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Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

During my years at the University of Michigan, I had a special disdain for the law school — not for the school itself, which I knew nothing about, but for the law school building. It was a Gothic heap, with tall windows, parapets, finials, turrets and buttresses, and and it seemed to be pretending to be older than it was. In my mind it was an affront to the egalitarianism of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1970s.

It was a visceral dislike. The law school was an emblem of a university that was self-satisfied and elitist, with almost sacred traditions to uphold — I never knew what to make of the obsession with the Wolverines football team, school colors, the fight song. If there had been zombies in those days I might have made such an analogy. What I wanted instead was a stew of people and ideas and passions, a place where we would focus on the new.

You’d no longer get me to denounce the law school and all the rest as part of an Orwellian conspiracy to lure a generation into mindless conformity. Now I tend to think of it more as a marketing gimmick.

That’s the point Robinson Mayer makes in his article “How Gothic Architecture took over the American College Campus,” in the Atlantic.

“The American college campus, and its Gothic filigree, seem timeless, pristine constructions,” he writes. “Nothing could be farther from the truth: They are historical eruptions, made possible by philanthropic economics, continental envy and racism.”

Initially, American colleges were modest places and their hodgepodge of buildings reflected their identities as new, unassuming institutions. But by the end of the 19th century, Mayer writes, state governments were severely underfunding institutions of higher learning. And so they turned to donors and future students to maintain their long-term viability.

“Colleges would stake their case to donors and future students on their own long history, deep tradition and historical importance,” according to Mayer. “An old university was patriotic… So the ‘old’ came to be treasured.”

“But why the Gothic?” he asks.

Mayer writes that American colleges sought to emulate Oxford and Cambridge (where the Monty Pythons went to school). So as they were seeking to reinvent themselves as old, the Collegiate Gothic style was born.

“The newer the campus was,” Mayer quotes historian John Theling, “the older it appeared to be.”

Here’s a shot of the “old” Lawyer’s Club section of the U-M law school when it was new in the 1920s:

University of Michigan lawyersclubconstruction1920s-thumb-646x492-149900

This article describes the law school as an “unusual architectural melange.”

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Oh, the brutality.

Before the Washington, D.C., planning commissioner ruled last week that local Christian Scientists can tear down their church near the White House, it looked as if form was going to win over function. Then the planning commissioner overturned the unanimous vote of  the City Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the church a historic site.

For me, the most exciting part about the battle  was that I was  introduced to an architectural genus that I wasn’t aware of, even though it’s been staring me in the face most of my life.

Brutalism.

And for someone who didn’t know what Brutalism was, one look at the Third Church of Christ Scientist, Washington, D.C., said just about everything I needed to know.

3rdChurchChristScientist

It screams, "Preserve Me!!" doesn't it?

Brutalism. Like a concrete bunker, but with less charm.

A “stark architectural style” that “became synonymous with ’70s ugliness,” according to the Guardian.

Brutalism was a love affair with concrete. It was a response to glass curtain architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.

Interestingly, though, its name has nothing to do with “brutality” or “brutal.” “The term was derived from Le Corbusier’s Béton brut — French for ‘raw concrete,'” the Guardian writes.

Still what could brutalist architects have been thinking? Did they look at the Berlin Wall and decide that was the look they were after? I guess sometimes you just have to throw up a concrete slab and see how it turns out.

“Although many of the structures looked fresh and modern at first, it soon became apparent that the raw, bare concrete structures  lacked personality and promoted alienation,” according to Weburbanist.

That certainly seems to be what happened to the Christian Scientist Church — although nowhere in my reading did anyone say it looked fresh at anytime. Still, the church has its supporters. Washington Post columnist March Fisher quoted Richard Longstreth, a professor of American Civilization at George Washington University, who described the church as being “in a league of its own”  and a “distinctive and original work.”

I guess that can be read a couple of ways.

Concrete doesn’t necessarily mean death to beauty. Not completely. Not far from the church is the rather OK- looking FBI building:

FBI Building DC

And here’s one more example, the Weldon Library in London, Ontario:

Weldon Library, London Ont.

I think you’ll agree they’re OK. You just don’t want to pray in them.

The articles I read said Brutalism ran its course in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s something to be thankful for.

But what explains all the ugly buildings that went up since then?

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