For years, the design community has talked much about the tension between modernist design and the more familiar aesthetics from earlier eras. Today, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards the nostalgic.
This trend is especially pronounced in the hospitality industry, and has swiftly made its way to other markets as well, notably in higher education. In this post, we’ll focus on that field in particular, asking where this longing for the nostalgic comes from, what the implications are for designers and universities alike, and if this is indeed a trend – or whether a larger movement is underway.
Any mention of the evolving nature of design in higher education must start at the very beginning: Cambridge University. This is where the traditional collegiate aesthetic – gothic architecture, enormous fireplaces, wood paneling – was first applied.
As universities in the United States sought to recreate the academic atmosphere (and channel the prestige) of their forebears, this style quickly became de rigueur. Architectural elements such as human scale proportions, figural window openings, etc. all came to have deep, symbolic meaning in the minds of students, faculty, alumni and the general public. Even as this style spread across the American landscape to the point of ubiquity and universities and their donors began to push back against the perceived stuffiness and elitism it represented, Collegiate Gothic, as the style came to be known, still epitomized the essence and soul of higher education.
In the past half-decade, a resurgence of demand for this type of aesthetic has re-appeared on campuses throughout the country, driven by “The Starbucks Effect” (expectations of an elevated, immersive sensory experience) in other industries and a desire for universities to appear rooted in the tradition of the world’s great institutions. We call this aesthetic “Manufactured Nostalgia.” And it is only becoming more ubiquitous. As journalist Virginia Postrel put it in The Atlantic way back in 2008:
“Over the past decade, most public places have gotten noticeably better looking. We’ve gone from a world in which Starbucks set a cutting-edge standard for mass-market design to a world in which Starbucks establishes the bare minimum. If your establishment can’t come up with an original look, customers expect at least some sleek wood fixtures, nicely upholstered chairs, and faux-Murano glass pendant lights.”
But why are young people so attracted to this sentiment for places and time periods they have never experienced? One theory: that those of the alphabet generations (XYZ), who have grown up so saturated in the rapid pace of new technologies, appear to seek meaning and connection from the culture of their parents – embracing classic rock music, retro cars, Mid-century Modern stylings and even television shows like “Mad Men” that riff on their parents’ (or grandparents’) choices in fashion, design and media.
Another take, from Stephen Alesch of architectural firm Roman and Williams, describing the runaway success of the Millennial-focused Ace Hotel brand he helped design:
“Those kids grew up with zero history. They were born in apartments, condos, shopping malls. They were driving around in Camrys. There’s no history there. Modernism was pushed so hard on them that when they hit their 20s, they decided to rebel against the aesthetics of their childhood.”
When it comes to experiencing an environment in person, reality must be even more special than the expectation created by the media-saturated digital reality of today’s student. In a culture of globalization and virtual reality, of simultaneous disconnectedness and interconnectedness, the architecture of tradition can play a significant and profound role in our society’s search for meaning.
So how should a university with a building project respond to this movement? And must an institution look like Cambridge to attract the nostalgia-steeped generation of today’s students? While we as architects should embrace and use the latest efficient materials and methods of design, there are times where a nod to the past can bring meaning to the user experience.
First, the idea of Manufactured Nostalgia starts at the room level, not at that of the building. At Purdue University’s new Wilmeth Active Learning Center, the design team integrated a traditional great hall into a modern, cutting-edge, technology-filled 21st Century academic facility. A double-height reading room, books on display, traditional library task lighting and ample use of warm wood paneling gives this central campus academic space the gravity it deserves. To study amongst the look, feel and smell of the books, even if never used, still provides and space that inspires, motivates and is remembered.
This aesthetic works in contemporary design, as well. At Marian University in Indianapolis, traditional features like fireplaces with inglenooks, wood floors and a double-height reading room reconnect the thoroughly modern Alumni Hall to the Arts and Crafts-style ancestry of the campus.
And Manufactured Nostalgia has its place on campuses that already exhibit a rich architectural history, as a tool to reinforce an institution’s established brand and image in the mind of potential students. At DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, students, administrators and alumni donors expressed a strong preference for a traditional great room as part of a renovation and addition to the main library on campus, complete with a fireplace, a double-height volume, Greek columns and bookshelves running the length of the space. This approach is part of a strategic desire to create a specific “DePauw” campus experience that prospective students will expect to experience should they enroll there.
Notwithstanding the influence of technology, modernism and architectural innovation on the built environment, there will always be a desire to connect to the traditions of the past, established hundreds of years ago but still recognizable and rife with meaning event to today’s most savvy digital natives. Nostalgia – whether real or manufactured – plays an essential role in how we, as individuals and as a society, experience, navigate and interpret the world.