Architecture Tour: Brandeis Modern

By Alexandra Lange / Published by Dwell
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Architecture critic Alexandra Lange invites Dwell along as she observes a little-known trove of midcentury architecture at Brandeis University near Boston.

The campus of Brandeis University in Watham, Massachusetts, is a little-known trove of midcentury modern design. Gerald S. Bernstein’s book, Building A Campus: An Architectural Celebration of Brandeis’s 50th Anniversary (1999), describes how the new school hired Eero Saarinen to create a campus master plan in 1949. Saarinen collaborated with Matthew Nowicki to lay out the school, creating quads with long, flatroofed buildings. Saarinen was working on the General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit at the same time, and one can see some similarities. Initial versions of the Brandeis plan included a circular structure and a striking vertical structure reminiscent of the Tech Center’s water tower and Styling Dome. Saarinen eventually designed four buildings for the campus; one has been demolished and the others altered. What remain are the striking buildings designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, who followed Saarinen as master planners. A map of the campus with dates and architects can be found here.

Berlin (Jewish) Chapel, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1955. The firm designed three interdenominational chapels, set around a small pond and clad in pale gray brick. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

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The chapels, which are equal in size, are arranged so that no one ever casts a shadow on the others. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Brandeis University's Faculty Club, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1959. The club as seen through the windows of the 2002 Shapiro Campus Center by Charles Rose Architects. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

A precast screen that suggests Hawaii more than Massachusetts. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

The massing and landscaping of the Faculty Club reveal the Japanese influence on 1950s American modern architecture. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Sculpture at the Pollack Fine Arts Teaching Center, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1972. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Goldman-Schwartz Art Studios, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1962. A series of slanted, two-story skylights lets light in to the studios, set into a hollow below the Rose Art Museum. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Interior of one of the studios. Arranged around a courtyard, each classroom has access to natural light and views. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Detail of one of the studios’ slanted roofline and brick wall. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Spingold Theater, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1965. This circular brick structure looms over the campus, its distinctive scalloped roofline offering a high degree of contrast to the generally low and rectilinear classroom and dormitory buildings. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Detail of the concrete exterior staircase. The second level of the theater can be accessed, and circumnavigated, from several points. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Interior of the main auditorium, showing the inside effects of the scalloped concrete clerestory. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

The circular ticket booth, set just inside the front entrance. Most of the 1950s-era campus buildings are brick, with the art museum and chapels set apart with lighter cladding. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

A Shaker-esque line of hooks for coats, thoughtfully placed outside the doors of the main auditorium. Photo by Alexandra Lange.

Alexandra Lange


Alexandra Lange is a critic, journalist and architectural historian based in Brooklyn. She has taught architecture criticism in the Design Criticism Program at the School of Visual Arts and the Urban Design & Architecture Studies Program at New York University. She is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014. She is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), a primer on how to read and write architecture criticism, as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka Press, 2012), which considers the message of the physical spaces of Facebook, Google, and Apple. She has long been interested in the creation of domestic life, a theme running through Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books, 2010), which she co-authored with Jane Thompson, as well as her contributions to Formica Forever (Metropolis Books, 2013) and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale University Press, 2006).

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