At the risk of digging myself in even deeper I revisit my last post, which has been oversimplified as “Paul Rudolph’s architecture made the Boston Marathon bomber evil.” I didn’t write, nor do I feel, that architecture has such power.Yet people frequently opine that the environments we create are soulless and alienating, and that is almost taken for granted. Rudolph should not be immune from such scrutiny.
The places we make do have meaning, and they do shape us, even if we can’t say precisely how. As a society we wouldn’t be so passionate about them if they didn’t. I have no doubt that Rudolph was attempting an act of cultural idealism when he designed the U Mass campus. There are moments where he is clearly channeling the charm and sociability of Italian hilltowns. The gigantic linear green is probably his reimagining of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia lawn. I find them cartoonishly grandiose gestures rather than human-scaled ones.
The college was his first (and I think last) chance to build on such a scale — a privilege granted him by America’s idealistic belief that mass higher education would forge a better postwar nation. Rudolph’s grand dreams were chastened by the vast cost of teaching the baby boomers, and so the university never got finished beyond a mean functional norm. The unrelenting sculptural bravura in concrete never got leavened by more human-scaled details, not to mention decent lighting.
Over ensuing decades, that leavening might have happened with enlightened updating, but it largely has not. In fact maintenance is barely basic. So my beef with the U Mass campus is not with the architecture alone, but that its worst aspects are amplified by neglect and the addition of even grimmer buildings.
For students who struggle — whether with study habits, money, identity, whatever — an environment that does little to ease sociability and encourages isolation becomes one more barrier to overcome. Would a happier place have banished Tsarnaev’s evil intent? Unlikely, of course. But a person whose life story is dislocation finds little comfort in the heedless chain-store and parking-lot places we make, where social bonds can consist of little beyond banalities exchanged with convenience-store clerks. Because I teach students who likely have much in common with U Mass ones, I ask why college must be like everywhere else?
A regimented environment does not mean that its teachers are unengaged or that its students are drones, as a U Mass professor pointed out to me. Indeed, I saw faculty conferring with small groups of students all over the place. Yet the bigger message of the U Mass I visited is this: You don’t matter. And if students don’t matter then budget cuts don’t matter. And it’s OK to turn universities into factories designed to turn out students ready for the jobs of today (many of which are not the jobs of tomorrow), as today’s bean counters seem to think they should be. In fact, why bother with the institution at all? Put it all on the internet!
No, Rudolph is not responsible for Dzhokar Tsarnaev. I am enough of an idealist myself that I think sensitive architecture could let U Mass bloom. But architecture is part of the story, and the best architects try to learn from the excesses of the Rudolph era and all other eras, even if the architecture was taking risks (which I admire) and made in search of a meaningful new esthetic or a new model for higher education.
And I urge anyone to have a look at the campus. It’s worth a detour. I guarantee you will come away with a strong opinion.