"So what does the taste for Hogwarts-style dormitories say about the Yale or the USC of 2017? It says that the primary job of residential architecture on campus is to provide a sense of consistency and familiarity for donors and incoming students alike — to soften the edges of the college experience."

The Bass Tower rises above Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges at Yale.
The Bass Tower rises above Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges at Yale. © Michael Marsland

In general I have no patience for the argument, popular among classic liberals and Fox News viewers alike, that American college students these days are coddled or protected from especially challenging ideas. Did you read that recent Huffington Post essay“Millennials Are Screwed,” the one illustrated with the pixelated avocados?

I don’t think the rest of America is in any position to call that cohort — or the one now preparing to enter college, which is right on the cusp between millennials and so-called Gen Z — soft about anything. Because let’s be real: The safest space in American culture is a single-family house owned by a baby boomer, protected as it is by mortgage deductions and aggressive zoning restrictions (and in California by Proposition 13, the gift from Howard Jarvis that keeps on giving).

I begin to have second thoughts on this score, however, when it comes to the new architecture at certain American colleges. Expensive dormitories, in particular, have begun to exhibit an incurious (and in its worst form an infantilizing) nostalgia, with Yale and USC, among other schools, leaning hard on the kind of Gothic Revival excess that first became popular a full century ago. Unlike the architecturally ambitious and defiantly un-cozy complex I lived in as a Yale undergraduate in the early 1990s — Morse College, designed in a sort of Brutalist-on-the-Pueblo style by Eero Saarinen and finished in 1962 — the new campus architecture is meant to be familiar and comforting above all.

Among the most surprising parts of 2017 for me was the discovery that one key source of this renewed interest in the Gothic Revival is — cue the John Williams score — Hogwarts, the boarding school for wizards that stands at the heart of the book series by J.K. Rowling. In those books and especially their movie versions, the departure from home and the beginning of adulthood are bound together with a particular vision of campus architecture, one that takes its cues both from the Gothic buildings at Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago and elsewhere and the older quadrangle model from Oxford and Cambridge that inspired those American designs.