Framed: Why is Harvey Mudd College’s campus so brutal?

A white and pink checkered building covered in windows sits on a green quad.
Harvey Mudd College has a more brutalistic and modern design than any of the other Claremont Colleges. (Kyle Grace • The Student Life)

Harvey Mudd College sticks out in the Claremont Consortium. All of the schools have a long history of making jabs and jokes at the others’ expense, but Mudd in particular seems to get a disproportionate amount of flack. Situated at the northernmost end of the consortium’s campus, the school is known for its rigorous science and engineering curriculum. It also has a reputation for (my apologies, Mudders) a large nerd population and a distinctly ugly campus. 

With a credit system that differs from that of the four other undergraduate institutions in Claremont, a remote spot on the shared campus and a culture that is known for both quirkily themed parties and a grueling workload, Mudd would probably stand out even if its architecture was not so distinct. 

Criticism of Mudd’s campus goes far beyond sneering Scrippsies and Sagehens. Travel and Leisure, a travel magazine with millions of readers, featured Mudd in a 2013 listicle titled “America’s Ugliest College Campuses.” 

Citing Mudd’s “drab slab-sided buildings” and “knobbly concrete squares,” Travel and Leisure makes a fair point. Cinder block dorms, rectilinear overhangs and an overwhelming emphasis on blocks and vertical lines permeate the campus. It lacks the elaborate landscaping and charming fountains of the other Claremont Colleges. Many modern architects use shiny, attractive materials as the centerpoint of their minimalist designs; Mudd’s buildings are mostly made of matte gray and beige concrete.

Mudd was chartered in 1955 and opened in 1957. Its original campus plan, by Edward Durrell Stone, was completed in 1959. Designed in the era of the Space Race, when technological education and advancement were the nation’s priority, the college and its architect chose a practical, modernist and brutalist style. 

The Tate Museum’s art term glossary defines brutalism as an architectural movement of the 1950s and 1960s, identified by its “simple, block-like forms” and “raw concrete construction.” The term was coined, they say, by British architectural critic Reyner Banham and plays with the French phrase béton brut (raw concrete) and the “horror” of the British public upon seeing this style for the first time. 

Brutalism is an offshoot of modernist design, born out of both mid-century aesthetics and more utilitarian sensibilities. America in the 1950s was rapidly expanding, developing and embracing new technologies: rocket ships, computer hard disks and fiber-reinforced concrete construction. In Europe, on the other hand, there was a more urgent need for redevelopment due to the catastrophic effects of World War II. On both continents, then, it made sense that simple, “modern” designs were appealing. 

Probably the most distinct feature of Mudd’s architecture is its warts. Almost all of the buildings on campus — even some of the newest ones — are built with blocks of concrete, each decorated with a smaller knob of concrete. They’re commonly referred to as warts, although they also bear a resemblance to Lego blocks or buttons. But the warts are so beloved by the student body that according to some sources, “Wally the Wart” is Mudd’s unofficial mascot. 

Embracing an anthropomorphic cement wart is just one quirky tradition at a school with many. Their longtime history of pranks, to give one example, has involved victims from rival Caltech to superstar Taylor Swift. Perhaps this all speaks to the kind of school Mudd is: one that values community spirit and academic excellence over a pristine, traditional campus aesthetic. 

Vastly different values and diverse ethos between the Claremont campuses are what ultimately makes the consortium so special. Students aren’t locked into one small community but rather have opportunities to explore and take advantage of all the different campus cultures. Architecture is just one form of expression of the varied communities in Claremont, but it speaks to the unique experiences of our consortium — concrete warts and all. 

Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world.

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