In previous articles, I have covered a sampling of the historic fabric of campus (wherein, to be precise, fabric refers to the fabricated or man-made components thereof, not textiles).  I have also addressed the general practice of traditional building today.  Another key aspect remains to be discussed.  There is, I suspect, widespread confusion about the distinction between a building designed in a traditional style and one constructed with traditional methods and materials.  Anyone can pick out a building in a traditional style; few besides arkies suffer the burden of noticing which buildings are merely faking it.

When I first visited campus as a high school junior, I would never have observed that Coleman-Morse and Dillon Hall were separated by 70 years if not for the dates on the cornerstones.  Sure, the contemporary stonework was less refined, and the brick a bit more machine-finished, but all in all, the differences were hardly glaring to the architectural layperson.  Today, after three and a half years of architectural education, I am now aesthetically accosted by every expansion joint and weep hole.

These are attributes unique to modern cavity wall construction.  The name is derived from the air gap in the wall between the concrete block and brick veneer.  Its purpose is to force moisture that seeps through the brick, or evaporates from the building interior, to condense, fall, and discharge through the weep holes, rather than sitting in the wall.  The expansion joints, of course, complement this by allowing for movement between the veneer and superstructure due to the temperature differential across the cavity.  Extremely clever, but not terribly interesting, you say?

Admittedly, their significance here is limited to a purely academic debunking of fictive traditionalism.  I only discuss them because they are a few of the telltale signs that denote modern construction.     Other consequences of modern construction, however, are not so inconspicuous.

Perhaps the single most glaring issue, from the standpoint of getting a building to function properly and not look ridiculous doing it, is ceiling-to-floor height.  Not floor-to-ceiling, although tall rooms are nice.  I’m talking about all those pipes and ducts running above the fiberboard tiles.  If you’ve noticed something odd about the newer buildings on campus, but couldn’t quite put a finger on it, this is probably the cause.  A modern building has miles of air supply and return ducts, sprinkler systems, electrical wires, data cables, gas lines, hot water pipes, chilled water pipes, and sanitary sewer, to name a few.  The plenum space these collectively occupy adds several feet to the vertical spacing between the windows, making the buildings look stretched between floors.

This problem is most apparent on Hammes-Mowbray Hall, the post office-security building on the northeast corner of campus.  It is a load-bearing masonry building, meaning that the floors are supported by the walls, rather than a steel frame – a fact celebrated by an absurdly large expanse of brick pierced with itty-bitty windows.  In response to this, more recent buildings have gone to tremendous lengths to disguise their deformity, some more successfully than others.

Stinson-Remick Hall, the new engineering facility on DeBartolo Quad, is the poster child for such efforts.  The lab rooms on the first floor rise approximately nine feet to the drop tile ceiling.  Above that hangs about four feet of suspended mechanical spaghetti, surmounted by three feet of reinforced concrete girders, beams, and floor slabs.  Add another three feet for the sill height of the second floor windows, and we arrive at the equivalent of an entire story wedged between the actual windows. 

To help mask this fact, the designers pulled the plenum back a few feet from the outside wall, so that the first floor windows graze the underside of the structural frame.  The remaining seven or so feet are covered by a beige panel.  The panel suffers from understatement, such that it appears to exist primarily to prevent an eyesore, and is only incidentally ornamental.  A better-developed panel would be first and foremost a credit to the building in its own right, one which conveniently happened to provide cover for the structure beneath.  A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference between an awkward billboard and an elegant mural.

This approach was attempted at the law school addition, where we are literally given a notional story between the first and second floor, with “windows” of cast stone bas-reliefs.  The panels, though not distinguished by any particular artistic merit, do perform rather admirably within the composition of the building.  The next time you walk by, picture the law school with nothing but brick between the first and second floor, and you’ll immediately see how preposterous it might have looked.  Not that the result is spectacular – far from it – but it could have been disastrous.  The fight goes on.

Matthew Balkey is a fourth year architecture student.  He ate an entire bag of gummy coke bottles while writing this article.  Contact him at