Sacred Spaces

What are our sacred spaces? This was the first thing our dream team of architects and planners asked us to consider as we began a yearlong enterprise that will guide campus development over the next 20 years.

The question asks us to consider the shape of the future by first taking a look into the past. It urges us to note what have been our most memorable places on campus, the points of inspiration that have helped give Puget Sound its distinctive character. How can we preserve and make the most of these spaces, and what can they teach us as we think ahead?

In responding to the question, many of us noted favorite particular spots: The entry circle in front of Jones, the colonnade of pointed arches connecting Jones and Howarth, the great windows of the library, the meandering groves of stately conifers that sweep through campus.

But over and over again the most common response—from students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, neighbors—was the architecture of the campus itself: The Tudor Gothic style of so many of our buildings. Even where that style has taken on a contemporary expression in Wyatt or Trimble, there is universal appreciation of, and even reverence for, the architecture that Edward Todd selected to be the signature style for our buildings almost a century ago.

Why has this look of brick-and-mortar and glass and stone become so important to us? How has it come to identify our character so effectively, and to symbolize so well something about our values and spirit?

The great Gothic revival in architecture took place in the second half of the 19th century, the same period in which this university was founded. The movement arose, in part, from a nostalgic fascination with the ruins of medieval cathedrals and castles in an increasingly industrial age, and from a new appreciation during the emerging machine age for the spiritual values and the high level of craft these old structures represented. To design and build these magnificent buildings often took generations. Many who devoted their entire lives to the project, without living to see the finished result, marked their contribution with an extraordinary carving or gracious pointed arch or ingenious gargoyle, passing on to future generations the work of completing the edifice in which they took such pride.

The 19th-century art historian and architectural critic, John Ruskin, claimed that these structures were noble and even sublime elements in the landscape because they represented evidence of the continuous presence of past achievements still in our midst; and these memories of the past are most noble when they are inextricably interwoven with the structures of the present, as parts of the fabric of our daily experience.

From these sentiments, the roots of the Gothic revival in architecture were born, a style that was then adopted by some of the great colleges in America—some hearkening directly back to Cambridge and Oxford—and came to be known as “collegiate Gothic.”

But why is our Gothic architecture so sacred to us at Puget Sound? How has it come to so eloquently represent who we are?

Ruskin offers another hint. He showed that the outer elements of Gothic architecture reflect something about the inner spirit of those who created it, an expression of people from a particular kind of place, a place that sounds a lot like the Pacific Northwest: “The Gothic architecture arose in massy and mountainous strength, axe-hewn, and iron-bound, block heaved upon block. … Strength of will, independence of character, resoluteness of purpose, impatience of undue control, and that general tendency to set the individual reason against authority, and the individual deed against destiny … are all more or less traceable in the rigid lines, vigorous and various masses, and daringly … independent structure of Gothic architecture.”

I can think of no college that better embodies this innovative and independent spirit. What strikes me as I have learned more and more about this university is that we have never been afraid to try a new path, or to make our own way.

As we commence a new 20-year master plan for our campus, we will look within to give a contemporary and distinctive expression of our own Gothic heritage, and we will also look outside to strategically engage our campus with the exciting urban renaissance taking place in downtown Tacoma and on Sixth Avenue and in the Proctor District.

Throughout, as we remember and build upon our sacred spaces, we shall draw strength from the memories of accomplishment those spaces represent and that still live with us. Like the builders of Gothic cathedrals, our work will be both independent and reverent of those who went before us, innovative in anticipation of those who will follow, and strong for the generations that will continue.

What will the new campus master plan entail, and what will be its timeline?
A committee comprising alumni, faculty, students, college administrators, and North End neighbors is developing the master plan with the assistance of consulting architects. They will:

  • Consider prospects for the phased development of the college, creating a flexible planning framework for what might be accomplished within 10 years, and for what the college may require in 20 years and beyond.
  • Think much more broadly than just about buildings (although new and updated structures certainly will be an important part of the work). They will analyze how the campus should function as a community, its infrastructure, its recreational spaces, its athletic facilities, and other needs of people living together.
  • Think about the design of the campus on two levels. What are the larger structural and aesthetic patterns of the campus that give it a logic, feel, and functionality that should be explicitly maintained and strengthened? And what are the smaller campus environments that create especially meaningful locations, symbols, or identifying features? (These might include areas such as Jones Circle, the cloisters, and the arboretum.)
  • Examine the campus edges, proposing the proper relationship the campus should have to its residential environment and the appropriate marking of campus edges, approach to campus, sense of arrival, landscaping, lighting, signage, way-finding, etc.
  • Assist in identifying priorities for capital projects in addition to residences and proposed siting for appropriate facilities.

The plan will be executed in phases:

  • Needs assessment—Autumn 2003
  • Concept development, including development of plan options—Winter 2004
  • Draft master plan created—Spring 2004
  • Plan approval process—Summer 2004
  • Plan finalized—Fall 2004

Alumni are encouraged to take part in the planning process. You can find detailed information on background research and progress to date at a special Web site set up for the campus master plan (se Related Links). The Web site also provides a mechanism for comments, and you are encouraged to make them.