Matney: NU’s architecture should follow legacy, not latest trends


Lucas Matney, Columnist

No matter how many times campus tour guides spin the design of Northwestern’s library as “attempting to capture the feeling of books being pulled off a shelf,” most NU students would conclude that the brutalist late-60s building is a major eyesore in contrast with the neo-Gothic Hogwarts aesthetic of Deering Library. Indeed it’s always easy to tell the decade, or century, when each campus building was built, something that one could argue contributes to a feeling of diversity on our campus, but I would say this reflects the short-sightedness of campus administration in creating design guidelines to champion NU’s legacy and rich history.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I think the new Segal Visitors Center is really quite beautiful, and I’m very impressed with the architecture firm that put it together. But no matter how “timeless” it appears right now, the Bauhaus, Apple Store look is bound to look out of place when popular opinion and design trends shift elsewhere.

Sweeping glass surfaces, exposed steel beams and smooth limestone exteriors seem to be the most recognizable features of today’s university design arsenal, yet they seem sharply out of place when looking to so many of the Gothic-influenced designs of many of NU’s older buildings. Even the typefaces that compose the signs for the university department buildings down Sheridan represent the more resolute Gothic style.

NU’s Design Guidelines and Technical Standards document is 510 pages of text and diagrams for architects and engineers to reference when designing and implementing plans for university structures. The document is extensive in its minute descriptions of everything from the preferred vendors of glass vent piping to the preferred mounting methods of urinals in the restrooms. What the document is severely lacking is major guidelines for the architects to maintain consistency with other visual styles across campus. Right now, one of the few unifying threads of most of the building designs on campus is merely the recommendation to use limestone taken from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana, that maintains the specified “standard buff color.”

When the University created the Arch in 1994, they chose to employ the same neo-Gothic style as a means of calling to the past and conveying NU’s extensive history. Most students are surprised to hear how new the Arch and the traditions, like March through the Arch, that surround it are, but that is as good an indicator as any for how well the University can capture its perceived soul when pursuing on-brand design strategies, rather than catering strictly to the latest trends.

NU has always had a bit of a branding crisis. Logos and seals across campus are inconsistent, each specific school at NU has pursued its own visual style and, as a result, there’s often a pretty severe disconnect when approaching what “Northwestern” as a whole means conceptually. Our campus buildings are meant to be stalwart physical reminders of the progress our esteemed institution promotes, and the University really needs to work harder to create guidelines that are mindful of that.

Looking to the future is always an important criterion when considering design, but in the field of architecture, educational design plays by different rules. Maintaining continuity and promoting legacy in the structures we build is critical for fostering a history at NU that so many of the prestigious schools we often look to have preserved far more successfully.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].