Best of The Pietist Schoolman: College Architecture and Christian Simplicity

Reading this morning that American colleges and universities have accumulated over $200 billion in outstanding debt thanks to a “decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students” reminded me of this post from last November…

Benson Great Hall at Bethel University
One of Bethel’s best buildings: Benson Great Hall

I’ve mentioned once or twice before that my employer, Bethel University, is in the middle of developing its next master plan. We’ve seen a couple of scenarios from the consultants, and both anticipate a substantial expansion and renovation of our facilities: new buildings, sprucing up of old ones… It’s all very exciting, especially in this Never-Never Land phase of the process, when no one mentions a price tag or time frame.

In tandem with that level of planning, we’ve been talking a lot about how to improve our classroom space and other learning environments. For example, last month I was part of a session at which professors and IT consultants were encouraged to brainstorm untethered even by what’s currently feasible. (My rather lame best attempt: a classroom in which the walls themselves were flat panel screens that could display multi-media, so that even a History course could become a truly immersive experience.)

Again, all very exciting. But also a bit worrisome.

Because together with the thrill of envisioning what could be come the temptations to forget what was and to lose sight of who we are. As we so quickly criticize our facilities, do we recognize why they were built as they were? As we dream of more and more beautiful space filled with newer and shinier accoutrements, do we risk compromising our mission?

I don’t want to push this too far. As a History professor, I have to recognize first that I feel the burden of our facilities less than others. There are departments that truly struggle to do what they do given the facilities currently available: e.g., science programs simply need higher ceilings and more storage and lab space than we possess; our library and academic support center are bursting at the seams. Meanwhile, our department, like most in the humanities and social sciences, has simple needs. While I’m happy to integrate technology into my teaching and I’d prefer a spacious, well-lit room, all I really need is a quiet place to talk with students. So on that basis, I’m perhaps less prone to excitement about new or renovated facilities.

Bethel Academy and Seminary, 1920
Bethel as it was in 1920 — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

Then second, I recognize that I’m in the still more peculiar position of being a History professor who studies his school’s history, and so somewhat familiar with the reasons that our campus and facilities are the way they are.

In part, we’re in our present position because when Bethel moved from St. Paul to the suburbs, there were limited funds, and the powers-that-be decided to make do and then expand in a piecemeal process, as more resources came available. (A philosophy that produced all sorts of unintended problems pointed out by our consultants.) But the reason that the core of our academic facilities looks the way it does also reflects intentional attentiveness to our distinctive mission as a Christian liberal arts college in the Baptist Pietist tradition.

In explaining the architecture of the new Bethel College in his 1973 Annual Report, then-president Carl Lundquist stressed several themes. One was interconnectedness: offices, classrooms, and common areas were intentionally intermingled so as to promote informal student-professor interactions (in keeping with our founder’s oft-stated principle that teachers should be helpers and friends to their students), and different departments were placed near each other to emphasize the interconnectedness of the liberal arts.

Plan for the new Arden Hills campus
Plan for the new Bethel College — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

I trust that those ideals will continue under any new plan. But the most important theme Lundquist stressed seems a bit more threatened by our new mode of thinking:

Economic and philosophical concerns dictated unpretentiousness in building style. The youth of this era is not interested in monumental architecture. Their interest is in needy people and how to direct the resources of the world toward them. They are genuinely concerned about service to humanity and witness to Christian values. Architecture, to be true to its day, must reflect this. I believe that it does at Bethel. This is seen in straightforward forms, clustering of functions into interrelated centers, interior burnished block walls lightened by hangings, pictures and splashes of colors, reddish sand-moulded brick exteriors now characteristic of the campus, predominance of earth tones, window-lines skywalks that open upon the campus panorama. Simplicity itself is an element of beauty.

In handsomely different ways, the College and the Seminary structures depict the Biblical emphasis of a simple life style consistent with the pilgrim role of the Christian in this world.

Now, I don’t want to romanticize things. Lundquist’s “clustering” has meant that some functions are scattered that should be kept together; some support services are in prominent places that really could be out of the way, while some signature departments are tucked away in corners. And the “interior burnished block walls” are really stacks of cinder blocks, leaving too many of our most-used classrooms feeling dark, ugly, and oppressive. And this is a teaching problem: I don’t need many bells and whistles to teach history well, but I do need students to have the chance of becoming so imaginatively immersed in the past that they forget, at some level, that they’re sitting in a Bethel classroom; and that’s hard to do surrounded by cinder blocks and crammed into a space meant to hold ten fewer students than are in the class.

Bethel College addition, 1976
An early addition to the new Bethel campus, 1976 — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

But at its core, Lundquist’s architectural philosophy remains attractive, rooted in our history (both as immigrants who possessed little and knew well “the pilgrim role of the Christian in this world,” and as Pietists who revolted against the physical wealth and spiritual poverty of state churches) and easily forgotten in our present mode of complaining/dreaming. How many of us truly embrace simplicity as an academic virtue, or an intentional discipline that draws us closer to the Center of learning?

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