By Ron Thomas
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:
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 website 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.