College Ave: News of Fresh Disasters

Most people assumed that the unutterable "Vision for College Ave" project had died for lack of funding.

It didn't die. Last year, as you may recall, the McCormick administration held a design competition in which architectural firms displayed their "visions" for College Ave. Last week, at a surprise press conference, the administration announced that it had hired one of those firms to begin on a limited design plan meant to establish a beachhead for subsequent campus redesign.

Farther down on this page -- not the picture of the "transportation hub" immediately below this section, but lower down -- you'll find an inset box showing designs submitted by four of the competitors. Take a moment to look at them. Staying particularly alert for anything that resembles a gigantic Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can, pick out the one that would be most likely to persuade you, if you were a visiting high school senior, to go to anyplace but Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Now. Guess which architectural firm was chosen by Richard L. McCormick to have its way with our College Avenue campus.

Send an e-mail to R.L. McCormick

 

Dear President McCormick,

There is still time for you to undertake a genuine "greening of College Ave" that will not make our campus even uglier than it is.

We ask you NOT to authorize the construction of the airport-shopping mall "transportation hub" proposed by TEN Arquitectos ("The beer can people you can trust.")

We ask you INSTEAD simply to jackhammer up College Avenue and plant grass and trees where the asphalt was. No cars. No parking places. No buses. Just green space, with brick or cobblestone walks lined by trees. A college campus, in short, as befits an old eastern university. Sort of like the university shown here, which until recently also had a slum campus problem very much like ours.

We urgently ask you to spend the money that would have been wasted on the TEN Arquitectos monstrosity to transform the College Avenue gym into Doolittle Hall as envisioned by the Mason Gross Project, providing Rutgers with a complex of seminar rooms, student theater space, and a lecture hall for serious occasions such as university meetings, academic ceremonies, and distinguished visiting lecturers.

Green space, Mr. President. Seminar rooms. A well-equipped theater for student productions. A dignified lecture space that would do credit to Rutgers as an institution of higher learning.

No hideous aluminum-and-steel shopping mall monstrosities to make our dreary campus even drearier than before.

Sincerely,

You're right. It was TEN Arquitectos, the visionary company that came up with the "beer can campus." Their "beachhead" project consists of planting a few trees and building something called a "transportation hub." Take a look.

Right: "transportation hub," to be perpetrated under the aegis of TEN Architectos ("The beer can people you can trust.")

 

 

 "Two British experts have looked at the physical setting as 'an active agent.' In their new study, they suggest that continually, though silently, a campus tells students who they are and how they should think about the world. It can create high self-confidence or low self-esteem."

-- Alison Lurie, New York Review of Books, 4 Dec 2008

Rutgers College: History & Tradition

Next year Old Queens, the lovely Georgian building that looks out over the oldest part of the Rutgers campus, will be 200 years old.

The anniversary suggests a question: what sight will greet visitors to the Rutgers campus two centuries from now, in the year 2208? Will there be ample green space, as befits a university founded in the Colonial period? Will buildings erected over the next two centuries echo the graceful Georgian lines and Palladian proportions of Old Queens, Van Dyke, Murray Hall - all embodying an architectural style that was nearly universal in the eastern colonies in the middle of the 18th century, when Rutgers was founded as an institution?

Or will visitors two centuries from now see something else? Something resembling the airports and shopping malls and urban ugliness of early-21st-century America? A campus that looks like a abandoned set from Star Wars? Or one built in the neo-Corbu "modern brutalism" of twentieth century penitentiaries? Or the bizarre personal fantasies of architects trying to imitate the postmodern "originality" of charlatans like Venturi and Gehry?

Several years ago, the McCormick administration sponsored an architectural competition for what it called "A Vision for College Avenue." Plans submitted by various architectural firms were put on display at the Zimmerli art museum.

Samples from that exhibit are given below. But first, those who go on will want to prepare by reading an important book about designs like the ones they're about to look at. The book is Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, an invaluable guide to the derangements of modern theory-driven and "personalized" architecture. Here's how it begins:

 O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested?

Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.

Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls. Without a peep they move in!—even though the glass box appalls them all!

There are new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves.

After 1945 our bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEO's, commissioners, and college presidents underwent an inexplicable change. They became diffident and reticent. All at once they were willing to accept the glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, known as modern architecture.

And why? They can't tell you. They look up at the barefaced building they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can't figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.

What was the McCormick administration inviting these architects to do to our campus? By way of an exercise, let us match each of those architects' "visions," more or less at random, with a passage from Wolfe's book.

 "So what if you were living in a building that looked like a factory and felt like a factory, and paying top dollar for it? Every modern building of quality looked like a factory. That was the look of today. You had only to think of Mies' campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology, most of which had gone up in the 1940s. The main classroom building looked like a shoe factory. The chapel looked like a power plant. The power plant itself, also designed by Mies, looked rather more spiritual, thanks to its chimney, which reached heavenward at least. The school of architecture building had black steel trusses rising up through the roof on either side of the main entrance, after the manner of a Los Angeles car wash. All four were glass and steel boxes. The truth was, this was inescapable. The modernist style, with its nonbourgeois taboos, had so reduced the options of the true believer that every building, the beach house no less than the skyscraper, was bound to have the same general look."
"The Stuttgart government put Mies in charge of the Weissenhof Werkbund project. Despite an extremely tight budget, Mies managed to turn the project into a world's fair of worker housing. He brought in Le Corbusier from France, Oud and Mart Stam from Holland, and Victor Bourgeois from France. Outsiders were amazed at the harmony or sameness (according to whether they liked the style or didn't) of the work of these architects from four different countries. The truth was that the internal mechanism of everlasting reductionism— nonbourgeois!—had forced them all within the same tiny cubicle. Short of giving up the divine game altogether, they couldn't possible have differed from one another in a way visible to another living soul on this earth save another architect outfitted, like a cryptographer, with Theory glasses."
"They presented the International Style as an inexorable trend, like a change in the weather or a tidal wave. And if American architects wanted to ride the wave, rather than be wiped out by it, they had first to comprehend one thing: the client no longer counted for anything except the funding. If he were cooperative, not too much of a boor, it was acceptable to let him benefit from your new vision. How this was to work out in practice, they didn't say. How much explaining did a tidal wave have to do?"
  "All this had to go. All masonry, all that gross and 'luxurious' granite, marble, limestone, and red brick was suspect, unless used in obviously non-load-bearing ways. Henceforth walls would be thin skins of glass or stucco. Since walls were no longer used to support a building— steel and concrete or wooden skeletons now did that—it was dishonest to make walls look as chunky as a castle's. The inner structure, the machine-made parts, the mechanical rectangles, the modern soul of the building must be expressed on the outside. Astonishing! What virtuosity! How very nonbourgeois."

 

College Avenue: the One Thing Needful

Suppose for a second that the shopping-mall architecture of TEN Architectos could be stopped in its tracks. What should Rutgers do instead?

To anyone with a sense of architectural history and college tradition, the answer is obvious. The one thing needful is Georgian architecture. Classrooms, dormitories, theater and seminar complexes, all built in the solid, graceful style of the Georgian architecture already present in isolated spots around our campus.

A short history. Georgian architecture is called that because it was perfected during the 18th century during the reign of the "four Georges" who had ascended the English throne after the death of Queen Anne. Its aesthetic roots were in the Palladian designs brought to England by the great architect and designer Inigo Jones nearly a century before.

In the American colonies - this is, remember, during the very period that Rutgers was being founded as a university, one of the nine oldest institutions of higher learning in the nation - pattern books brought the Georgian style to British America.

It is a graceful and timeless style, particularly appropriate for a university which in some ideal sense is supposed to exist apart from the fads and fashions of contemporary consumer society - a refuge or sanctuary for the contemplative values that lie at the center of genuine education. A Georgian campus, such as the one the Rutgers is already on the way to having, is the perfect symbol of this "apartness" or separation from the world of MTV and American Idol and the fads and fashions that will increasingly occupy the short attention spans of a distracted and ignorant public over the coming centuries.

During the 20th century, academic Georgian was the favored architectural style for older colleges and universities that, while expanding their campuses, wanted to preserve continuity with their colonial past. The results can be seen today, in for instance, the "house system" that has given Harvard a world of separate self-contained undergraduate colleges in the midst of a large impersonal modern university.

Right: Eliot House, Harvard University

Rutgers, too, has its gems of colonial Georgian. An outstanding example is the building ungraciously known as the "College Avenue gym." Several years ago, a Rutgers undergraduate named Christopher Swasey founded a working group called the Mason Gross Project. MGP worked out detailed plans that would transform the College Ave gym - now little more than a hollow shell containing a basketball court, weight rooms, and some athletics department offices - into a space that would accomodate a large auditorium for visiting lecturers, a student theater space for groups like the College Avenue players, and a complex of seminar rooms that, put into continuous use, would give thousands of Rutgers undergraduates the lasting benefit of small seminars with leading scholars and teachers on the Rutgers faculty.

Left: College Avenue Gym

Sadly, but perhaps predictably, the plan was never listened to by the Rutgers administration. The revival of talk about "visions for College Ave" provides an opportunity to rexamine the MGP's quite sensible proposals for at once making the most of Rutgers' Georgian architectural heritage while providing much-needed space for academic, intellectual, and artistic purposes.

The Mason Gross Project

Here's a look at proposals made by the original Mason Gross Project.

Funding

MSG members argued that funding for the "greening of College Ave" should be provided by a $300-400 million bond issue by the NJ state legislature. This is approximately the amount that has been squandered on the Big East athletics build-up undertaken during the Lawrence-McCormick-Mulcahy years. Matching it with funds devoted to academic and intellectual purposes would be a partial reparation for the damage that Div IA athletics has done to Rutgers as an institution of higher learning.

Over-All Plan

There should be, argued the MGP, no over-all plan. Once funding is secured, the "greening of College Ave" project should be broken down into separate phases, with the least expensive and most important steps taken first, then remaining funds spent, building by building and project by project, over a period of years as the pieces are fit together.

1st Step

The first step proposed by the MGP was to jackhammer up the asphalt on College Ave between Somerset Street and Lafayette Street. Also, they said, the sidewalks. Topsoil should be moved in. Grass and trees planted. Winding paths - brick or cobblestone - laid down.

This would give Rutgers a campus centered on a continuous expanse of green. It would be comparatively cheap to do. You don't need a Robert Venturi or Frank Gehry to do it. Just a decent landscape architect, a few workers with jackhammers, some trucks with topsoil, and a lot of grass seed.

2nd Step

The MGP then proposed one simple renovation as an example of what should be done to give Rutgers a campus worthy of its history and traditions. At Rutgers, even while Robert Mulcahy and the Board of Governors have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading the "Hale Center" for a handful of hired athletes, the College Avenue Players have been forced to put on their productions in the dreary space of a classroom in one of the campus's dreariest buildings: Scott Hall, a prime example of the cheapjack construction and depressing "modernist" architecture that Wolfe so well describes in From Bauhaus to Our House.

Scott 105, Rutgers University

The Mason Gross Project proposal was to empty out the interior of the College Avenue gym - to be renamed Doolittle Hall, in honor of a great 19th-century faculty member - and provide, among other facilities, a small 200-seat student theater like the Murray Dodge theater at Princeton, one that would benefit Rutgers -actors, set designers, student directors, audiences - for generations.

Murray Dodge Theater

It was a splendid idea. It remains a splendid idea, even as the amazing TEN Architeto design for a "transportation hub" attempts, with the blessing of the McCormick administration, to pull the university in the direction of a ludicrous and self-aggrandizing "postmodernism."

The plan for the remaining space in Doolittle Hall was equally sensible. The MGP proposed that the degrading "Multi-purpose Room" in the Rutgers Student Center, for instance, in which visiting speakers and audiences are compelled to spend hours in a high-school-like auditorium with battered metal chairs and cheap carpeting, be replaced by a dignified and graceful space that would do honor both to visitors and to Rutgers as a university, as does, for instance, a similar lecture hall in the Barker Center at Harvard.

Lecture Room, Barker Center

Twelve seminar rooms would be added to the remaining (upper) space of Doolittle Hall, to be used for seminars in Rutgers' various departments and the general honors program, with the object of giving every Rutgers student the seminar experience at least once during his or her undergraduate career.

When the "greening" of College Avenue - that is, the jackhammering up of the street and the re-landscaping with trees and grass of the area between Somerset and Lafayette Strees - was complete, argued the Mason Gross Project, the next step should be the transformation of the College Avenue gymnasium into Doolittle Hall.

The cost would be a tiny fraction of the amount needed for any of the "postmodern visions" currently on display at Zimmerli. The improvement of collegial life at Rutgers would be immense.

3rd Step

The third step proposed by MSG for the transformation of the College Ave campus was the construction of a Georgian quadrangle in the grease truck parking lot.

Eliot House interior courtyard

 

The "slum campus" appearance of Rutgers would be eliminated at a single stroke. As the commanding feature of the new "Georgian campus," the quadrangle would set the tone for every later stage of the renovation project. A good portion of the $300-400 million set aside for campus renovation would be spent on this phase, so it should be considered with utmost deliberation and seriousness - with an eye, as said earlier, to how visitors to the Rutgers campus two centuries from now will view what they see, just as we look fondly at Old Queens when we pass through the original college quadrangle today.

 

Murray Hall, an example of the Rutgers "collegiate Georgic" style

The key, argued MGP members, is to hire architects who understand the Georgian style. It is absolutely crucial not to get architects who propose witty "postmodern" allusions to the Georgian style, a la Venturi, or crass ego-driven "transformations" of the Georgian style. What is needed is the Georgian style itself, and the spending of a few more dollars that will provide solid construction - interior walls, for instance, that minimize the transmission of noise between classrooms - that will last centuries.

If such architects can't be found immediately, those in charge of the planning should keep looking until they find ones who can do the job. The important questions are: (1) can this architect give us "pure" examples of the Georgian style that will fit in harmoniously with the already-existing examples of colonial Georgian on our campus, and (2) can he or she demonstrate that the building style and materials will be solid enough to last several centuries. If the answer is no, the committee should keep looking.

4th Step

Another major MGP proposal: elimination of the vast and ugly parking lots that make so much of the present Rutgers campus look like one large Wal-Mart parking lot.

Although all these acres of litter-strewn blacktop are depressing, MGP members pointed out, the most depressing of all is the parking lot that occupies the Old Queens quad. It exists solely to provide the SUV's of staff and adminstrators a handy parking place, but at the cost of defacing the oldest and loveliest area of Rutgers' original colonial campus.

Though all the remaining parking lots should be jackhammered up and built on and planted with grass and trees, said the MGP, the Old Queens parking lot that should be at the head of the list.

Staff parking lot in Old Queens quad. The plaque memorializes the ground from which Alexander Hamilton's horse artillery protected the ford of the Raritan during Washington's retreat to Trenton in the Revolutionary War. Plaque placed by the Rugers class of 1899.

A subsidiary proposal: to provide parking for faculty and staff who think they absolutely need to use Rutgers as a parking place, a 5-story parking garage should be built in the location of the large parking lot that now lies between College Ave and Union Street. Its existence as a parking lot should be hidden from the outside by an outside brick wall extending to the top of the structure, planted with ivy on the campus side. Examples are the Johnson & Johnson parking lodge and the Prospect Street parking garage at Princeton.

"Wal-Mart" parking lot that now dominates the area by Old Queens from which Hamilton covered Washington's retreat.

The Prospect Street garage is an especially good model for the "greening of College Ave" project. The parking garage on the inside of the Prospect Street lot at Princeton is large enough to accommodate the total number of cars that currently clutter the Rutgers campus on four major lots: the Old Queens quad "Wal-Mart" lot, the "grease truck lot," the lot behind Murray Hall, and the lot that so disfigures the campus between College Ave and Union Street.

To see the effect of a Prospect St-type model for Rutgers, simply take a look at these pictures of , first, what passersby on the campus actually see as they walk down Prospect Street in Princeton, and, second, the ugly "invisible" Prospect Street parking garage as hidden by the ivy-covered brick wall .

(1) what people walking down Prospect St. street actually see

 

 

(2) hideous Prospect St. garage as it "invisibly" exists behind the ivy-covered wall

The first picture shows what passersby at Rutgers could be seeing if a similar garage and ivy-covered wall were put in place in the Union St-College Ave location.

5th Step

The MGP proposals also contained a warning. Once funding was voted through for the College Ave project, MGP pointed out, there would immediately be a tremendous problem with New Jersey political corruption. The current indictments of prominent New Jersey politicians, as well as the revelations about wholesale bribery and payoffs at the NJCMD, are, as everyone knows, simply the tip of the iceberg as far as NJ corruption is concerned.

The shoddy construction and cheapjack architecture of Scott Hall and the River Dorms are widely attributed to the "pay to play" system of political corruption that began to influence Rutgers shortly after the 1956 legislation that established it as the state university of New Jersey.

If the legislature sets aside $300-400 million for the College Ave project, there will enormous pressure to award contracts to architects and contractors with connections to local politicians. The result will be more "slum campus," more Scott Halls, more River Dorms, and a huge waste of public money.

The only way to avoid this is to insist on an independent commission of prominent New Jersey citizens, including Rutgers alumni, who will monitor every step of the contracting and building process outlined above. An independent firm of accountants without ties to the Board of Governors or Board of Trustees should be chosen by the Governor to examine and make public all documentation relating to the College Ave renovation. If a spotlight is kept on every step of the process throughout, political corruption can be prevented from destroying the Rutgers that might otherwise enter a period of real distinction during the 21st century.

 "As a graduate student once said to me, describing his school: 'All the windows were filthy, paint and plaster were scabbing off the walls in the dining hall, and the streets were full of trash. The place looked like shit, and it made me feel like shit'."

-- Alison Lurie, New York Review of Books, 4 Dec 2008

The TEN Architectos Aesthetic

When plans for the "transportation hub" were unveiled at a recent press conference, a representative of TEN Architectos, one Mark Dwyer, offered an amazing rationalization for making the center of the College Avenue campus over into something that looked like an airport or a shopping mall.

Wasn't there something sort of horrible, Mr. Dwyer was asked, about putting a hideous glass-and-aluminum airport structure right next to traditional Georgian architecture like the College Ave gym?

Mr. Dwyer was ready. He took the occasion to announce a whole new aesthetic theory cooked up there at TEN Architectos. It is this: if you put something incredibly ugly right next to something nice or beautiful, it will make people notice the the beautiful thing even more. The Targum reported this epochal moment in the TEN Architectos press conference:

"It's a contradiction, in a way, of treating historic architecture where you don't try to do something halfway in between," Dwyer said. "You simply set it apart, and it actually highlights things like the gymnasium by being something foreign. The plans for the new transit hub, stylistically, will look nothing like the gymnasium, so you will actually notice the historical piece more."

This is a terrific theory. A museum that owns a Vermeer, for instance, could double the aesthetic impact of the painting by putting a canvas covered with pigeon droppings right next to it. To adopt Mr. Dwyer's reasoning, "The pigeon droppings would look nothing like the Vermeer, so you would actually notice the Vermeer even more."

In the same way, putting a New Jersey strip mall down among the forests and lakes and rolling hills of northern Vermont would enhance the landscape, because, in the world imagined by TEN Architectos, "The shopping center would look nothing like the Vermont countryside, so you would actually notice the countryside even more."

Or music. Take music. "We plan on banging on garbage cans and screaming and blowing foghorns inside the auditorium the next time the Guarneri String Quartet performs Mozart, because the incredibly loud racket will actually make the audience notice Mozart's music even more."

Well, who needs Vermeer, or an unspoiled rural countryside, or Mozart, or traditional Georgian architecture? It is the age, after all, of pigeon droppings and strip mall architecture. It is, as Tom Wolfe says, a tidal wave overwhelming our culture. How much explaining does a tidal wave have to do?