UMASS Amherst has one of the finest collections of Modernist architecture in the United States. And they’re very sorry about that.
If you peruse the website for UMASS Amherst, you learn that it is proudly considered to be the “flagship” campus of the University of Massachusetts system. You learn about their educational programs, extracurricular activities, community engagement, and all sorts of other things. But what you do not learn is that the place is full of Modernist architecture, from some of the 20th century’s greatest names.
They clearly seem to be hiding this fact. Even when looking at the website photo gallery, only one of the photos even hints at this…
The rest of the photos show attractive, smiling students in and around the [rather mediocre] newer contemporary buildings on campus, or the old chapel.
I’m guessing these omissions of the school's Modernist architecture are not a coincidence.
When you spend your time around like-minded architects and designers like I do, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world still mostly regards Modernist architecture - especially Brutalism - as “dated”, “cold”, "ugly", or even “oppressive”. So whomever is in charge of marketing for UMASS Amherst clearly decided to sweep that Modernist heritage under the rug.
After all, you wouldn’t want to scare all of those bright-eyed kids you’re trying to recruit. And people these days have an expectation that a university campus should either look like Hogwarts or Google’s HQ. Old, stained concrete buildings just won’t do.
That’s a shame, however, because those old, stained concrete buildings are simply magnificent.
I have known about the UMASS Amherst campus for some time, but even I had not realized the extent of their collection. When Sam Lubell and I did our book with Phaidon on East Coast Modernism and were touring around New England a couple of years ago to research and photograph projects, Amherst was on our list. But we ended up skipping over it in the end because of bad weather at the time. We planned to go back but never had the chance. We didn’t really think it was that important. We knew about the Breuer building, but we already had plenty of other Breuer projects in the book.
Also, Amherst is in the middle of nowhere and pretty hard to get to. “In the sleepy West, of the Woody East, in a Valley full o' Pioneer”, as Pixies described it their song UMASS. (Pixies lead singer Black Francis met guitarist Joey Santiago while they were both students at the school in the 1980s. Amherst is located in an area called Pioneer Valley).
So anyway, back to architecture... I have lots of excuses for not including UMASS Amherst in our book. Of course now, having finally had the chance to visit, I feel like an idiot. I’m embarrassed. UMASS Amherst is amazing.
The building by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer is probably the most well known. Situated on a monumental pedestal in the middle of the university, the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center is easy to spot. The varied patterns in the facade indicate its various functions: the first four floors above the lobby clearly indicate the hotel rooms. The floors above have smaller windows for offices and meeting rooms, and the top floors have terraces on the south side, with screens to shield them from the sun. Stairwell towers on either side also clearly show their function.
Breuer had a real talent for working with concrete. His designs are both futuristic and timeless. More than any other architect, he seemed to understand and appreciate the importance of light and shadows on the building’s facade. There is always a unique pattern which changes as the sun moves across the sky, and the concrete seems almost soft and pliable in his hands. Breuer is clearly “The Concrete Whisperer”…
But Breuer wasn’t the only one doing brilliant things on campus with concrete. For me, the most impressive and interesting building there is actually the Fine Arts Center, by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo (1972-74). This monumental building presents all of the rooms and studio spaces in a linear manner, suspended 30-ft in the air across a broad expanse. It's incredible to see.
Adjacent to that is a series of poured concrete shapes that contain additional offices, classrooms, galleries, and studios, but in a much more human scale. The whole place is fascinating to experience.
Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo worked for Eero Saarinen and took over that office with Saarinen's premature death. They have gone on to have storied careers in their own right.
The other marquis building in the center of campus is the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, which is a brick tower designed by Edward Durell Stone and completed in 1974. This 28-storey building (!) is a rather unconventional design for a university library. Durell Stone was at the top of his game at the time, and was known as the king of New Formalism, incorporating classicist design into Modernism for buildings such as the American Embassy in New Delhi and the Wilshire Colonnade in Los Angeles. Durell Stone originally called for the building to be clad in stone or concrete, but the university leadership wanted red brick...
Within a year of its completion, the bricks used for the cladding began to crumble and fall out, posing a grave safety risk. By 1979, the library had to be completely closed and the books moved back into the old building. The tower remained closed for nearly a decade, until an engineering fix could be found. It's back in use now, though.
Even the stadium there was designed by one of the most famous architects of the Modernist era, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.
But there are also plenty of lesser known but equally beautiful Modernist buildings on campus. Here are just a few that I was able photograph:
After decades of neglecting their existing Modernist buildings, UMASS Amherst is experiencing a tremendous building boom at the moment. With all of the new construction, it was a challenge to photograph many of the buildings while avoiding construction fencing, tractors, scaffolding, etc. I just hope that once the dust settles on all of the new construction, this university's Modernist soul will remain intact, and hopefully start seeing some love.
If you are interested in more info about this wonderful place "in the sleepy West of the Woody East", then you should know there's apparently a book about it. The link is here. I plan on ordering a copy for myself, too. In the meantime, stop by and explore the next time you're in New England!