are you paving your road with good intentions?

For better or worse, every campus has existing hardscape elements.   The surface materials of buildings; the wood, stone or brickwork of retaining walls; the textures, colors, and materials of walkways and roadways; the borders of gardens; the treatment of the immutable parking lots ”“ all combine to make up a hardscape palette.  Significant creative opportunities can be found in a thorough examination of these design elements of campus hardscape in an effort to determine whether they are working in concert to create a powerful overriding aesthetic or whether their message is one of random cacophony.  As Presidents, we would never allow each of our college’s letterhead, envelopes, business cards, and various publications to have an individual and unique aesthetic. How much more important is it that the entire campus have such an harmonic vision?

It is far too easy to become comfortable with our surroundings and not see what is immediately before us.   By becoming attuned to the materials and colors that comprise your campus’ palette, important existing aesthetic strengths can be reinforced while at the same time creating a stronger and more coherent campus presentation.

Every campus contains the seeds of its own unique ethos and beauty.   For example,  during my first visit to Mt. Holyoke College, I was struck by how the red  brick and brown stone presented such a coherent and consistent image. It clearly was defining the campus’ future development, while at the same time embodying the college’s rich traditions.   The University of Colorado in Boulder, with its rural Italian roots, is an architecturally eclectic campus unified by its beautiful palette of yellow, red, and brown sandstone, Tuscan tile, and exterior spaces defined by ivy and heavy shrubbery.   Again, though eclectic with its many periods of architecture, this Colorado aesthetic hardscape palette is consciously and religiously kept in mind as the campus continues in its development.

Attention to a campus’ hardscape offers significant opportunities to address some of the most conspicuously challenged areas of a campus, as well.   Parking lots, broken and cracked sidewalks, randomly scattered out-buildings, dumpster alcoves and the necessary places of service and maintenance, need not be the eyesores campus’ have come to accept.   When I first became President at Lebanon Valley College, they had already begun addressing precisely these kinds of problems.   These initial efforts led to fundamental change in the overall look and feel of the campus that continued throughout my years there.  Most importantly, they set the tone and direction for what ultimately became a radical transformation of the entire campus beyond everyone’s initial expectations.   The awareness of the importance of the exterior campus’ hardscape palette led the entire community to an appreciation of the importance of the campus’ role in LVC’s overall success.   Enrollment and retention improved and the morale of the entire community was elevated.

While all this begins with campus leadership having a good set of eyes, the development of a strong hardscape palette with a unifying aesthetic must ultimately take the form of a well understood set of campus design expectations and standards.   Small, self-contained design projects will crop up like weeds if unchecked.   With the best of intentions, everyone thinks they have good taste.   That being said, it is understood that not everyone’s taste can live simultaneously in the same place at the same time, to paraphrase an important law of aesthetic physics.

When a clear vision for a campus’ hardscape is joined with a strong overall plan for campus development, aesthetic continuity and coherence are reinforced and can have a true impact.

Time for some self-evaluation. Take a walk around your campus and look at your hardscape ”“ the patios, the walkways, the curbs, the walls, and even the parking lots. Now ask yourself, do these elements mesh with one another and are these elements reflective of my desired image and identity for my campus?