ASU's campus: Where art meets function

Gammage Auditorium

In art, the theory of formalism posits that a work’s artistic value is inherent only in its form, as opposed to its historical context or what it represents. As strident proponent of the formalism theory, twentieth century art critic Clive Bell, remarked on the subject, “the forms of art are inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the same world of aesthetic ecstasy.”    

But what of the college campus? Can it be considered a work of art? Certainly, a college campus has form; but does that form elicit aesthetic emotion?

In Thomas A. Gaines’ book, “The Campus as a Work of Art,” he opens with the proclamation, “The first thing to know about the campus as a work of art is this: It rarely is.”

Art history professor Betsy Fahlman agrees. She explains that because many college campuses develop sporadically over time, the result is often a noticeable difference in architecture and layout that can create an overall feeling of dissidence. And though the various campuses that make up Arizona State University were “developed in spurts, with varying presidential visions,” as Fahlman puts it, she points to its designation as an arboretum as a successful means of unifying the various designs that have resulted within, as well as between, campuses: “A little interesting greenery goes a long way.”

Being the oldest of the four, the Tempe campus runs the historical gamut in terms of architectural styles. Situated at the northernmost point of campus, set back from University Drive is the aptly named Old Main. Built in 1898, it is one of the oldest and most stylistically traditional university buildings. Its rust-colored brick façade and arched windows overlook a sweeping, quartered lawn, at the center of which, Emory Kopta’s three-foot tall “Kachina Fountain” cuts a pleasing symmetrical line through the sloped stone staircase.

In stark contrast, just across the street is the Fulton Center, whose sheer precision and futuristic appearance combine to create a strikingly attractive exterior. The building is an intriguing conglomeration of geometric shapes that appear to float when viewed from certain perspectives. Its southern face, sheathed almost entirely in glass, makes for quite the spectacle at night with the angular projections of the roof framed by an enchanting green glow.

Though perhaps the most ubiquitous structures, buildings are not all there is to consider when determining the artistic merit of a college campus. Fahlman notes the importance of public art installations in creating a sense of place and history. “It creates a sort of museum without walls,” she says.

In 2006, Public Art Review magazine ranked ASU’s public art in the top ten campus collections in the nation, something Fahlman asserts sends a distinct message to students. She explains, “When a campus is visually intriguing on the outside, it hints at what can be expected on the inside. Campuses that embrace art provide a more intellectually stimulating environment.” Gaines reflects that idea in his book with a quote from Wesleyan University music professor Richard Winslow, who noted, “the richness of [a] curriculum results from the conviction that things intellectual should be partnered by things emotional and physical.”

At the Downtown Phoenix campus, Janet Echelman’s 100-foot tall sculpture, "Her Secret is Patience," hangs above Civic Space Park. Its form was inspired by the saguaro cactus flower and, much like the Fulton Center, the sculpture comes alive at night. As dusk falls on the city, its multicolored neon rings resonate with vibrant intensity, hovering delicately in midair.

Across the Valley at the Polytechnic campus, two large agave sculptures – each depicted at a different stage of growth – serve as focal points to a carefully constructed desert oasis. A testament to ASU’s commitment to sustainability, the Desert Arboretum was designed to bring the natural aesthetic beauty of the Sonoran Desert to the campus. The sculptures, constructed from recycled metal by Scott Cisson, add an unexpected element of visual interest to the space. The contrast between the burgeoning vitality of the arboretum’s live plants and the stoic resolve of the inanimate sculptures mirrors the contrasts found in the nature of the desert that surrounds it.

Thoughtful design, calculated landscaping and provocative art installations aside, Gaines reveals that there is yet another dimension a campus must exhibit if it is to be considered a work of art: planning. He says, “The well-planned campus belongs among the most idyllic of man-made environments,” the enemy of which, “is the lack of aesthetic tradition that pervades even the civilized halls of the academy.”

At ASU's West campus, the courtyard-style campus was modeled after the architecture of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Viewed from above, the hollowed-out cubes of buildings form a quilt of lush, green quadrants. The lawns within are neatly bordered by various trees and shrubbery, thoroughly mimicking the aesthetic tradition of that prestigious university that came before it.

Despite the college campus’ obligation to necessitate function, ASU has managed to do so without sacrificing aesthetic sensibility. And according to the designer of the university’s iconic Gammage Auditorium, world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, accomplishing that is the definition of art: “Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.”

When judged against Gaines’ criteria, it appears ASU’s varied campuses could indeed be considered works of art, and he agrees; he lists the university in his book as one of the top fifty in the country whose campuses merit artistic recognition.