Architecture of Penn State

The first thing that struck me about the architecture at Penn State when I first arrived was that any building was really really hard to date from its architectural style!  Now, this is partly due to the fact that I am not very experienced in the history of architectural styles in the USA, but not exclusively.  It’s also because architectural styles are not as connected to date as they are in the UK.

Where in the UK, if a building looks like it was built in Tudor times, it probably was built in Tudor times. In the USA, that house was quite definitely not built in Tudor times, and could have been built anytime from the 1890s (following on from the Victorian Tudor revival in Britain) to the present day, although there probably have been various windows of time when it has gone in and out of fashion.

The campus architecture, however, features no Tudor style architecture, but there is plenty of Georgian style architecture. The place is riddled with it! Being something of an amateur historian, I can confidently say that when good old Georgy sat on the throne in Britain, the negotiations for the purchase of this part of Pennsylvania from the Native Americans were just being completed, so these buildings couldn’t have dated from that period.  In fact, this school was founded only in 1855, and at that time as an agricultural school in the middle of rural Pennsylvania.

PSU South Halls - McElwain

^ McElwain Hall, South Halls, PSU

So evidently, the architecture that harks to the Georgian era here at PSU have been designed with that intention by the architect in the interest of choosing a style that suits the building’s purpose, the campus’ image and the budget, considering the popular construction methods of the time.  In this case, the time was the late forties, when the campus underwent a drastic development phase.  The date on this building is 1948, I believe.

There are various other things which mean that dating the buildings is difficult for me.  There was no big seventies phase of masses of grey concrete, for example, unlike in many British universities.  There were seventies developments at PSU, but they were more subtle, in keeping with the traditional feel of the site.  Even the most modern architecture (with the exception of the Lewis Katz building, in my opinion), follows on from the themes and ideas of the previous architecture on site.  The classical proportions, the vertically proportioned windows.  The delicate choice of matching materials and colours and appropriate decoration.

I can’t help thinking that, in Britain, any university constructing new buildings for their site, would be much more focused on the statement of that particular building within its contemporary context than within its historical and local context.  A good example of this (a building insensitive of its local context) is the new Broadcasting Place building which is being constructed by Leeds Met University on Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.  Its proximity to the Old Broadcasting House (a fine example of the classical style) creates a contrast that is self-indulgent to the university and architect, and insulting to tradition and local sensitivity.

^ Broadcasting Place overshadowing Old Broadcasting House in Leeds

I wonder whether current architecture will be easy to date for future architectural students; whether they will say “its ugly and deformed with an insensitivity to its local context – it must have been built in the late ’00s”.  I wonder whether these universities will learn from their mistakes and create policies that protect the architectural heritage of their sites.  I wonder whether American architecture will be easier for me to date once I have been looking at it for longer than a month (the length of time that I have been here).

Only time will tell.

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