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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis’ green monster, and other observations

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Opinions

It’s a process that I imagine most prospective students go through on their first visit to Brandeis.

You drive under the bridge and through the main gate, excited to see the place that could become your home for the next four years.  There’s the castle; wow, you’ve already heard about it, but nothing can prepare you for the shock of actually seeing it in the middle of a college campus. You go up the loop road, thinking as you pass North that you could be living in these buildings soon.  The chapels come next, and you pay them special attention–you’ve heard that they’re built so the shadows never cross.  Then, as you round the bend…

What is that green monstrosity?!?!

Okay, maybe I’m a little harsher on the Shapiro Campus Center than most people, but when it first came into view, my pre-frosh mind couldn’t comprehend what it was seeing.  Where were the right angles?  Why were there windows jutting out seemingly at random?  Why was it green???

Pure and simple, I thought, and still think, that the Campus Center is just plain ugly.  And it’s not the only eyesore on campus.  In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name a single structure that rises above that level.  Apparently I’m not the only person who feels this way; a list of the “20 Ugliest Colleges in the USA”from 2008 that I’ve seen bouncing around online (I’m not sure where it originated; Google it, and you’ll find it) ranks Brandeis fourth.  While this gives me bragging rights over my friends at Southern Connecticut State (third), it doesn’t speak well of our campus design.

Particularly hard-hitting is the article’s comment that “each building tried to be modern and contemporary with a mix of glass and brick, but it just looks unfriendly and cold.” Indeed, every building embraces the objectivity of late 20th-century architecture so thoroughly that there’s no room for anything humanizing.  What tries to be sleek comes off as artificial, and what tries to be quirky is merely awkward.

The worst thing in my mind is the unrelenting insistence on brick, especially for the residence halls.  How can a building feel homey if it looks so mass-produced and is so obviously designed as the triumph of function over form?  East Quad is a misshapen red monolith, resembling a prison barracks more than a dorm, and I think that many people would mistake my current residence, Ziv Quad, for a New York tenement if it were stripped of its context.  North Quad looks particularly bad in the summer, when the verdant trees and grass make the buildings’ dull, drab exteriors look farcically out of place.

Still, I can’t help but feel fondness towards our homely little campus.  Maybe it springs from familiarity or from my general affection for the university, but even as I recognize the objective flaws in design, I’m not sure I’d want them any other way.  They hold a certain charm in spite of themselves, the so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic of an Ed Wood movie.  Yes, they may be hideous, but they have character.

Just look at Usen Castle.  It is an utter masterpiece of poor design, a backwards-engineered relic that proves impossible to keep heated, or sometimes even to keep in one piece.

But I will know that my inner child has left me for good when I no longer feel a surge of excitement every time I remember: I go to a college that actually has a castle!  And with real hidden passages too!  This sense of whimsy changes my entire approach to Brandeis architecture.  What is Usdan but a giant, bustling maze?  Can I remember how to get from one end to the other without going outside?

Try to analyze the idea of having a theater shaped like a top hat, and you’ll find it sounds bad from any angle you take.  But if you accept it at face value, it becomes so much fun!  Why does the Rose Art Museum have giant neon lights across the front?  Why the hell not!

I still feel the need to apologize when showing old friends around campus: “Yep, that’s really our campus center.”  I still cringe a little at the thought of prospective students seeing Brandeis for the first time.  But I’m comforted by the knowledge that eventually they’ll know better, and the day will soon come when they wouldn’t want to imagine Brandeis any other way.  As for all the other critics, they can just check their tone.  It may be a green monstrosity, but it’s my green monstrosity, and no one gets to insult it but me.