The Quad Angle

It’s certainly a prestigious history: the long quad was once an architectural exclusive of monasteries, with monks’ cells huddled around a colonnade. Because monasteries — at least before the Renaissance — were seen as keepers of knowledge, this long quad structure came to symbolize intelligence.

So it makes sense the Oxfords and Cambridges of the world would adopt this architectural courtyard formation — essentially an outdoor room defined by university buildings woven seamlessly into the city. American colonists gladly took this concept across the ocean, and promptly began to build their quads larger and with more green space. After all, we had it to spare.

Today, campus quads are definitely spatial beings — a “room” that the institutions have deemed important because they face the buildings into that space to form a unity, a statement that shouts, “We are a society of scholars.” Think Harvard Yard and Cornell University’s lawn.

But the real question architects and administrators are asking themselves in 2009: Is this formation still getting that message across, or has the subtle symbolism become moot? After all, the world is now about technology, distance learning, virtual communication, and the ability to transfer knowledge through thin air, bounce it from satellites, and then capture it in the palm of our hands. Place is overrated, some educators say.

Don’t count Kevin Sloan, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture and the man who created the 400-acre master plan for the South Campus at Syracuse University and the master plan for the Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University (SMU), among them. He believes this technology emphasis is merely driving home the fact that humans are social animals who thrive in villages, tribes, communities, and colleges. “We seem to gain something when we’re together, “ he said. “When you ask students to recall their university days, they are very attached to those quads in their memories.”

Just cruise the Internet for proof. Syracuse University’s Webpage shots feature Hendrick’s Chapel at the end of its quad. Ditto Nassau Hall at Princeton. Marketing departments know instinctively to use these images as selling points, Sloan pointed out. “What captivates me about it is that so much of American construction is motivated by market-driving ideas, and not so much about notions of meaning of space and significance. A university quad seems to keep this importance of place in space.”

In fact, he’s influenced corporate America to buy into this notion in recent years. For example, he spent seven years working on the Sprint world headquarters project in Kansas City, which eventually resembled the academic model of spaciously connected quadrangles. “This pre-eminent telecommunications company that makes our world virtual figured out for it to be successful, they need to get people next to each other.

“The quad isn’t at all in a stage of diminishment,” he said.

Jonathan Romig, AIA, an associate principle with The S/L/A/M Collaborative, has statistics that say otherwise. According to his research, long campus quads, at least, are vanishing. In a preliminary survey of more than 70 campuses containing hundreds of quads, only about a dozen still have spaces that were designed to be “long” — defined as a ratio of more than 2:1 length-to-width measurements — including the famous main lawn of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s artwork. Swarthmore College, Oberlin College, and Clark University have redesigned their long quadrangles, mainly because they didn’t have an important building or monument as anchors. “In our experience, that is incomplete,” he noted, “and at some point this vulnerability will be exploited to create campus spaces that are more successful.”

Quads that feature a lesser proportion than 2:1 are known as center quads, simply because these measurements put the focus on the center of the space instead of a building at the end. In Romig’s experience, most campuses eventually broke up their long quads by putting a construction project in the middle. “Obviously, there’s an argument that is more functional,” he said.

Certainly some long quads need trimming, in Sloan’s estimation. “If they get too long in proportion, they cease to be room-like and start to become more of a corridor,” he said. “They’re more about passage and movement, and less about being in a place. “ Put Cornell University’s lawn in this category. But re-proportioning the space using buildings to create subdivisions is just one answer. Landscape devices such as groves or orchards, monuments, and walkways are also effective, he assures.

“Universities across the board are competing aggressively for the best students, so the assets they hold out to potential candidates are their intellectual resources and faculty,” Sloan said. “But setting is also important.” That’s why when developers visit SMU, he makes sure to take them for a stroll down the campus’ oak-lined street that terminates on a quad in front of Dallas Hall. “I do it to explain why place matters.”