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College campuses are constructing buildings that look like they're straight out of Harry Potter's world

College campuses are constructing buildings that look like they're straight out of Harry Potter's world
The Bass Tower rises above Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges at Yale. (Michael Marsland)

In general I have no patience for the argument, popular among classic liberals and Fox News viewers alike, that American college students these days are coddled or protected from especially challenging ideas. Did you read that recent Huffington Post essay “Millennials Are Screwed,” the one illustrated with the pixelated avocados?

I don’t think the rest of America is in any position to call that cohort — or the one now preparing to enter college, which is right on the cusp between millennials and so-called Gen Z — soft about anything. Because let’s be real: The safest space in American culture is a single-family house owned by a baby boomer, protected as it is by mortgage deductions and aggressive zoning restrictions (and in California by Proposition 13, the gift from Howard Jarvis that keeps on giving).

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I begin to have second thoughts on this score, however, when it comes to the new architecture at certain American colleges. Expensive dormitories, in particular, have begun to exhibit an incurious (and in its worst form an infantilizing) nostalgia, with Yale and USC, among other schools, leaning hard on the kind of Gothic Revival excess that first became popular a full century ago. Unlike the architecturally ambitious and defiantly un-cozy complex I lived in as a Yale undergraduate in the early 1990s — Morse College, designed in a sort of Brutalist-on-the-Pueblo style by Eero Saarinen and finished in 1962 — the new campus architecture is meant to be familiar and comforting above all.

Among the most surprising parts of 2017 for me was the discovery that one key source of this renewed interest in the Gothic Revival is — cue the John Williams score — Hogwarts, the boarding school for wizards that stands at the heart of the book series by J.K. Rowling. In those books and especially their movie versions, the departure from home and the beginning of adulthood are bound together with a particular vision of campus architecture, one that takes its cues both from the Gothic buildings at Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago and elsewhere and the older quadrangle model from Oxford and Cambridge that inspired those American designs.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book in the series, was published in 1997. The film version of that novel appeared in 2001. This year’s crop of college freshmen was born between those two cultural milestones, which means a huge number grew up reading the Potter books or watching the movies or both. Many of them have an expectation (or perhaps a hope) that going off to college means going off to a campus that resembles the Hollywood version of Hogwarts, full of peaked roofs, gargoyles, stone floors, stained glass and huge dining halls warmed by multiple fireplaces.

At least that’s what I kept hearing as I toured the new USC Village, designed by the firm Harley Ellis Devereaux, and Robert A.M. Stern’s pair of new residential complexes at Yale, Pauli Murray College and Benjamin Franklin College: that new students love Potter-esque Gothic and that expanding campuses are increasingly happy to serve it up to them.

High school graduates on their way to college are hardly responsible for the architecture they find there, of course. Yale, USC and other wealthy and ambitious schools seem to be counting on a kind of double nostalgia, on the hope that this revival of the Gothic Revival will appeal both to incoming students and to wealthier alumni, who after all are the ones paying for and often helping dictate the architectural sensibility of new campus buildings.

Yale’s Franklin College, for instance, carries that name at least in part because its lead donor — to the tune of $250 million, the largest single gift in school history — was Charles B. Johnson, class of 1954, who founded Franklin Templeton Investments. USC President Max Nikias, for his part, has raised more than $6 billion during his tenure; during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $700 million USC Village, Nikias declared that the Collegiate Gothic architecture of the new complex would provide Los Angeles “1,000 years of history we don’t have.”

Lines like those make clear how much Potter mania has in common with garden-variety Anglophilia; Americans love the sort of historical richness that comes ready-made, whether it’s squeezed into a clock tower or a hardcover book. Student tour guides at Yale tell a story, possibly apocryphal, about how architect James Gamble Rogers, who designed many of the school’s Gothic Revival buildings a century ago, had workers toss acid on the exterior of Harkness Tower, the most prominent of his New Haven landmarks, to give it the instant patina of age. The first comparison I thought of during my tour of USC Village was not to any Gothic cathedral but instead to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, an attraction that has learned enough from Disneyland to have its patina down pat.

It’s in Chapter 6 of “Sorcerer’s Stone” (“Philosopher’s Stone” in the original U.K. edition) that Harry and his fellow students see Hogwarts for the first time. Rowling describes it as “a vast castle with many turrets and towers” and a “huge, oak front door.” In the next chapter, after entering an entrance hall with a ceiling “too high to make out,” Harry follows a “flagged stone floor” to a Great Hall “lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables.” After being assigned to Gryffindor House, he climbs a marble staircase and steps through a swinging portrait to discover a “cozy, round” common room “full of squashy armchairs.”

I found nearly all of that, save the floating candles, during a tour with Stern earlier this year of Murray and Franklin colleges (which at least has enough of a sense of humor about itself to include a small gargoyle of the architect’s smiling face). The same was true of my visit, one day later, to USC Village.

The Yale version — which cost more than $1,000 per square foot, or roughly twice as much per square foot as University Village — is better appointed on the whole and carries the Gothic illusion into every nook and cranny. Stern has produced a carefully executed if also somewhat bloated replica of the older Yale colleges; his version is to the Rogers template what the new Mini Cooper is to the more delicate, streamlined Minis produced in the 1970s. At USC the spell is broken as soon as you walk inside the dorms. While the exterior details are consistently faux, the residential interiors are more Courtyard by Marriott than Princeton quadrangle.

The dining hall at the new USC Village.
The dining hall at the new USC Village. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

At both schools the Hogwarts feel is strongest, by far, in the dining halls, giant rooms with long wooden tables, peaked ceilings and stained glass. It feels almost as if you’ve wandered onto a set for one of the Potter movies, filmed at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and Gloucester Cathedral, among many other locations.

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There were days I hated living in Morse. In an effort to render the sculptural qualities of his design more dramatic, Saarinen made the bedroom windows unusually narrow, so that they disappeared from view from certain exterior angles. The winter sun in New Haven is anemic even streaming through huge windows; Saarinen kneecapped it altogether. On the whole the architecture of Morse was ambitious, sharp-elbowed and aloof. There was nothing ingratiating about it. The ghost of Saarinen seemed to care nothing about whether I liked it. Liking it was beside the point.

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But Morse’s architecture taught me something. I thought a great deal while living there about which elements of the architecture succeeded and which didn’t, about why Saarinen made the design choices he did and the extent to which some of those choices weren’t properly executed. (Saarinen died in 1961, before the complex was finished.) I realized that I was living inside a very particular architectural vision. It was variously thrilling and alienating, the way reading a challenging novel or listening to a complex symphony can be.

The experience made me a sharper observer of the world, not just of the inside of my dorm room. (And isn’t that what college is for?) What never occurred to me, except maybe on some very gray February mornings, was that the architect’s job should be to remove any and all potential sources of student discomfort, intellectual or otherwise.

Maybe that makes me an outlier, especially these days. Some parents paying college tuition are not likely to be thrilled at the prospect of dorms that challenge their children rather than offering them warmth and camaraderie after they come home from class or the library; some students expect not just the coziness of Hogwarts-style fireplaces, window seats and squashy chairs but the kind of carefully curated aesthetic consistency that they’ve grown accustomed to seeing on Pinterest and Instagram. Although it should be noted for the record that Saarinen provided a design vision that was plenty consistent in Morse (and in Stiles, its sibling college next door).

But there’s a larger set of questions to be asked about the role this Neo-Neo Gothic architecture plays on campuses and in the larger culture. I arrived for my tour of Franklin and Murray colleges only a few months after Yale had gone through the painful process of figuring out whether to rename a different residential college on campus, one honoring John C. Calhoun (Yale class of 1804). In addition to serving as a U.S. senator, vice president and secretary of State, Calhoun was an especially virulent racist who argued that “it was a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty.”

Yale President Peter Salovey first announced, in April 2016, that after careful consideration he would retain the Calhoun name for the college, which was designed by John Russell Pope. The blowback (from students and faculty if not from older alumni) was immediate, leading him to commission a special report on the Calhoun question and the larger complexities of renaming.

Following my tour with Stern I had lunch with John Witt, a professor in the law school who accepted Salovey’s request to lead what was officially called the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. Witt is also the new head of Davenport, another of the residential colleges. Until very recently the faculty in those positions were known as “masters” of the colleges, a term that was retired as part of the same analysis that raised the question of what to do about Calhoun.

The committee’s report, though it didn’t make an official recommendation on the Calhoun controversy, certainly gave Salovey sufficient political cover to change his mind on the subject, which he did earlier this year. (Calhoun College is now Grace Hopper College, named for a Naval rear admiral and computer scientist who earned a Ph.D. in math from Yale in 1934.) Though renamings should be considered with great care, the report argued, such actions “are not inevitably Orwellian.” It suggested that when buildings have been named for figures whose “principal legacies” are at odds with a university’s mission — as it said was the case with John Calhoun and his full-throated defenses of slavery — renaming may be not just appropriate but necessary.

How is the Calhoun controversy relevant to neo-nostalgic architecture at Yale and USC? In its report to Salovey, the Yale committee wrote, “In its building names and its campus symbols, the University communicates values.” Yale itself, the report noted, “speaks through its building names.”

If that is true — and I believe it is — then certainly the architecture of a campus “communicates values” as well; if a university speaks through the names of its buildings, the architecture it chooses for those buildings speaks more plainly still.

So what does the taste for Hogwarts-style dormitories say about the Yale or the USC of 2017? It says that the primary job of residential architecture on campus is to provide a sense of consistency and familiarity for donors and incoming students alike — to soften the edges of the college experience.

The great film critic Pauline Kael once wrote that the movies she admired most were the ones that kept her in “a heightened state of consciousness,” that made her feel “as if the lights were on in the theatre.” The same is true of architecture: When it’s doing its job it should concentrate your attention and your judgment, not anesthetize them. At Yale and USC, though, I could sense the lights going down, hear the theme music beginning to swell, as soon as I glimpsed that first pane of stained glass.

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