American colleges have Gothic architecture because they wanted to be linked to English universities, make clear their intellectual heritage

American colleges adopted Gothic architecture to make statements about their connections to the past as well as to other well-known schools:

American universities had always treasured the influence of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges that would become the Ivy League were meant to model the Oxbridgian ideal of constructing a college around a quadrangle. In practice, though, American colleges of the 18th century were quite different. They were more devoted to scholarship than their British brethren. They were disconnected from a university. And they were poorer: Often, they didn’t have enough money to complete a ring of buildings around their quad…

“What Gothic meant changed depending on the time,” Johanna Seasonwein, a fellow at Princeton University Art Museum, told me. When Victorians emulated Gothic, they did it sloppily, mixing styles and idioms. “Something Islamic, something Byzantine,” might get thrown in there, says Seasonwein. This was the Victorian Gothic of the 1860s and ‘70s: a mishmash.

Collegiate Gothic, which followed Victorian Gothic, was much more precise. It emulated Oxford and Cambridge more directly.

There’s even a patient zero, of sorts, of Collegiate Gothic. In 1894, Bryn Mawr commissioned a new building, Pembroke. Its interpretation of Gothic so inspired other schools that they commissioned similar plans from the architects which designed the hall. (That firm, Stewardson & Cope, wound up constructing a near-copy of Pembroke on Princeton’s campus, where it’s called Blair Hall.)…

Collegiate Gothic was not a naive emulation, though. The Gothic revival “was just as much saying who was accepted in this atmosphere [of the college] as who was not,” says Seasonwein. Universities were expanding, and welcoming new students, but they were still mostly populated by WASPy men. Before the 1890s, many college presidents would have resisted a filigreed medieval style for fear it would look too “papist.”

Woodrow Wilson, when president of Princeton, has a now-famous quote about the revival: “By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton,” he said. Normally, the quote is truncated there, but in fact it continues: “…by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historical traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.” (Emphasis mine.)

All together, this is a good reminder that an architectural style we associate with a particular set of activities didn’t necessarily have to be. Social forces pushed colleges to adopt a particular architecture and they assumed this design communicated key messages.

The examples of collegiate Gothic cited in this article tend to be from elite Northeast and Midwest institutions. So does this architecture today still function in a similar manner, clearly demarcating these campuses as a cut above the rest? Other kinds of colleges, perhaps marked by region or the year they were founded or the students they serve, might have intentionally adopted other architectural styles to communicate other messages. Let’s say we wanted to look at the architecture of community colleges. I suspect more of them are post-World War II institutions that more modernist and functional architecture. What exactly does this communicate? Some counterfactuals might be interesting to look at as well: the community college with more traditional architecture or the elite school, like a Caltech, that has a different architectural style.

Quick Review: An Education

An Education is set in Britain during the early 1960s. It begins with a 16-year old British girl  (Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan) studying hard in order to pass her exams to get into Oxford. But she soon meets an older man (Daniel, played by Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a new world of jazz, art, vacations to Paris, and general excitement.

Quick thoughts:

1. This might be a period piece…but it might not be.

On one hand, the film takes place in the early 1960s, an era just before Britain moved from post-World War II austerity to the Swinging Sixties. Jenny’s parents are of the previous generation: her father is provincial and blustery (but only willing to stand up to his family members) and her mother fades into the background. Jenny starts the film wanting to go to Oxford but spends much of the film chasing a more exciting life. In a key scene involving Jenny and the headmistress of her private school, Jenny explains these differences: “It’s not enough to educate us anymore, Mrs. Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Without having a “why,” Jenny is unwilling to go on.

On the other hand, this movie is similar to numerous other stories that have simply taken place in other settings. Jenny is a typical middle-class girl and expects to go to college. She thinks she wants what her parents want, a good education. But all this changes as she “grows up” by interacting with the outside world. This is a classic “coming of age” tale as Jenny overcomes adult obstacles. Some of the characters are a little stale: the parents are typical suburban parents who fall apart when confronted with the complexities of the world.

2. I enjoyed the atmosphere of this film. I could feel the drudgery of the middle class home. I could see the excitement when Jenny went beyond the walls of her home and private school. Britain is shown as both dull and alive, as surely most places are.

3. There are a number of enjoyable short and sharp dialogues between Jenny and her parents.

4. Daniel is somewhat creepy, not quite of the Lolita variety but is still an older man chasing a teenager. We are never really told what motivates him or how he got to this position. Perhaps this is the case because Jenny is the main character and she never digs very deep into who Daniel is. Since Jenny just sees Daniel as a source of excitement, the audience doesn’t need to know much about Daniel either.

5. The overall question of the film is one that everyone can relate to: what kind of education are we seeking? One based in books, thinking, and analysis? One based in experiences? Or something else?

(The film was well-received by critics: on RottenTomatoes, 170 reviews with 159 fresh/94%.)