Architecture on campus matters

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The Home D. Babbidge library. Located right in the center of campus, most students walk past this building multiple times a day. Photo provided by the author.

The Homer D. Babbidge library is an ugly building, and it’s not the only one on the University of Connecticut’s campus. Stretches of bare concrete, asymmetrical windows and scattered outdoor picnic benches dominate the visual field of the library. The rectangular multi-level structure lacks surrounding greenery and is reminiscent of a parking garage. Why is our library — arguably the most important academic center on campus — so unwelcoming? 

Architecture on campus matters. If you’ve ever walked through the historic campus, you’ve seen the distinct brick halls framed by a diverse set of towering old trees. Buildings like Beach Hall, Wood Hall and Wilbur Cross feature paneled windows, limestone trim detailing, wooden doors, columns, shingle style roofing and symmetry. They are designed primarily in a mixture of colonial revival, classic revival, neoclassical and collegiate gothic styles, as listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are what makes up the UConn look. 

In the past few years — and after signing a preservation agreement — UConn has demolished seven of nine historic buildings known as Faculty Row. These buildings were designed as part of the university’s master plan by the notable architect Charles Lowrie. The two remaining buildings on Gilbert Road are likely to be demolished as plans for the new South Campus Residence Hall advance. Because these two houses have not been actively updated or reused, it appears that UConn is ignoring the preservation agreement to purposely demolish by neglect; this would essentially be a loophole in the agreement to allow the demolition to proceed. Although retrofitting existing buildings is more expensive, it would be more climate-friendly than demolition, while also preserving UConn’s long history.  

The Jorgenson Center for the Performing Arts. This building is also relatively central to campus, and features primarily large square shapes. Photo by Carol Highsmith on Picryl.

It’s true that these demolitions have made, and continue to make, room for necessary additions to campus – such as the Recreation Center and new dormitories. The demolitions might not be so unfortunate if the new construction followed the same architectural styles of the historic campus, or if they incorporated some of those elements. But these new buildings are modern-looking, often brutalist with an industrial feeling to them. The Babbidge library is just one such example. Next to the Rec Center lies the unsettling Dove Tower (more fondly referred to as the “Leaning Tower of Business”), a harsh concrete statue that leans precariously and leaves students wondering, “What even is that?” 

Beautifying and preserving campus is not just a niche, superficial argument. While I could continue critiquing buildings based on my own aesthetic preferences, the underlying importance of all of this is the impersonal, non-human-sized (aka: big) design  and its effects on peoples’ well-being. In a 2013 study, people showed the highest levels of happiness in green spaces, as well as higher levels of positive affect when exposed to complex, interesting detailing compared to less detailed stretches of buildings, such as a large brick section or glass wall. Furthermore, there are a number of benefits to regularly experiencing awe, a response to sensory stimuli that makes you feel small, exceeds your normal expectations and may even feel spiritual. Some examples might be enjoying nature, listening to music or viewing a grand structure. Awe can be evoked in our daily lives through the appreciation of beauty, whether through nature, architecture or some other means. Awe can increase positive mood, increase feelings of connectedness and possibly even decrease inflammation. This is where the need for beauty on campus comes in. Simply put, beauty enhances our lives. 

There is room for unique and varying architecture on campus, but it should be built in a personal, detailed manner that can be appreciated by students and staff. In the case of the Babbidge library, this might mean allowing students or local artists to paint murals on large, empty walls or adding a green roof (which could also reduce the heat island effect and dampen noise pollution, further improving the campus environment). There are a number of creative solutions to enhance the architecture and improve the living quality on campus. 

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