Stanford’s architectural blunders

Sept. 24, 2014, 10:32 p.m.

Say you’re the general manager of Stanford Bookstore, and you want to design a Stanford calendar to sell to the hordes of parents swarming around campus during the first week of school. You’re going to need twelve iconic photos of Stanford’s campus. Which buildings will you feature?

Hoover Tower, obviously. The Main Quad and Memorial Church are also given. After this, the selection process gets a bit more difficult, but you could make a case for Cantor Arts Center, Lagunita Court, Toyon Hall, Branner, Old Union, the Old Chemistry Building, Stanford Stadium and the new Bing Concert Hall. Stanford has no lack of beautiful buildings.

But one category of buildings is missing from this list. Where are all the facilities — the dining halls, the gyms, the dormitories, the administrative buildings — built after 1940? Lagunita was built in 1934, and Toyon and Branner are even older, dating back to 1923 and 1924, respectively. Why has Stanford failed to build any iconic facilities in the second half of its existence?

Stanford’s newest gyms and residence halls are particularly forgettable. The gym on West Campus is an aesthetic clone of the gym one mile away on East Campus: same blocky exterior, same oversized doors. The Munger Residences are indistinguishable from thousands of other luxury apartment buildings around the country. Try to conjure up a picture of Munger in your mind — unless you live there, I bet it’s fuzzy. A tourist would never visit Munger, unless he got lost on his way to the bookstore.

My point is not that these buildings are ugly. I know a few people who think that Arrillaga Dining is as attractive as Lagunita Court. The point is that these buildings, however pretty or ugly they may be, lack architectural flair. Munger might be attractive, depending on your point of view, but you wouldn’t include it in your Stanford calendar because it isn’t interesting to look at.

At a world-class university, buildings should be more than just functional. They should also be more than pleasant to look at. Stanford should model the highest standards in aesthetic design, in the same way that it models the highest standards in so many other fields. Every building at Stanford, whenever possible, should be beautiful. Or, if “beautiful” is too ethereal of a goal, then every building at Stanford should have its own style and personality.

Many of the buildings springing up around campus hit this target — the Bing Concert Hall, for example, and the Windhover Contemplation Center. But these are buildings dedicated to the arts. When a building has an artistic or academic purpose, Stanford’s administration has consistently made an effort to make that building architecturally distinctive. But when a building’s purpose is to provide students with a place to eat or work out or sleep, this effort falters.

Why can’t our new facilities be as architecturally interesting as Bing Concert Hall? Designing a dining hall or a dormitory may not be as obviously thrilling as designing a concert hall, but the example of Lagunita proves that it can be done to the highest aesthetic standards. And the upside to meeting this challenge would be immense. Imagine how many more prospective students could be recruited to the university if they ate and slept in buildings that stuck in their minds after Admit Weekend. Students spend most of their time in facilities, not academic buildings. Beautiful facilities would improve the student experience and Stanford’s worldwide reputation.

As for the unremarkable facilities already littered around Stanford’s campus, I’m pleased to think that they won’t be around forever. Because Munger and the Arrillaga buildings will never become Stanford landmarks, they seem destined to be torn down in my lifetime. If these buildings’ selling point is that they are functional, then they will be destroyed when their functionality degrades. When that day comes, I hope that Stanford replaces them with facilities worthy of inclusion in the bookstore’s calendar.

Paul Carroll ’15

Contact Paul Carroll at paulc3 ‘at’

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