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History of Master Planning at Brandeis
taken from An Architectural Celebration of Brandeis University's 50th Anniversary, with kind permission of the Editor, Gerald S. Bernstein, Ph.D.

In 1950, Dr. Abram Sachar decided that a Master Plan was an important priority for the new university. The choice of Eero Saarinen, an internationally recognized proponent of the modern movement in architecture, set an important precedent for the development of the school. Although Saarinen's involvement with Brandeis was brief, he left an indelible imprint on the growth of the campus.

The opening of Brandeis University in the fall of 1948 met with relatively little notice. A group of Jewish businessmen and academics who made up the Board of Trustees could not have imagined the challenges they would face in the creation of a nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored liberal arts college. Although the school was originally projected to begin classes in 1947, a series of financial and administrative difficulties postponed the opening for a year.

The purchase of a 90-acre tract from the Middlesex Medical College provided a campus for the incoming class of 107 students. The site was set among a landscape of rolling hills and rocky terrain with large areas of swamp and wetlands. More than a dozen structures dating back to the Baker Farm occupied the grassy meadows. The dominant building on the new Brandeis campus was a fantasy-like Castle located on an outcropping of stone on the eastern edge of the site. Like most of the Middlesex buildings, it was in dilapidated condition and desperately in need of repair.

The new Board of Trustees, with the aid of architects and academic consultants, began a series of feasibility studies of the existing buildings. The first phase of development led to the demolition of some structures and the refurbishing of others. The pressing need for more living space led to the renovation of the Castle into women's dormitories. A group of Boston-based architects and engineers supervised a number of construction projects including additional classrooms, laboratories, and study areas. A new wing was added to the old Middlesex library, increasing its capacity by more than 30,000 volumes.

However, even with these short-term solutions it became apparent that some type of long-range building program would have to be developed.

In a memo dated in the spring of 1948, Dr. David Berkowitz, director of the Office of University Planning, stressed the urgency of developing a Master Plan. Improvised solutions provided by modernizing old buildings would no longer be feasible. The problems concerning future growth had reached crisis proportions.

President Abram Sachar points out a detail from the Saarinen Master Plan, 1950.The selection by Dr. Abram Sachar, the newly appointed president of Brandeis, of the internationally renowned architectural firm of Saarinen, Saarinen, and Associates brought instant prestige to the new university. The firm, which had wide experience in campus planning, had recently completed projects for Antioch College and Drake University.

Another of the younger Saarinen's designs was or the General Motors Technological Center in Warren, Michigan. This complex of rectilinear, flat-roofed buildings with exposed steel structure and glass and brick walls became a signature of the Saarinen firm.

In the spring of 1949, Saarinen made his first visit to the Brandeis campus. In an exchange of letters with Sachar, the young Saarinen outlined his educational philosophy and the architectural character he envisioned for the future campus. Saarinen expressed his strong interest in the commission and his enthusiasm for the architectural possibilities of the project.

President Sachar and the Board of Trustees were impressed with Saarinen's conception and officially authorized the project to begin that summer. The commission was divided into two phases: the first to create

preliminary drawings of the site and the second to produce a brochure to publicize the plan and bring it to the attention of possible donors.

There is no question that Saarinen conceived of a third phase beyond the promotional sketches. Here the architect would have been commissioned to design and construct individual campus buildings. This aspect of the project, however, remained unresolved throughout Saarinen's association with Brandeis.

The Saarinen Plan for the future campus, 1951-1952.After a number of conferences with the Saarinen firm in which the guidelines of the program were outlined, work on the campus plan was begun. Saarinen returned to Waltham in early August and had the opportunity to study the site more closely. To facilitate the tight schedule requirements of the commission, particularly phase one, Saarinen selected the noted young architect Matthew Norwicki to collaborate on the project. The two men worked intensively throughout the summer preparing the drawings for the Master Plan brochure. The results of their efforts was the publication in November of the first edition of A Foundation for Learning: Planning the Campus of Brandeis University, which consisted of a description of the educational goals of the new university along with a series of perspectival renderings of the campus. The projected Master Plan as presented in the brochure consisted of a number of rectangular buildings for the sciences, humanities, and the social sciences. Also included in the central area were a library and a student center. At the edge of the academic quad was the Creative Arts Center, distinguished by a dramatic circular auditorium.

The Saarinen design for the future residence halls, 1951-52.The dormitories were located on the peripheral road and were organized into three separate rectagular groupings. Also included in the Master Plan were an athletic complex and a single interdenominational chapel. The plan was to be developed over a 10-year period and was projected to cost over $20 million.

During the early 1950s, a number of revisions to the Master Plan were made. These included a large rectilnear structure to serve as the University museum and a circular greenhouse attached to the science complex. A more fully developed athletic facility were also presented.

Eero Saarinen and Associates, Ridgewood Quadrangle, 1950, before major modification in 1973.All of the revisions appear in the second edition of A Foundation for Learning, which was published in 1951. The new brochure also featured a photograph of the Ridgewood dormitory quad, which had been completed in the fall of 1950. The location of Ridgewood did not relate to the Saarinen Master Plan. It was sited on the southwesterly side of the campus with access to South Street. The choice of this site and the flexibility of the individual units has led to one of the enduring Brandeis myths.

Many in the Brandeis community hold to the often-told story that in the early days of the University, many, including conservative lending institutions, questioned Brandeis's ability to survive. For this reason, one of the requirements of the government load was to construct dorms that could be converted into conventional apartments or even motel units in the event of the University's fiscal demise.

Although the story of the government loan may have some basis in truth, a more telling factor in the design of the Ridgewood Quadrangle may simply have been Ridgewood's potential for adaptability. The original plan was to serve as faculty and married student housing, but because of the urgent need to accommodate undergraduates, the structures were modified to traditional dormitory usage.

The second edition of the brochure illustrating the Saarinen Master Plan contained a more careful study of the terrain. The outcropping of huge stone ledge near the center of the Academic Quad was clearly depicted. This and other rock formations found throughout the campus created natural sculpture.

Saarinen's enthusiasm for the Brandeis project was due not only to his appreciation of its "wonderful site," but to the opportunity of creating a 20th-century environment of unity and order. In contrast to the restrictions imposed by already existing campus buildings, such as those encountered at Drake University, the Brandeis commission offered a more flexible program with fewer existing buildings to be preserved. The Saarinen plan called for almost all of the old Middlesex buildings to be demolished. Only the Castle found its way into the Brandeis Master Plan.

The judgement to preserve Smith's Castle and renovate it into women's dormitories was practical and aesthetic. The pressing need for more living space was of course a major consideration, but the Castle's distinctive appearance must have also played a role. The Castle's dramatic location near the site of the Academic Quadrangle and across from the elliptical reservoir created a linkage to the past and a ready-made tradition for the new school.

The towers and turrets of the Castle contrasted with the crisp rectangular forms projected by Saarinen for the Hamilton dormitories (now Massell Quadrangle). Following the basic tenets of the International Style, the architect envisioned a grouping of rectangular structures conforming to a basic right angle grid. The result is strikingly similar to the design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The original site of the women's residence halls was on the western edge of the campus. However, subsequent expansion of the creative arts area spread beyond the quadrangle. Although all the buildings of the complex are similar in their box-like brick facades with windows set in metal frames, only the Shapiro Residence Hall and Sherman Student Center were built under the architect's supervision.  Saarinen's hand is clearly evident in the selection of orange-toned, rustic brick and the use of color-coordinated mortar. The proportion of the Shapiro Residence Hall in comparison to the other dorms that surround the old Middlesex ice pond is also more sensitive to human scale.Eero Saarinen and Associates, Beatrice Sherman Student Center, 1952.

One of the more interesting features of the Sherman Student Center was the architect's design for the facade facing the pond.  Here Saarinen utilized one of the basic features of the International Style by creating a "curtain wall" rising the full height of the building.  Unfortunately, over the years, certain modifications have been made to the original design.  This is sadly true of Sherman, where energy conserving measure have altered the overall appearance of the building, substituting brands of windows in place of the original transparent wall.
Remodeled south facade of the Sherman Student Center with strip windows replacing glass wall, 1973.

The remaining three buildings were completed a few years later by architects working from Saarinen's designs and the guidelines of the Master Plan.

Eero Saarinen and Associates, Massell Quadrangle, formerly Hamilton, 1952.Unfortunately, the experience of the Massell Quadrangle mirrors the fate of  Saarinen at Brandeis.  What had begun with such promise was lost to expedience.  Of the four buildings that Saarinen actually designed, three have been drastically altered and a fourth lost to the wrecker's ball.  Saarinen's conception of the Brandeis chapel never became more than a rendering, although one can now see it with certain modifications on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By 1952, Eero Saarinen's connection to Brandeis had come to an end.  Although the architect had conceived of a campus built in his personal style, many factors, including construction costs and difficulties in fundraising, made that impossible.  Saarinen's expectations for his Master Plan no longer seemed viable as local architects were awarded the commission for the Shapiro Gym.

The architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz was asked by President Sachar to take on the responsibility of a new Master Plan.  Max Abramovitz, a former student and personal friend of Dr. Sachar, adopted many of the concepts of the original Saarinen project.  The new Abramovitz Master Plan utilized Saarinen's system of organization by placing the residence halls at the periphery of the academic facilities.  Abramovitz's desire to preserve the natural landscape of the site led to his choice of small units rather than monumental blocks.  The small unit approach may have also reflected problems in attracting large donations for individual projects.

Another important visual connection between the Abramovitz and Saarinen plans is seen in the continued use of red brick with limestone or concrete trim.  The few exceptions to this formula, in such buildings as the Rose Art Museum or the Three Chapels, were labeled by President Sachar as "prima donnas," because they stood out dramatically on campus.

Perhaps the most significant link between the Saarinen and Abramovitz conception of the Brandeis Master Plan was the strong commitment to the basic tenets of the International Style of architecture.  For better or worse, both architects adopted the rectilinear, flat-roofed glass box, which in the years following World War II was regarded as cutting-edge modernism.

Another interesting architectural feature of Brandeis was the number of architects who were commissioned to work on campus.  Abramovitz, during his tenure as Sachar's "architectural counsel," made a concerted effort to bring a variety of architects to the University.

From the steel and glass structures of the science buildings by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbot to Benjamin Thompson's award-winning designs for the Academic Complex, dozens of architects have contributed to the Brandeis experience.



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