David P. Hutcheson, AIA, LEED AP

You may be surprised to know that you have an innate ability to recognize good architecture when you see it. In fact, we all seem to know instantly when we recognize something or someone to be visually attractive … even though the reasons may be elusive.

In fairness, maybe it’s a motif or feature that stirs a happy memory of your hometown or an encounter with someone from an outdoor café in Paris when you were 23. But your positive feelings also could be an automatic or intuitive response to something that feels authentic or comfortable. This is your right brain’s inclination to sort through the millions of images that pass through your retinas every single day and locate the beauty that resides in the world around us.

Years ago, the architecture firm I was working with was awarded a graduate engineering building to design at a nearby university. It was to be the first of an initial group of buildings to be built in a newly expanded section of the campus. Interestingly, the original six buildings surrounding the historic quad were designed by the founder of the firm where I had started my career and whose fame had been established by being a staunch advocate of the Modern movement that had enveloped the American architectural scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Those very buildings had set the stage for the dozens of buildings that followed in the 40 years since.

However, the newly installed chancellor had a different vision of how the campus’ future should unfold … beginning with this particular building. In the first meeting with him, his staff, and our design team, he made it abundantly clear that this building would be following a different trajectory than those that had come before. This building was to be designed in the Classical Style of architecture … period. As the design team collectively and quietly considered this statement, we each looked around wondering who among us would wish to challenge him on the “why.” After all, this was a graduate engineering building for God’s sake, one that evokes images of glass and exposed steel, of crisp edges and all things shiny and new! After a moment of uncomfortable silence, which I’m sure the doctor enjoyed, he said that if we weren’t on board with this directive we were free to leave.

Two years later we had before us a Neo-Classic building that followed all the proportional rules established by the Greeks and Romans and reaffirmed during the Renaissance. Any notion as to what lay within was concealed behind rows of soaring Doric columns supporting a dignified pediment and frieze, below which were windows laid out with mathematical regularity and precision. Palladio would have been proud!

Why was this so? Why had the chancellor been so steadfast in his challenge? Why had he snubbed his nose at the modern context that had become the settled norm of the campus? The answer was compelling and intriguing.   

The chancellor had been recruited during a time of stagnant admissions and mediocre funding drives and was challenged to turn those two things around. So naturally he began by considering research that had been done on why some universities succeeded in these areas and why others had not. How were they able to develop such successful recruitment campaigns? What strategy had they followed that enabled them to increase enrollment to such a degree? He would visit these campuses to see if he could connect the dots. What he discovered was surprising. 

He found that parents perceived, rightly or wrongly, that their children would receive a superior education at institutions whose architecture resembled the Classical Styles of the Ivy League stalwarts such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton and Duke and, therefore, would open their wallets more approvingly when asked.

Yes, the examples I mention are historic institutions of higher learning that followed the architectural trends of their time, but these timeless rules of design and proportion were established on what our unconscious minds have long understood. It is somehow familiar; it satisfies our inner lust for balance, proportion and composition. We recognize it when we see it … we just may not be able to articulate it since it’s so deeply rooted in our DNA. These classical architectural forms follow the mathematical ratios of the human form, of which we have a natural understanding and an honest appreciation for. 

What the chancellor understood is that architecture can (and should) evoke emotion. He knew that if he could tease from the parent an emotional connection to the campus architecture then he would accomplish his goals. The Classical Styles, he learned, seemed to convey a sense of grandeur, dignity, and accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, I love Modern Architecture, and there is certainly a time and place for it in our built environment. Let’s say I’m arriving at a facility that will deliver me my cancer treatments; you’d better believe I’m looking for hints that behind those walls the latest treatment technologies await. So, we lean in different directions depending on the dialogue.

Since the completion of the engineering building, the university continues to expand the vernacular the chancellor had set forth. The precast concrete panels on the existing buildings, including the “original six,” are coming down and being replaced with brick, limestone and, where appropriate, rows of soaring Doric columns. And enrollment is on the rise.