Saturday, February 9, 2013

On Beautiful Buildings

Of the seven years it took for me to complete my Ph.D., dear reader, I spent six on or around the campus of Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts.  I can say many, many good things about that university.  I would not have wanted to get my Ph.D. anywhere else.  There is one thing, however, that I can’t say.  I can’t say it is a campus of beautiful buildings.  With a couple of exceptions, Brandeis is a collection of mostly brick, mostly square, mostly post-World War II, utilitarian buildings.  Except for “the castle,” a twentieth-century faux castle-turned-dormitory, I never wanted to let my eyes linger on the built environment of that campus, as much as I admired its rapid emergence as a great university after having been founded only in 1948.
                 The University of Pécs, by contrast, mixes humdrum buildings with beautiful ones.  There are enough of the latter for one to pause in one’s workday and think: this is what a university town should look like.  Not all of these buildings, mind you, belong to the university.  I have often been told how European universities are more likely to be spread around a city while American universities are usually collected onto one campus.  Pécs is a good example of that.  I work at the Faculty of Humanities, roughly equivalent to a college of letters and sciences in the U.S.A.  I have never seen, however, the main administrative building, or the faculties of medicine, law, business, education, or arts among others.  These are all scattered around the city.  The result of this is that the buildings of my faculty are closely surrounded by non-university buildings, some of which are rather drab, but others of which are quite something to look at.  Here are some examples from my walks to and from work each day.
                Walking to work each day is a pleasure.  It’s about fifteen minutes, and halfway through the walk, the towers of this Catholic church swing into view.  It is called Heart of Jesus church and, for reasons I don’t yet fully know, the main building of the (state-run) Faculty of Humanities is sort of wrapped around three sides of the church.  Once I see the church towers, I know my office is close and I quicken my step. 
This (to the right) is what it looks like when I’m almost there.  My office is in the building to the right of the church, a maze-like building.  It reminds me of M.I.T. in its rabbit warren of hallways that you lead over long distances and to hundreds of offices and classrooms.  As lost as you get, though, you can always find a window that looks out onto this church or the gardens behind the building. 


Here (above left) is the main gate of the Faculty of Humanities, and here (right) is a view of the front door of the maze-building, taken from a classroom building next door.  Again, I say: this is what a university should look like.

Going back home, by the way, I can fix my eyes on the towers of yet another church: the Catholic cathedral of Pécs: St. Peter’s Basilica.  This cathedral is only about a block from my wonderfully located apartment, so I know that these towers represent home.  The walk along the way is also full of communist-era apartment buildings, which have never been known for their artistry and were never intended as a visual pleasure.  Still, there is always some building in view that is quite inspiring.
I should add that I can even see these towers clearly from the men’s restroom nearest my office.  (See them there, in the picture to the left, in the center of the photo?) How’s that for a perquisite?

Finally, just for fun, here is a picture of the fifteenth-century or earlier castle gate which is, quite literally, across the street from my apartment building. 
                In sum, dear reader, I maintain that Brandeis gave me an excellent grounding in history.  And yet, I do so appreciate elements of beauty in the buildings of a university.  Let me leave you with these questions.  Do beautiful buildings improve an educational institution?  How so? 


  1. Maybe beautiful buildings distract is from our work, and so harm the institution? I mean, rather than gazing at a far-distant cathedral when in the men's room, shouldn't you be doing deep thinking about colonial behaviors and how the seeds of our current cultural shortcomings were planted in the 17th and 18th centuries?

    More seriously, thoughtful interior design and functional interior spaces are more important for me, I think, than a beautiful exterior.

  2. Don't forget, Nathan, about the creative moments one has daydreaming, or staring out the men's room window! I must say, I like Sage Hall for lots of reasons, but my view from the men's room is not one of them;)

    Well, my Pecs building is a bit of a maze on the inside, even more so than Sage, but I like it a lot from the outside.