Buell Dissertation Colloquium
Columbia University
Freedom and Flexibility: Gunnar Birkerts at Tougaloo College, 1965-67
Presentation, April 2017

As part of a daylong symposium of dissertations-in-progress on American topics, I presented the results of my research into Gunnar Birkerts’s master plan for Tougaloo College, an HBCU in Jackson, Mississippi. Birkerts’s design proposed a megastructure that consisted of bar buildings for academic spaces running north-south, and dormitories that ran perpendicular, suspended in air on huge caissons. I discussed why flexibility was necessary in order for the design to accommodate the college’s projected enrollment growth, and the use of this flexibility as a generator of irregular architectural form. Birkerts’s master plan was produced in parallel to a curricular restructuring to give students more freedom to design their individual educational path. Ultimately, while the college’s administrators saw flexibility as an enabler of freedom, its students saw the master plan as an emblem of Tougaloo’s shift away from locally-engaged teacher training toward a bureaucratic, service economy-oriented educational approach that was more attractive to northern philanthropists. The master plan’s origin in a grant from J. Irwin Miller’s Cummins Engine Foundation proves that their concerns were far from unfounded.

Scale model of master plan proposal for Tougaloo College, Jackson, Mississippi by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. Photograph by Balthazar Korab.