Picture a college campus. You’re probably imagining a sprawling quad, plenty of trees and 18th- or 19th-century academic buildings whose bricks have become worn with the passing of years.
There’s nothing wrong with this idyllic scene — historic colleges that fit this description are often adored for their old-fashioned charm. But there’s something equally attractive about colleges that break this mold, and opt instead for the glass-heavy, open-concept style of mid-century modernism in designing their campuses.
Here are six of the coolest examples from campuses across the country.
S. R. Crown Hall
Illinois Institute of Technology
Constructed in 1956, S. R. Crown Hall is a National Historic Landmark and one of German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s crowning (sorry) achievements. Mies was the chair of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture at the time and designed the master plan for the university’s campus.
However, it is Crown Hall that captures the essence of mid-century modernism in the most striking, elegant way. The building’s main floor is open-concept, with 26,400 square feet of space that can be used for many purposes. Large glass windows make up almost every inch of its walls, allowing natural light to fill the hall.
Opening in 1959, Crossett Library is another fine representative of mid-century modern design. With Crossett, Italian-born architect Pietro Belluschi (working with Carl Koch and Sasaki Associates) conceived a structure that balanced modern tastes with Bennington College’s existing colonial style. At night, Crossett’s exterior lighting transforms the building into a glowing beacon that can be easily spotted from a distance.
These qualities won Crossett the 1963 Honor Award for Library Design from the American Institute of Architects, and persuaded one library expert to deem Crossett, in an Architectural Forum article, “the best undergraduate library of its size in the country.” In our view, the expert might not have been too far off.
Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen went in an unconventional direction with his 1955 design for the MIT Chapel, but the results are stunning. The undulating walls of the chapel’s interior are devoid of windows, save for a single domed skylight on the ceiling. From there, natural light shines directly down onto the central marble altar, creating an inspiring visual symbol of spirituality.
The chapel is non-denominational and open seven days a week, making it a sacred space for people with many different backgrounds and beliefs. On a campus known for its classical architecture, this mid-ccentury modern gem is a must-see for MIT visitors.
McGregor Memorial Conference Center
Wayne State University
The McGregor Memorial Conference Center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015, one of approximately 2,500 in the country, and it’s not hard to see why. The center, completed in 1958, is one of several buildings designed by Minoru Yamasaki on Wayne State University’s campus, and embraces mid-century modernism’s emphasis on natural light to great effect.
Highlights include a two-story atrium with pyramidal skylights and free-standing columns, teakwood partitions and finishes of marble and white-painted plaster. And if you ever tire of exploring the building’s interior, just step outside and enjoy the expansive reflecting pond and sculpture garden that enclose the center.
Grady Gammage Auditorium
Arizona State University
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957 and completed in 1962, Arizona State University’s Grady Gammage Auditorium perfectly encapsulates the vision of the school’s former president whose name it bears. Gammage wanted a circular structure that would provide visitors a warm welcome to the campus, and Wright certainly delivered.
The auditorium stands 80 feet tall and offers three levels of seating, with a maximum capacity of 3,000 audience members. Versatility is its most valuable trait — the auditorium has successfully hosted both rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and symphonies by the Philadelphia Orchestra over its 53-year history.
University of California, San Diego
Geisel Library may bear closer resemblance to a spaceship than a place of learning, but its otherworldly shape makes it a necessary addition to any list of must-see campus buildings. Designed by William Pereira, the Brutalist library first opened its doors in 1970. Its six cantilevered floors visible from ground level (two more floors can be found below ground) are raised towards the sky by a concrete base, creating its futuristic mien.
Geisel has its fair share of critics, with Reuters even naming the building one of their “Top 10 'ugly' buildings to visit." But of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there is something intrinsically beautiful about a building whose designer refused to settle for ordinary.
This article was provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more about its work at SavingPlaces.org.