College is for the connections . . . and the architecture


After the recent college admissions scandal in the United States, many people were left scratching their heads. Who would pay half a million dollars just to secure a place for a child at the University of Southern California? Sure, USC comes in at a respectable 22nd place in one national ranking of American universities, but one of the perspective undergraduates had already posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she explained: “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” She went to college for the connections, not for the academics.

Such an attitude is not new, even if the medium, YouTube, is. One of the key themes in Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory is that since the 1600s Americans have imagined the collegiate experience as an opportunity to socialize. It’s not that academics were unimportant, but they were not the main event. In 1741, Ben Franklin hinted that a good reason to attend college was to make a good marriage, which was especially necessary because the colonies did not have the long-standing social registers that were built into the British class system.

Soon, Americans were constructing dormitories on the Oxford and Cambridge model as a means of cementing relationships among young men of a certain social class. And thus the quintessential form for an American dormitory, lifted from Oxbridge, became the quadrangle.

Credit: Ayla Lepine

In 1903, Charles Van Hise, then-president of the University of Wisconsin, stated that if one were to name the most fundamental characteristic of English universities, it would be “the system of halls of residence.” He then went on to make an astonishing claim: those residential colleges gave rise to the British Empire. He wrote that “the college system may seem absurd, but for some reason these universities have produced an astonishingly large proportion of great statesmen, writers, and scientists. The men of Oxford and Cambridge have been largely instrumental in extending the empire of Britain over the earth; they have contributed liberally to the greatest literature of the world; they have furnished many fundamental ideas to science.” This rather extreme endorsement demonstrates the intense affection for the dormitory as a space that shaped student character.

Credit: Carla Yanni

But why the quadrangle? The quadrangle looks back to the traditional shape of the cloister in a monastery or an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Although a series of linked quadrangles is typical in the UK, the sequential type is less common in the US. Demonstrating characteristic brashness, the members of America’s ruling class took the British examples as bland suggestions to be improved upon with Yankee wealth and extravagance. The quadrangles at Yale are far more elaborate than their British forbears—no Yale student had to go the men’s room in a cold dark basement. In addition to the romantic associations with English elite universities, the geometry of the quadrangle creates an enclosed, private outdoor space, like a room that is open to the sky. The square donut reinforces the smallness of a community within the larger university and sets a firm boundary that prevents possible encroachment by the outside world. It is a laboratory for forming friendships, creating networks, and socializing.

The study of one building type over time allows us to see different architects solving the same problems in different contexts. In my research, I study the social history of college residences to reveal the way designers and patrons tried to shape the social lives of students. Architecture is implicated at every level of the social and relational environment in which students live.


Carla Yanni is professor of art history at Rutgers University. She is author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Minnesota, 2007) and Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

Living on Campus is an outstanding contribution to the research literature on student life and college residence halls. Carla Yanni’s rigorous scholarship and captivating writing style invites the reader into the lives of students and the places they live from the early colonial period to present day. She skillfully uses students’ life experiences and her deep historical and architectural knowledge to show how student life, architectural design, and educational philosophy interacted throughout history to shape the collegiate experience. This is a must read for anyone interested in student life in college residence halls.”—Gregory S. Blimling, author of Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why

“What a lively and fascinating study! Living on Campus offers compelling looks at architectural plans, façades, and interiors of residential buildings for college and university students. Attentive to the myriad issues of college life, the work links the history of dormitories to the diverse lives lived within—and without—their walls and to the changing goals of campus administrators and donors.”—Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s

“In clear, elegant prose, Carla Yanni tracks the 350-year architectural history of the college dormitory and exposes its contested social meanings, marked by inclusions and exclusions on the basis of class, gender, and race. This is a remarkable achievement—a welcome addition to the architectural history of youth, higher education, and institutions.”—Marta Gutman, author of A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

“In Living on Campus, Carla Yanni interrogates the social history of college residences to map the struggles between inclusion and exclusion that frame the daily life of the American campus. From the development of moral character to the creation of a democratic citizenry, these buildings go hand in hand with the libraries, classrooms, and laboratories that make up the pedagogical space of higher education today.”—Sharon Haar, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

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