In the nearly 400 years of campus design in the United States, about 4,100 colleges and universities have been organized. These institutions were planned and designed in understandable ways. American college campuses often were derived from European precedents, but over the last three centuries, the design of the American campus has emerged as a national tradition.

The most successful American campuses are identifiable places: When we think about the core campus at Stanford University, the Harvard Yard or the main quadrangle at the University of South Carolina, images spring to mind. In Palo Alto, we can see the sun-drenched setting and the deep shade, the repeated arcades, the red clay tile roofs, and the clear sequence of rectangular open spaces. In Cambridge, we can see the austere red-brick residence halls, the diagonal walkways, the lawn and shade trees. And in Columbia, we can see the clear order of the elongated quadrangle anchored by the temple-like McKissick Museum on the northeastern end.

What factors give these campuses that sense of place? And how can education institutions preserve that quality when they set out to expand a campus?

The intrusion of "fashion"

The rules of engagement for architects on American campuses generally were understood and adhered to until the middle of the 20th century. Those rules included placing buildings so that they created definable edges for outdoor spaces that are linked in a rational manner, and designing buildings that mirrored existing buildings by using similar materials and similar scale. Starting in the 1950s, it became fashionable to design new "object" buildings; each architect would attempt to create a unique building that would stand apart from the collective identity of the original campus.

The results of this approach can be seen throughout the nation and on almost every campus. The confusion caused by this branded intervention is that many secondary or even tertiary buildings seem to be seeking to express themselves as if they were the main library or the main assembly hall on campus. That is, they seek to call attention to themselves and their functions—as well as to their architects—as separate artifacts or objects in opposition to the campus context.

In order to create this cacophony, two strategies must be employed: first, the building should not define an edge; it should stand out freely and be seen from all sides. Second, in order to see the new building in all its glory, it should be made from different materials and with gestures that differ from all the other buildings on the campus. In relatively restrained situations, this approach leads to minor irritations and discontinuities. When taken to the extreme, this approach can lead to chaos.