SAHANZ/UHPH Joint Conference 2022
A Moderate’s Megastructure: Edward Larrabee Barnes and the Planning of SUNY Purchase, New York, 1967-71
Virtual Conference Presentation, November 2022

In the 1960s United States, university campuses were seen as testbeds for urban spatial and social relations, and their master plans were therefore a prime opportunity for their designers, usually architects, to realize urbanist visions. Initiatives from this period remain staggering in their scale and architectural ambition. The State University of New York system a massive expansion on more than 50 campuses across the state during the tenure of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The most ambitious of its new campuses was its flagship arts college at Purchase, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, master planned by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. Mimicking Thomas Jefferson’s famous design for the University of Virginia, the master plan symmetrically arrayed buildings for different disciplines around a massive paved plaza. Along the plaza’s centerline, Barnes himself designed an interconnected complex for students’ everyday needs. Flanking this was a concrete-framed arcade onto which buildings by other leading architects abutted. Barnes’ plan challenged these architects with prescriptive requirements intended to engender a cohesive and consistent atmosphere, including the dictate that all buildings be clad in the same gray-brown brick, and that all openings be framed in dark gray glass and metal trim. These prescriptions were a negative image of “architecture” as understood in this particular place and time: a stable regulatory regime within which architects could be liberated, within reason. Barnes’ design was a moderate’s version of a megastructure, intended to manage creative impulses—both those of other architects and of art students—rather than set them free. If the eternal problem of planning is to offer a vision for the future loose enough to adjust to the unexpected, then the vision offered here was the controlling gaze of a paranoiac. Is the master plan inevitably a tool of management, or can it be a liberatory document instead?

Model of Barnes’s final SUNY Purchase master plan with designs by several other architects, prepared for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Architecture for the Arts,” 1971.