (2010).

The Stern commission has already received some critical attention in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but I will not review the debate here. Instead, I thought I might solicity my students personal opinions. Over dinner at Iron Hill, we went around and shared first impressions. I am including some of the responses below, which were overwhelmingly positive. We then proceeded to read William Rhoads classic essay, "The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism," in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35 (1976), pp. 239-254, and asked not who embraced the Colonial Revival as our national style, but rather, who had serious problem with it. As early as 1886, for instance, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, argued that the Shingle Style is more appropriate for an American style (Rensselaer is best known for her early monograph H. H. Richardson). We then extended the discussion to broader contemporary questions, such as, the associations of slavery that an African American student might have with this style, or the associations of Imperialism that an international student from India might provoke.


I personally like the colonial revival style and feel that it is appropriate for the college to use. One of the attractive aspects of this style is the sense of familiarity and homey-ness it can give off. Often people who are looking at something like modernism get the impression of it being very cold. Although one might not be able to extract the exact references the architect was referring to when constructing the building, there still remains this sense of familiarity. One can recount the same design of columns and brick in our own towns or famous American landmarks. For the college student who may be away from home for the first time and in a completely new environment, seeing something as simple as a familiar architectural style can be comforting.

I think the new college house is an excellent example of colonial revival style. It truly does incorporate the defining characteristics of an elaborately decorated front door with a Greco-Roman portico and symmetrical arranged windows. The building itself is also completely symmetrical. After going on a tour of the building and learning that most of the features like the columns are machine-made woodwork I thought these building follows the colonial revival style even further. I think it’s an interesting addition to the college architecture and landscape. It definitely stands out but still in some way fits with William Lee’s original plan to put every building in a uniform style.

Colonial Revival buildings always made me feel very comfortable. It’s beautiful without being haughty, and has a sense of history attached to it without seeming too old. I think it’s maybe that Colonial Revival buildings are usually relatively simple in their design, but still have enough decoration to feel elegant and comfortable. Maybe most of these feelings are because I’m from Connecticut, where colonial revival style has always been quite present, but the style just feels very homey to me, while at the same time inspiring my appreciation for its beauty. I don’t think the feelings that I have are very unique, which might explain the continued prevalence of Colonial Revival style at colleges. If you have to be far from home and alone, it helps if the style of the buildings reminds you of your country’s roots. I’m not sure how that affects international students, but maybe that’s not who the college is aiming for.

The colonial revival style of the new college house is fitting within Franklin & Marshall College’s campus. Consistency of college architecture is grounding and can be a sense of comfort for students during a turbulent stage of their lives. This can mean that all buildings are consistently the same or all buildings are consistently diverse. Long ago, F&M chose to be uniform and is now bound to this plan, unless serious funding arises to create a more architecturally diverse campus. Even the more modernist buildings like Stienman College Center or Hackman science center were architecturally restrained to blend in. The Colonial Revival itself is very homey for native East Coast students where the style is prevalent among residential buildings. Those from a far who seek a little, New England, liberal arts college are well rewarded with the consistency of the Colonial Revival at Franklin & Marshall.


Anonymous said...

This is a beautifully designed building. While it is large, it has many gracious and warm gathering spaces. The furnishings in the common spaces are both functional and elegant. Personally, I love this style of architecture. My daughter is an incoming freshman, and she is absolutely thrilled to be living in New House. Now, we need to find a wonderful donor to name this fine new dorm!

Anonymous said...

You have to hand it to Robert A. M. Stern -- he can interpret older architectural styles without his designs appearing fake or fuddy-duddy. In fact, his buildings invariably seem fresh, exciting and opulent, while classic enough not to grow tiresome and dated with passing years. The administrators of Franklin & Marshall deserve high praise for eschewing passing fads and gee-whiz novelty starchitects, instead selecting a design that forever satisfies cultured tastes.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States