Tragedy is Easy; Planning is Hard

Fenster writes:

It helps in planning, as in life, to have a sense of identity.  And I don’t mean “brand”, although in practice branding and identity exercises are often comprised of the same interchangeable BS.  At least in terms of connotation, branding summons up an image of an hot iron stuck on you by someone else


whereas identity, done right, ought to signify an expression of who you really are.  Yes, you can get lost navel gazing in an identity search


but reflection is an integral part of good planning.  It is fine to have a goal that is ambitious when starting planning, but it is not OK to have a self-image that is fanciful.

But identity-finding can sometimes be hard.  When that’s the case planning can be hard, too.

In that regard this is a story about planning at Rutgers, the quintessential identity-challenged university.  As to why identity-finding is hard at Rutgers, you have to start with history.

Rutgers identity challenges have multiple sources.  Rutgers (first named Queen’s College) was originally one of the very few Colonial Colleges, founded under a charter from the King of England before the American Revolution.  In that sense it was then like its counterparts, later to be the Ivies.


Zig. In the early 1800s, Queens College took on a theological seminary for the Dutch Reformed Church.  For a while, when Queens College was temporarily shuttered due to lack of funds, it was only the Seminary that was active.  So in that period, you could say it was most like a theological seminary.

New Brunswick Theological Seminary--to make a later appearance

New Brunswick Theological Seminary–to make a later appearance

Zag. Renamed Rutgers in 1825 after a donor whose gift helped it stay alive, it continued to exist as a smaller private college, one that resembled any number of other private colleges being formed at the time.


Zig. During the Civil War the Morrill Act was passed by Congress, allowing for the establishment of land-grant universities.  Rutgers was designated the land grant university for New Jersey, causing it over time to resemble the usually public entities so established in other states.


Zag. Then in the 20th century Rutgers undertook a long dance with the state culminating in the Act of 1956.   That legislation established Rutgers as the State University of New Jersey, completing a cycle and bringing it around to its current status: a large, public, research-oriented flagship state university with all the fixins, similar to places like the University of Michigan.


The history is odd enough, but the transition to public status was odd in its own way.   Since Rutgers was a pre-existing private entity, and was not founded initially on the basis of state statute or constitution, the form of the legislation establishing it in 1956 was that of a contract between the state and the pre-existing private entity.

Even today, Rutgers is governed by two separate Boards.  The Board of  Governors is the public board, with ownership in trust of any post-1956 assets (allocable endowment, land and buildings).  But then there is the Board of Trustees, the residual private board.  It owns in trust any of the pre-1956 assets.  Given this straddle, any major measure such as a budget or a bond needs to be approved by both Boards.

Add to that that the university operates campuses in Newark and Camden in addition to New Brunswick.  The former of these is quite large and could easily be a university on its own, a fact that has not escaped players in Newark, and which complexifies planning in its own way.  And add to that that the “New Brunswick” campus is itself plural, consisting of several separate campuses in New Brunswick and adjoining Piscataway, each of which brings its own separate history and planning challenges.

It’s no wonder that a former president of the university was once heard to remark, only partly in jest,  “What’s a Rutgers?”  Indeed.  Its identity is plural and complex.

Over in Piscataway, you have Busch, your somewhat modern and bland Big Ten-looking campus, complete with football stadium,


science buildings busch1

and athletic centers.


Also over in Piscataway, on a more isolated tract of land, is the Livingston Campus, a neglected gaggle of fairly ugly 1970s concrete buildings, built for the most part all at once, and now undergoing some needed revitalization.


The revitalization is needed for sure but it is hard to shake the continued resemblance of this place to both the University at Albany and the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology.

Back across the river, we have Douglass, a former women’s college now renamed a “residential” college since it no longer operates on a single sex basis.  Just that name change was a large identity issue.


There’s also Cook College, the environmental and science campus that holds the old land grant function.


But we are going to focus our attention on the main campus on the New Brunswick side, the so-called College Ave. Campus.

This is the home of the historic Rutgers and any central identity issues will get played out here.  The College Ave. Campus has its share of ugly buildings and spaces, but this is where you will find whatever remains of a historic core.


Some relatively nondescript Georgian buildings, but the place has some character.


and here and there a touch of the traditional quad, Voorhees Mall.


The College Ave. campus suffers from a couple of major defects.  First, attention was not paid in the past to planning considerations, with the result that as it grew from this historic core, it got pretty jumbled up, with the addition of some blah buildings.


But another problem with cohesiveness sits right in the core of the campus:  the presence of yet another institutional campus, right in the middle of the College Ave. campus.  I told you it would be messy.

The map below shows Rutgers in light brown.  Can you guess what is in that tan area separating the two main chunks of campus?  Yes indeed, it is the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, split off from Rutgers in the 1800s as it zagged secular, but now sitting in the heart of the College Ave. Campus.


The presence of the Seminary, combined with a legacy of under-planning, has resulted in a campus with no clear walkthough.  This lovely walkway ends at the foot of the hill leading to the Seminary campus.


As you reach the end of this shaded walk, you look up the hill to see . . .


this concrete hulk blocking the path.

Precluded from the development of a central spine, a busy city street running for the most part up the side of the campus–College Ave.–was pressed into service as the “main street” of the campus.  Not for nothing it is called the College Ave. Campus.


What a mess.  What but what to do?  That is a tough question, made tougher by the fact that Rutgers had let its planning function atrophy over time.  You want a building?  Call an architect and have one designed.  And, let’s see, let’s put it over there, why don’t we.

What resulted was a kind of phantom limb syndrome.  People knew something was missing.  They could feel it.  But they couldn’t put their finger on it.  A sense of place, maybe?

The decision was made to sponsor a competition to tackle the problem whole.  That seemed like a good idea but the devil is always in the details.  What were the details?

On the face of it, this is a master plan problem, and you’d expect a competition for a new master plan between master planning firms.  Instead, the decision was made to run the competition between architects–you know the folks who design buildings, very often not in keeping with their surroundings.  How does the prevailing architectural sensibility mesh with good planning?

Longtime UR and 2Blowhards readers will know where this is going.  Yes, Rutgers ran the competition between architects and, moreover, it limited the competition to five modernist outfits: Jean Nouvel, Morphosis (Thom Mayne), Peter Eisenman, Enrique Norten and Antoine Predock.  No one was selected who would be expected to treat the historic core with care, at least insofar as respect for the vernacular.

Whether this was hubris or something else (fear that a Georgian revival approach would win the day due to popular acclaim, maybe?), I don’t know.  But what happened was a loud thud.  As the competition neared the close, the president sensed that he was being driven into a cul-de-sac.  There was no real money for the ambitious building plans.  And as the community wandered the Zimmerli Museum, where the designs were housed during the competition, the word that came back was pretty negative.

Were the people on to something?  Let’s  look at some of the images from the competition.

Predock started with some gauzy, post-apocalyptic images from the sky.


Check out what looks like a Death Beam in the far back right.  A signature building at the far end of campus.


And when you get to the buildings it gets brutal right quick.


Since the competition aspired to comprehensiveness, Predock added in his idea for a new campus transit system.  Here is a “bus”, or large cockroach, you decide.


And he proposed a series of coatings for them too, like this.


The answer to “what’s a rutgers”?  Apparently some kind of insect.

Here are two from Thom Mayne.



On meeting John Lindsay for the first time after he was elected mayor, Robert Moses remarked “if you elect a matinee idol mayor, you’re going to have a musical comedy administration.”  To paraphrase here, if you select a modernist of Mayne’s proclivities to redo your master plan, you are going to have a science fiction campus.

In which regard, here is another fairly insect-like shape from Eisenman:


And a snap of the main building proposed by the “winner”, Enrique Norten.  Another signature building on the wrong side of campus.


No one looked at the Seminary site.  That was ruled off the table, probably on the grounds of “how would we do it?”  Yet it remained the central problem.

Thankfully, there was no money t’all for the construction of any of this stuff.  After a minor kerfuffle over how ugly all the plans were, things died down when people realized none of it would get built.  And there it sat.

(pause. . . )

We now ratchet forward over seven years.  Things are finally moving forward on the College Ave. campus, but the work being done bears no relation to the firms in the 2006 competition.

The style of building is more in tune with the existing campus.


And somehow or other, Rutgers (along with its development partner Devco) figured out how to get at the Seminary site.  Here’s the construction site with some of the demolition done.  Note the ungainly concrete thing sitting right in the middle of the block.  That is to come down, to make way for central pedestrian access from the the historic campus core to the newer campus.


Here we see the block again.  The Seminary is placed in the denser complex on the right.  The center of the campus is opened up.


A great improvement over the 2006 “visions”.

Lessons to be learned?

There are some lessons for planners here, I think.  First, don’t send for an architect to do a master planner’s job.  And second, be wary of stacking the deck with modernists with big egos.  It is bad enough when you give them the run of the building.  When you suggest they can have a whole campus, you will have trouble on your hands.

There are lessons for presidents, too.  First, don’t get bullied by the art ‘n arch crowd to make these mistakes.  A cul-de-sac may result.  Second, if like Rutgers’ new president you find yourself with this albatross around your neck, feel free to engage in what Eric Eisenberg calls strategic ambiguity.  Arguing that most communications experts prize openness and clarity, Eisenberg argues instead as follows:

The overemphasis on clarity and openness in organizational teaching and research is both non-normative and not a sensible standard against which to gauge communicative competence or effectiveness. People in organizations confront multiple situational requirements, develop multiple and often conflicting goals, and respond with communicative strategies which do not always minimize ambiguity, but may nonetheless be effective.

In other words, declare victory, honor the past work, and then go and do what has to be done.

Does the new approach to College Ave. capture Rutgers’ identity in some meaningful way? That remains a difficult question because of Rutger’s fragmented identity.  But there are parts of its identity that will resonate to a more respectful treatment.  And it never hurts to enhance a sense of place.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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11 Responses to Tragedy is Easy; Planning is Hard

  1. Sax von Stroheim says:

    That “bus” thing looks like the Batmobile from the recent Batman movies:


  2. chucho says:

    It was always awkward to cut through that parking lot when traveling from the dorms to and from Vorheees Mall, so I’m glad to hear they are fixing that up. I must admit as an 18 year old it didn’t really phase me one way or another, though.

    That “quad” pic you posted is I believe Johnson & Johnson property, unless something has changed.

    It’s somewhat unfair that RU’s jumble of a campus is usually compared to its distant cousin down Rt. 27. But the two schools have had very different histories since their founding.


  3. Callowman says:

    Holy moley, Fenster, that was a tour de force. You have a narrative gift. Does one dare ask what you have to do with the whole thing?


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  5. Fragon says:

    Architects are sometimes good planners, if they are more into facts and integration of ideas than cool design. Planners are not necessarily architects, though it helps to be able to imagine 3D in 2D. Starchitects looking for a new building commission are almost never good planners.
    Your point about the overemphasis on openness is right on target. The big ego modernist gets you a signature building or two and not much else; the open process that pleases everyone gets you equally expensive pablum. Whatever situation you’re in at the moment will change significantly before you get to even begin implementing your plan, even if you’ve done a good job of developing a master plan that’s affordable AND that is consistent with a long range strategic/academic plan. So go for a very few – one or two – big ideas that future actions can filter through: “We will create a pedestrian campus”; “We will open up to public transportation”; “We will make our campus more dense and value the open space we have”. Put it on a bookmark or your website banner and get it out to everyone all the time. Ten or fifteen years later your campus will look nothing like the pretty pictures but it might very well fulfill the vision.


  6. Johnny Paycheck says:

    Having graduated in 1970 and missed the whole thing inbetween I can tell you, your suggested plan sucks too. Now I know why in 2001 when we submitted a proposal to do the five campus master plan we were completely overlooked.


  7. Johnny Paycheck says:

    Oh, did I mention they tore my Fraternity House down during the haphazard planning of the prior decades


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