I spent last Friday impatiently locked down in Cambridge as the search went on for the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. The day before, I’d gone to have a look at the University of Massachusetts campus in Dartmouth, a gigantic eerie, dozen-building concoction of grim ribbed-concrete hubris designed by Paul Rudolph in the 1960s.
I had been won over by Rudolph’s government center in Goshen, N.Y., a startlingly intricate composition, also in his characteristic Brutalist style, that idiosyncratic represented a democratic ideal of government.
U. Mass Dartmouth, which started life as the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, dates from the same period and is a strange mix of technocratic rationalism and architectural megalomania. A vast parade ground posing as a campus green runs between lines of identical buildings. Hoisted on hefty concrete piers, highway-scaled beams span vast distances, holding up horizontal trays of academic space that jut pugnaciously into the green.
Rudolph devised endless skillful variations on the bravura formula he concocted, but the end result is an architecture that tyrannizes the place. Almost every surface is concrete. Though much of it is quite beautifully cast, the muddy color of the surface sucks both light and the life out of the place. Hallways are dim, classrooms are only slightly less so. The concrete turns fluorescent lighting sallow and the massive planes of glass glare against the murky surfaces or transmit little light because of the massive exterior overhangs.
Numerous spectacular yet inviting atriums hinge each building of the megastructure together and are this compound’s saving grace. The floors feed into zigzagging balconies, twisting stairs and lozenge-shaped pods suspended in front of vast planes of glass. They are alive with students studying together, quietly reading, or taking a nap.
Yet I tired of the atrium spaces because they are all essentially the same, whether in an art building or a lab building.
The state appears to have skimped on everything but concrete and dozens of acres of parking. It’s ambience is far more sewage-treatment plant than college. Scraggly looking low hedges and a few wind-blown trees constitute the landscape-architecture design.
Amazingly, Rudolph’s design has been barely altered and rarely added to. The newest dormitory has been built in a budget-minded medium-security-prison style that makes the Rudolph buildings look humanist.
Maintenance is minimal. Unlike Goshen, roof leaks have been kept at bay, but the single-glazed window walls have long been failing. Lighting desperately needs updating. Labs looked ancient. Rudolph did not make the renovators’ job easy. Architect designLAB tried to respect Rudolph’s intentions in renovating the library, but the design has no real feeling for Rudolph. Old usually meets new pretty clumsily.
As I sat stewing under the lock-down order, my thoughts returned to the U Mass campus, which swarmed with students who looked much like Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect. Although it’s too early to know whether he was motivated to violence by political or religious fervor, that’s looking unlikely as I write this. He was a student at the Dartmouth U Mass campus, it turns out. He seems to have had many friends, but I wondered about the effect of such a deeply impersonal place. It’s isolated at the suburban edge and unintentionally expressive of the assembly-line education that’s become the cost-driven norm. Does such a place aid the alienation — or, at least, impede the forming of deep personal bonds — of even a smart, sociable kid?
It sounds much too glib an explanation — as the numerous other theories we are now hearing are likely to be — but I can’t help thinking it.