We’re Number One!

Drexel University is, once again, the ugliest college campus in America.

Drexel University's campus
Drexel’s campus, an urban wasteland?

According to a new post on CampusSqueeze, Drexel has beat out the nation’s outdated and unloved universities to take home the dubious honour. I cheekily punched the air and proclaimed “yes” when I read this, however I don’t truly believe this to be the case. However, it’s hard to disagree when you put it like this:

1. Drexel University – Won Ugliest Campus in the Country in 2002 and guess what? No one made any changes. They still have prison-like dorms (shocker) and massive orange, yes orange, brick buildings from the ’70’s. It’s small, sporadic, and basically Philadelphia’s urban dumpster called a higher place of learning. That’s embarassing. The people of Drexel (the administrators, not the students) need to wake up and look around their filthy campus and shape it up.

Mmm, there’s more to it than that…

First, allow me to test the accuracy of the above statement. There have, in fact, been changes since 2002. From the time I arrived on campus in 1999, to my last visit in November 2007, there have been constant construction projects. In fact, we used to call the school CLU for Chain-Link University (you know, because of all the fences). Since 2002 there have been two major projects: The construction of the massive glass research building, designed by IM Pei, no less, and the controversial ‘development’ of 32nd St. More on this in a sec. Yes, the school has prison-like dorms, but show me a school that doesn’t. Dorms, by their very nature, are prison-like, complete with an often-scary cellmate roommate and military-style restrictions on booze, women, visitors, etc. I can’t defend the Orange Bricks — they are, in fact, a horrible trademark of the school. The geography is unfortunate; Drexel is sandwiched between two of Phila’s major arteries (Market & Chestnut Sts.) and has struggled to provide the suburban sanctuary in an area that is clearly urban. The administrators indeed have the terrible habit of ignoring student input and feedback on all issues of planning and construction. We have often wondered what they were thinking and why they didn’t even consult the academic department of architecture/urban landscape design, which has a pretty well-respected Master’s programme at Drexel. But I wouldn’t call the campus filthy at all.

Drexel University's campus
Jail-like dorms. Made of orange brick, of course. Note: This field now has an 8-foot high bright turquoise metal fence surrounding it on all sides. Not exactly a friendly campus.

Drexel University's campus
Chestnut St. runs right through campus.

Next, let me attack the poll itself and explain possible reasons why Drexel ended up at No. 1 (again). Obviously, this post is written by a single person who performed a less than scientific method in creating this post.

I based this post on message boards from students and anyone, actually, who wanted to voice their opinion on what they thought the ugliest/prettiest schools were. If you disagree, you should’ve taken the time to write what you think about the schools.

This means that the data is filled with response bias, meaning that Drexel students, being both cranky and incredible well-connected internetically have a louder voice than perhaps they should. By this same logic, schools that have a truly small, unsightly campus probably don’t even have a student body in the conventional, organised sense. For example, FIT in New York occupies a single city block with one contiguous massive monolith of a building. But where are the students to complain? Probably hanging out in the East Village somewhere, worrying about something else entirely.

Drexel University's campus
Drexel overlooks a bizarre industrial dead zone in West Philly

Also, the author of the post doesn’t give credit to trees or greenspace in general. While Drexel loves wide expanses of concrete, there are actually trees. More than can be found at, say St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, or Rutgers Newark. Greenspace means a lot to most people, which is why Drew University (No. 11 on the list) is usually viewed as one of the nicest campuses in the region. In fact, most of the trees there are upwards of 200 years old and protected from development, giving the campus a free-form and natural plan.

Drexel University's campus
Concrete with occasional trees, very Drexel.

Drexel’s ugly reputation is augmented by its proximity to the gorgeous University of Pennsylvania, just next door. Penn is about 100 years older than Drexel, sits on less popular streets, occupies more land thus providing that true ‘sanctuary’ effect, has more money, a better sense of architectural unity, a deeper appreciation of liberal arts, etc. etc. etc. Basically, Penn wins in every category, leaving Drexel to feel like the ugly girl at the dance. It’s all relative, I suppose, because Temple University, a short subway ride from Drexel and Penn, has fewer trees, more concrete, bigger streets, more crime, fewer dorms, etc. etc. than Drexel. Yet they failed to make the list (probably because they have more commuters and a less vocal populous).

University of Pennsylvania's campus
Penn’s Stadium is representative of the campus as a whole

University of Pennsylvania's campus
Common spaces are inviting and comfortable

University of Pennsylvania's campus
The stone and walnut interior of Houston Hall

And finally, let me enlighten you, dear readers, about a gaff that embodies the sentiment of the poll results, the one project that says “America’s Ugliest Campus”: the closing and renovation of 32nd St. Here’s the skinny: many years ago, Drexel got the city of Philadelphia to close S. 32nd St. connecting Market St. and Chestnut St., this was good thing, as it allowed pedestrian traffic to flow freely from the Main Building complex and the rest of campus. (the campus is L-shaped, with 32nd st. separating the vertical part from the horizontal part, essentially.) But back in 2002 or so, they decided that a street with concrete barriers on either end was unsightly. It wasn’t exactly broken, but apparently needed fixing.

Drexel University's campus
32nd St. ‘park’. I can offer no explanation

To ‘remedy’ the situation, they errected concrete planters and miniwalls, zig-zagging across the street in every direction. The lunch trucks were displaced to a much less convenient side street, and the area was scattered with lightposts that point skyward, stairs to nowhere, and awkward bus-station-style benches. And the worst part is that they made the distinct effort to skate-proof the entire project by adding a chink to the concrete curbs every 2 feet or so (pictured above). They had the audacity to call it the “32nd st. park”, in spite of the fact that most of the oddly shaped triangles didn’t contain grass, but rather some strange straw-like plant. Oh, and they paved about 1/3 of it as private parking for administrative bigwigs and important visitors.

Words truly cannot express how confusing it is, especially in light of the fact that a closed-off street did the job perfectly well. While everyone offered solutions as to what they should have done, I came up with two solutions which are both simple and less expensive than trying to make some modernist statement in concrete: they could have torn up the road and planted grass — just grass — across the whole thing. Eventually, students would wear a path on route to classes. After gauging which paths are the most trafficked and widest, the school could pave those, and leave the rest as grass. Or, they could have followed the model of Penn with Woodland Walk or Locust Walk, and simply replaced the asphalt of the street with bricks. Walking on bricks says clearly that it is for pedestrians, not cars. It is more labour intensive, but so much nicer in the long run. Of course, Drexel would probably cock it up and use those damn orange bricks.

This is already the longest post I’ve ever written, so I’ll get to the point and stop ranting (too late). Whether deserved or not, a small, ugly campus is part of Drexel’s national reputation. It is the major hurdle in their recruitment, retention, student morale, alumni involvement, and citywide reputation. But how to fix it? As I have witnessed, you can’t build you way out of this problem, and if anything, it makes things worse.

In the past ten years or so, Drexel has invested heavily in itself and building a strong brand. It has tried to shift perceptions from a specialised, technical institute in urban Philadelphia to an all-purpose university, set on a suburban campus, for a national audience. All this is in the pursuit of that one great currency for institutes of learning: prestige. Prestige brings smart students, city investments, top athletes, government grants, world-renowned faculty and everything else a university could desire — it is the holy grail of a university brand, and frankly, the only thing that matters.

So the question now facing Drexel is simply “can a school be prestigious in spite of an ugly campus?” If you ask schools in New York City, such as SVA, Pratt, Parsons, FIT, Fordham, St. John’s, NYU, and Columbia, the answer is yes — these all lack a traditional campus it that Norman Rockwell sense, some in every sense as they are simply a scattered collection of buildings. What do you think? Does Drexel get a bad wrap or are they overlooking a key touchpoint for their brand? Are they sinking their own ship, or are they just another victim of urban development? Am I overly critical of the place where I spent 5 generally enjoyable years?

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