Founded in 1971, Purchase College, State University of New York (SUNY) is one of sixty-four colleges and universities that make up the largest public university system in the United States. The State University of New York system was written into law in 1948 by Governor Thomas E. Dewey and was dramatically expanded by Nelson A. Rockefeller during his four terms as Governor from 1959 to 1973. "Rockefeller saw a grand panorama of prize-winning buildings spread across the state that would offer the best assortment of learning environments anywhere. Students could choose among them and, within their architecturally outstanding walls, grow under a cadre of superior educators wooed from the best universities" (Bleeker 168). To do so, Rockefeller created the State University Construction Fund (SUCF) in 1962 in order to meet the increased demand for higher education resulting from population growth. The Fund, initially lead by a three-person board of trustees, one overall architect and one general manager, streamlined governmental procedures and allowed for construction of State University facilities to be expedited. Private architects and contractors, who had previously been reluctant to take on State work, now were afforded control over design and a "climate essential to the creation of good design and good architecture" (Drexler 5).
The addition of a State University for the arts, initiated in 1967, was of special interest to Governor Rockefeller. Edward Larrabee Barnes was selected as the master planner, and unique to all of the SUNY campuses, a roster of the most gifted and highly regarded architects were chosen to design a structure on the campus. The architects selected included Philip Johnson and John Burgee, Paul Rudolph, Venturi and Rauch, Gunnar Birkerts & Associates and Gwathmey, Henderson & Siegel. With buildings amid construction, Purchase opened in the fall of 1971 in portable classrooms and the original clapboard farm house on the 500-acre site.
Designed as a "city within the country", architect Edward Larrabee Barnes created the master plan for Purchase College in 1967. The campus plan included a collection of buildings clustered around a plaza, surrounded by fields and meadows. In addition to Barnes, seven major architects were brought in to design the individual buildings. “The Purchase campus is organized around a paved mall 300 by 900 feet and is oriented from east to west. The design uses covered arcades flanked by trees to define pedestrian access to academic buildings on the north and south side of the campus. The mall serves as a raised pedestal for those buildings which by their function are areas of common use” (Drexler 8). Primary access to the buildings and the mall is one level up on the east-west axis.
Shaped in a cruciform shape, the largest building on the campus is the Performing Arts Center located on the west-end of the campus. The unadorned minimal facade is composed of the gray-brown brick and includes four theaters ranging in size from a 1400-seat concert hall to a 200-300 seat black box theater. The structure is accessible from the parking lots on either side of the complex through a mall underpass. The underpass links the theaters to the academic campus as well as the underground mall access area. A grand two-story lobby provides a common area for all four theaters and circulation to the mall.
Immediately to the left of the Performing Arts Center is the Music Instructional Building. Designed by Barnes, the building includes individual practice and private instruction rooms, rehearsal and classrooms space along with a large lecture hall and a recital hall.
The Purchase College Dance Building was the first facility in the United States to be constructed solely for the study and performance of dance. Designed in 1970 by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, it houses 14 studios and a 270-seat Dance Theater Lab. “A single two-story academic level relates the large studios and smaller supporting spaces. The studio-corridor wall is opaque on the lower portion and above is sloped glass. Inside the studios the wall slope expands the space while admitting daylight reflected from the slope above the offices. The building was pulled away from the arcade to create a green area and natural light for the administrative offices, and also to expose the building to pedestrians” (Drexler 34). The design for the Dance Building was based on a successful collaboration with the Dean and Purchase faculty based upon their experience and consultations with other academic and professional institutions devoted to the teaching of dance (Marlin 154). The garden wall has a sloped top toward the inside.
“The Natural Science Building is designed to have semi-private and fixed elements facing south on the common court. The laboratories are grouped around a central riser system and placed toward the north for future expansion. Support activities, such as offices and tutorial labs, are placed at the perimeter” (Drexler 33). The building includes a central lecture hall and planetarium room. The exterior design features a juxtaposed curvilinear amphitheater and an undulating rectilinear roof line.
“The Venturi and Rauch designed Social Science Building occupies the full width of the site at the arcade to preserve the design concept of the campus plan. The south elevation is dominated by a large two-story window that brings light from above the arcade down into the first floor lobby. The east facade, together with that of the Humanities Building, forms the facade of the campus core and is developed as a single plane with small openings in a regular rhythm to enhance its scale. The west facade expresses the programmatic complexity of specified classrooms and generalized laboratory spaces, and achieves a smaller scale appropriate to the function as entrance and outdoor sitting space. Internally on the east side of the building is organized into offices, seminar rooms and reading rooms and into classrooms and labs on the west side” (Drexler 30).
The second structure designed by Venturi and Rauch with assistance of Gerod Clark, Arthur Jones, Denise Scott Brown and David Vaughan is the Humanities Building. Organized in three zones the east zone contains small scale spaces; the west zone contains medium sized spaces; and the interior zone contains large scale spaces, which do not require windows and have the highest degree of acoustical sensitivity. A large open-air arena is reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s own studio in Munkkiniemi Finland (von Moos 166).
Designed by the team of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the Neuberger Museum of Art was founded when Roy Neuberger donated his famous American Art collection in the fall of 1968. The Neuberger Museum of Art was the first building completed on the campus and initially provided classroom and studio space as well as functioning as a museum. In 1974 Philip Johnson suggested the design was intended to resemble a crankshaft and included identical 60-foot wide blocks that have shifted on a vertical access revealing similar exterior and interior spaces.
The Visual Arts Building is symbolized by an envelope of light which allows large interchange able studios and shops to receive maximum north light. The building varies in height and is set back on the east and west elevations to lend interest to the pedestrian walk and to respond to the human scale. The main open space court abutting the arcade acts as a social and cultural focus and features a two-story exhibition space above. The roof terrace over the shops responds t the landscaped cemetery space and the experimental studio and sculpture studio have their own work-study court connecting to research beyond the building (Drexler 25).
On the center of the mall is the Barnes designed Library Building and campus Post Office. The Library recently received a $6.1 million renovation and included a major reworking of the Library’s internal circulation, new Information Commons, new Reading and Reference Rooms, a high-density storage area, and three new Computer Labs. Entrance to the building was relocated from the west to the east end of the building (facing the new Student Services Building) and by way of a glass and primary colored facade, features a new accessible elevator and ramp.
The two Student Activities buildings located at the terminus of both east and west-side arcades are relatively minor structures that provide a transition from the academic court to the residential living space. The structures include indoor and outdoor dining space as well as offices and student union space.
The Residential Complex designed by Gwathmey, Henderson & Siegel represents a “U-shaped building complex encloses major outdoor open space providing transition from meadow to campus plan. The open-ended space to the south is in response to the location of future residential areas. The dormitory organizes student living accommodations initially into eight groups with entrance points at the corners of the main structure or along it as defined by its intersection with academic facilities (Drexler 41). The encircled dining hall is organized vertically and horizontally and modulated volumetrically (Arnell and Bickford 48-49).
The Health and Physical Education Building is located on the east side of the campus, on axis with the mall and the Performing Arts Center. Set back from both residential complexes the building has a glass-covered central hall and front them with rows of trees. The arcades are like the thread which makes it possible to string beads into a necklace” (Drexler 9-11).
"Insofar as any architectural concept is an assertion of a particular order and purpose, it will have the limitations peculiar to its own nature. the most obvious limitation of this concept is the linear configuration automatically imposed on each building abutting the arcades, regardless of the particular academic discipline it is meant to house. Since the building sites are sufficiently wide, in practice the limitation has only a minor effect on internal circulation: of the ten buildings concerned, only four have corridors longer than might have been the case with a different site configuration. Two of the buildings are set back from the arcade, and three, where they abut it, do not occupy the full width of the site, so that there is no loss of variety in this respect. Similarly, there were no planning restrictions on floor heights, distribution of building masses, or the design of entrances. On the other hand, all buildings use the same gray-brown brick, gray glass, and gray metal trim. And with one exception (Natural Science) all of them have hard-edges crisp contours in keeping with Barnes' theater and library groups dominating the mall.
Overriding these inherent and self-imposed limitations is a cardinal advantage: the arcades and the narrow sites reassert the primacy of the street, which is the distinctive experience made possible by a community of buildings. The arcades are an indispensable part of the composition: it is not enough simply to line up the buildings on either side of the mall and front them with rows of trees. The arcades are like the thread which makes it possible to string beads into a necklace (Drexler 9-11)."
The Purchase College campus was designed in the rural north-west section of Westchester County on the Connecticut boarder. Located on a former dairy farm, the Purchase College campus sits on a 500-plus acre estate settled in 1734 by Judge Thomas Thomas. The original farm site, built in the 1920s and occupied by the Chisholm family as a working farm until 1967, remains as an Administration complex on the campus.
The overwhelming unifying source of Purchase College was the use of the red-brown brick for the entire campus. The brick along with an anodized bronze aluminum glazing system give the campus the feel of a single design intention. Similar to many modern structures, the repetition of a common material such as the brick along with the use of prefabricated products, facilitate an efficient and cost effective solution to design.
Conceived shortly after the phrase ‘urban design’ was coined at Harvard in the late 1950s, the design for Purchase College speaks not only to the most cutting-edge concepts in campus design but to the theoretical struggle that faced the architecture, planning and design fields of the time. Barnes’ design was based on a rational and orderly composition that placed importance on social interaction, open space and the idea of a dense, urban village. Centering all structures at the core of the 500-acre campus allowed for open space and the rural qualities of the site to be preserved. This also allowed for a walkable campus, one in which prominence was given to pedestrians and cars were limited to the periphery of the site.
The design of Purchase College is a excellent example of 1970s urban design and campus planning concepts. The complex is often described within the Brutalist architectural style for its rough and block-like appearance. The use of brick as the dominant material was described at the time as "masterly" and functions as a unifying element across the individually designed structures. The 1983 issue of Abitare highlights the design accomplishments at Purchase College and state, "the spacious halls [of the Performing Arts Center] inside allow the designer to create vast surfaces without break, and to lend significance to the architecture solely by means of the interplay of elementary volumes, in a quest for characteristic forms of the expression of the minimal."
The development of a State University for the Arts in New York State was quite notable for its time and was eagerly awaited by the press and students alike. Described in publications across the world, Purchase College was an anomaly of cutting-edge design created by great architects, not only for the public good, but in celebration of artistic achievement. Purchase was unique in that it was a complete design of a college campus and not a piecemeal approach to growth and additions. In 1971 the Museum of Modern Art featured an exhibition of the campus design entitled, Architecture for the Arts” the State University of New York College at Purchase. Throughout its forty-year existence, the campus design as well as its origins have been widely discussed and debated. Recently, the campus was featured in the Academy Award winning film Black Swan and as the backdrop of a Vogue China photo-shoot. In a 1997 Neuberger Museum of Art exhibition catalog entitled, Urban Suburban: The Architecture of Purchase College, curator Paul Goldberger states, “the architecture of Purchase stands as evidence that society places the arts at its center, not at its periphery. A government does not build a campus such as this one for an activity it considers trite.”
Created by the most talented American architects and championed by Nelson Rockefeller, the country’s most generous Governor, Purchase College set the bar high for the importance of public architecture and the world of the arts. Master planner Edward Larrabee Barnes’ design based on Thomas Jefferson’s historic University of Virginia campus, is notable not for its individual buildings but for its overall campus plan. Built during the apex of modern architecture, Purchase College signifies the arc of campus planning in the United States during a time in which funding for education and public services were at its highest. Although relatively intact, Purchase College has recently experienced a number of major renovations and additions. The most significant alteration has been the addition of the Student Services Building on the eastern end of the mall. The addition, which closed off the view from the mall of the surrounding landscape and the relocation of the beloved Henry Moore sculpture, is similar in its destruction and criticism to the Stanford White Library on the mall at the University of Virginia. The State University Construction Fund and the campus facilities offices have done a relatively good job in their stewardship of the campus and the restoration of its parts. A heritage site plan is currently in place to oversee the renovation of the original farm buildings but an overall plan that takes in the significance of the 1970s campus plan should be put into place. Purchase College, its designers, its champions and its ideology speak to the development of public architecture in the twentieth century as well as the unique rise and development of the State University of New York system. As Paul Goldberger continues in his 1997 exhibition statement, “it remains an achievement unequaled in American public architecture since - a collection of buildings of the highest intent, designed to create a place in which the teaching of the arts would be nurtured and honored. Architecture has rarely been given so laudable a mission, so clearly a place in which to prove that it can matter. At Purchase College a government expressed faith in architecture, and in the context of the attitudes of the 1990s, that attitude alone defines this project as historic, and makes it impossible to view it as anything less heroic.”
Drexler, Arthur. Architecture for the Arts: The State University of New York College at Purchase. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
Bleeker, Samuel E.. The Politics of Architecture: A perspective on Nelson Rockefeller. New York: The Rutledge Press and Nelson Rockefeller Collection, 1981.
von Moos, Stanislaus. Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown: Buildings and Projects. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.
Marlin, William, ed. GA Architect 2: Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. Japan: A.D.A. EDITA Tokyo Co., Ltd., 1982.
Arnell, Peter and Ted Bickford ed. Charles Gwathmetey and Robert Siegel: Buildings and Projects 1964-1984. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984.
Building with Brick: New York State University. Abitare. April. Volume 213, p.80-87, (1983).