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Ranking the architects who designed Brandeis

Have you ever wandered around campus and thought to yourself, “Man, this building is so ugly! Who designed it?!” 

I have been pondering this question for far longer than any sane person should, as this semester I am taking a wonderful class in Modern Architecture (please check FA-80A out! Prof. Güvenç is amazing!) As I have studied the designs of Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, I’ve thought more and more about the boxy, unadorned and sometimes strange buildings that make up most of campus. Which has made me want to answer one of the most pressing questions of our time: which Brandeis architect is the best?

During my quest for answers, I found a map from the Farber Library Archives. Now it isn’t the most up-to-date map, as it doesn’t feature glistening architectural beauties such as Skyline and the Shapiro Science Center, but it handily color-codes the buildings on campus by architect/architectural firm so now you can know exactly who is responsible for what. 

For the purposes of this ranking, I’ll be only looking at buildings the architect designed at Brandeis, and not in other places. All of these architects (except for John Hall Smith, which we’ll get into later) have designed many iconic buildings outside of Brandeis. But I’m most interested to understand which one of them had the best impact on the aesthetics of campus, as that is how most of us will encounter their works in our day-to-day lives.

  1. Eero Saarinen (highlighted in yellow)

This is just kind of sad. Saarinen, for reference, was the man who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch. That’s the tallest memorial in the United States! And his sole contributions to the Brandeis campus are Shapiro Hall and Sherman. Well, also Ridgewood Quad, before it was demolished and replaced with what you see today. Shapiro Hall looks passable, blending in with its other Massell counterparts, but Sherm is just a mess, a jumble of brick boxes tumbling down the hillside, decorated not with windows, but three strange horizontal stripes that just make it look worse. And from picture’s I’ve seen of them, the old Ridgewood Quad looks cramped and hastily put together. By the way, Saarinen had an entire master plan set up for the nascent Brandeis University, but much of that plan was abandoned. It’s fun to imagine that the buildings Saarinen did construct are his way of getting revenge on Brandeis. No passers-by would ever look at these buildings and realize that their builder also created one of the most iconic monuments in the world. 

 

  1. Hugh Stubbins and Associates (red)

Hugh Stubbins designed just two buildings on campus, and they are night and day, aesthetically speaking. In 1959 his firm designed the administration buildings—the ones with the funky names like “Irving Presidential Enclave”—and they look cool. The facade of the buildings always catches my eye on the drive up Loop Road, and I’ve always admired the way the arches on the roof of Gryzmish seem to float above it. But then, 11 years later, he designed Usdan, a building that seems to offer more questions than answers. The oddly placed windows, the strange asymmetry of the building’s footprint, the dead concrete plaza in the center… this gargantuan mass of brick is truly one of the campus buildings of all time. And because of this massive drop in quality, Stubbins gets second to last.

 

  1. Max Abramovitz (blue)

You have this guy to thank for the Brandeis aesthetic, “a distinctive architectural identity for Brandeis [that] utilized materials that complimented the New England environment: red brick, fieldstone and glass.” He’s the designer of the vast majority of buildings on campus, but even so, I think that Abramovitz is rather hit or miss. His best works are show-stoppers. The Rose Art Museum is the best example, a neatly proportioned box with a recessed window wall that gives it an inviting air. The three Chapels have an air of quiet grace (although it’s cute that he thought only Jewish and Christian students would ever attend Brandeis) and the entrance to Goldfarb never fails to stand out. But some of his architectural choices are far stranger. Why does the roof of Spingold look like a cross between a giant tutu and sombrero? Why did he add the weird circular lecture hall jutting out of the Pearlman Hall facade like a tumor? Why does Rosenstiel look like a midwestern factory building? And there’s the entire Science Complex, with its halls of drab concrete and its bizarre half-underground library, forming what might be the most depressing building on campus. But for better or for worse, we have Abramovitz to thank for giving Brandeis the shape it’s in today.

 

  1. John Hall Smith (Purple)

The mastermind behind Usen Castle may not get first place, but surely he is the gigachad among all of these architects. Because he wasn’t even an actual architect. He was the president of Brandeis’s predecessor, Middlesex University. He built this glorious structure using nothing but sketches and drawings, if campus legend is to be believed. While the soaring remnants of his fortress may inspire, however, fate was not kind to John Hall Smith’s creation. His lack of architectural experience caught up to him, as the building began to deteriorate by the mid-2010s and much of it was torn down. Still, it is obvious that John Hall Smith was something of a visionary, daring to grace his university with a castle when much of the world had moved on to new styles of architecture. And as the earliest building on campus, the castle provides a welcome break from all of the other Modernist buildings surrounding it. Only John Hall Smith could turn an architectural folly into a building that has brought joy and wonder to generations of students, and we thank him for that.

 

  1. Shepley Bullfinch with Associates (orange)

I had a tough time deciding where to put Bullfinch, the main reason being that none of the buildings he designed still exist. The two buildings he designed in 1956-58 were torn down in 2009. But the memory of these two survived, and eventually, I was able to discover images of them. The first of these, Friedland, boasted a pattern of white panels and glass divisions on its facade that Phil Lacobe, writing in a 2009 blog post, called “quirky and interesting.” I have to agree that, while its structure seems plain, its facade makes a strong visual impact. But the best one has to be the second, Kalman. The only visual record I could find comes from a listing for a commemorative plate on eBay, but even then, it looks striking. It had a three-tiered, almost pyramidal roof and pleasing rectangular proportions, coupled with a wonderful curtain wall in front forming an attractive gridlike facade. I’d even go as far as to say that no building on campus today matches the effect of Kalman. The destruction of both of these buildings was a tragedy for campus as we were robbed of ever again seeing these graceful structures in the flesh. 

  1. Benjamin Thompson (with The Architects Collective) (green)

The number one position on this list goes to Benjamin Thompson, largely thanks to his crowning glory, the Mandel Quad. The Rabb Graduate Building provides a spectacular gateway into the complex; shaped like a triumphal arch and flanked by pleasingly symmetrical bays of windows, it boasts an air of monumentalism. The rest of the quad is more low-key, yet equally as appealing. Their simple proportions, slightly overhanging roofs, and harmonious facades are all skillfully executed. The same thing could be said about his other creations, Lemberg, Brown and Schwartz. 

Now, I can hear you saying, “Why would you put Benjamin Thompson first?! He also designed East, you lunatic!” However, I can explain. From the outside, at least, East boasts some eye-catching architectural features. Its wavy floor plan contrasts sharply with the harsh right angles of every other dorm on campus, as with its triangular stairwells and the bridge-like pathway at the entrance. And, although the Loop Road facade may seem underwhelming, from the parking lot you are able to fully appreciate the rising motion of the strips of windows. If you look closely, the signs of Thompson’s architectural skill start to reveal themselves. And that is why, despite building the black sheep of Brandeis dorms, Thompson gets first place.

So that’s my personal ranking of the architects who built Brandeis. But regardless of how good or bad you think each architect’s creations are, remember that each and every one had a role to play in the building of our university, in the shaping of our very identity as a community. The responsibility to impact the lives of generations of students is not something to be taken lightly, and it is a challenge all of these visionaries rose to face, and succeeded in doing so. And as Brandeis continues to expand with new science buildings and (HOPEFULLY) new housing, more and more architects will continue to do the same through their buildings.

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