Volume 82 | Issue 1
February 2014

Thoughts on Union Architecture

Michael M. Hare

Editor’s Note: In honor of ACUI’s 100th anniversary, we are reprinting an abridged version of this article, originally published as a two-part series in 1946 editions of The Bulletin. All grammar and terminology has remained unedited.

The title of this article is chosen advisedly. There has been too much building without thinking. Perhaps we might say more charitably that the people who did the thinking unfortunately didn’t do the building.

It is an unpleasant fact that we are still inclined to feel that if the plumbing of life works, life itself will work. Plenty of enclosed space with lots of smooth working mechanical gadgets does not make a union; it makes a machine. Machines are necessary, but buildings must be more than machines.

Architecture Implies a Philosophy

Great architecture is not plumbing. It isn’t brick or stone, or plastic. Great architecture is a philosophy of life expressed by building. I know how easily it is for all architects, including myself, to become involved in the trivia of building. How easy it is to forget to ask each time, “Does this gadget, or room, or plan really contribute to our purpose?” Only too often we do things only because “the trustees want it” and we tire at the prospect of a fight.

Therefore, as I approach the problems of architecture after several years’ absence, it is not adequate for me to browse over the large file accumulated in my office that tells me everything about the best bathroom tile or even the best arrangement of rooms. It would be so easy, but so dull, if all we had to do was average the opinion of all union directors and add that to the opinion of all experts on Architecture - Washington Statematerials and come out with wonderful buildings. That approach is beguiling but wrong.

Why Have a Union?

Instead, I want to ask myself, “Why have this building at all? What is this building doing for the student?” I hope I can presume that all colleges that plan unions believe they are giving the student a liberal education, not only a vocational one. To me this means that the student is being taught not only the skills but the skill of thinking. In large measure to know how to think is to know how to live.
If I am wrong in my presumption and colleges in practice are only teaching vocations, let’s not bother with union buildings—or at least call them something else. It must first be determined what is fundamental to the art of living and those fundamentals incorporated in the program and architecture. What is important in living will determine what is important in architecture.

I would like first to examine some of these fundamentals in relation to union architecture. Understanding of others and of one’s self are prerequisites to the art of life. Or to put it differently, a sense of humor and humility are the necessary background for living.

Obviously buildings cannot themselves teach these things nor can they directly give the individual that confidence which must precede both understanding and true humility. This must be part of the union program and it must be aided by the architecture. These qualities are best achieved by being closely associated with the problems of others in an essentially homelike atmosphere. The classroom never can teach these things, and the architecture of classrooms is thus ruled out. Nor are these fundamentals learned in the form of auditorium. They are only learned where there is intimate give and take, but they show themselves in the auditorium, in relations with the outside world, in administration and in the creation and appreciation of the arts. Therefore, the union building must incorporate many architectural aspects of the home, the auditorium, the administrative building, and the cultural center.

Union a Chance for Giving

Finally, in any union the opportunity must exist for giving. In fact, I go so far as to say that the entire union program must be developed, and with it the architecture, around the idea that this union is fundamentally the result of the daily gifts of a lot of people who are learning living in the process. How does that affect the architecture? The building must require the several efforts of the students to make it work. To put it differently, a union is not a hotel. It is in part a hotel turned inside out, where the efforts of all are visible and it is clear to all that only because of those efforts does it work. In short, a union is at once a community open to view, a home, and a laboratory.

The qualities that are necessary to practice the art of living and which make great men have their counterparts in the great building. Desirable as it is that a man have 10 toes and his stomach right side up, it is not these things that make him great. Desirable as it may be that a building have air conditioning that works, it is not the air conditioning which makes the building great. The great building speaks its greatness softly, with humor. It impresses by its completeness, by the studied integration of its parts, not by its possession of the magnificently unimportant, not by its marble halls or superb brass piping.

Let me also add that I am not concerned by the problem of a building’s appearance because I know that if correct thinking determines the building program and the plans, those qualities will be apparent on its face as they would be on the face of a man.

What Existing Unions Lack

Having taken several trips across the country to get a first-hand view of unions in operation, specific planning problems have solutions that relate to these fundamentals. First I shall mention some of the features of existing unions which appear to show most plainly where improvements can be made. I shall not try to point out the many good features, which naturally far outnumber the bad.
A lack of adequate space devoted to meeting rooms was noticeable almost everywhere. I believe this demonstrates that many colleges do not view the college union as a building with well-defined social and educational goals but rather as the housing of a number of loosely related facilities for which an initial vocal demand happens to exist. The need for such facilities as meeting rooms, for example, often will not be apparent unless it has been smoked out in advance by an experienced planner or spurred on by the existence of a few such facilities and a proper program for them.

Another most noticeable lacks is that of adequate storage space. This cannot be ascribed to any lack of fundamental knowledge of the purpose of the building but comes, I am sure, from the desire to convert all possible space into usable areas. Nevertheless the lack does not exist almost everywhere.

Headaches with Symmetrical Plans

Another criticism which applies to virtually all of the existing unions concerns the type of plan adopted. Almost without exception existing unions are symmetrical in arrangement and strive for the monumental in appearance. This has a serious effect on the usefulness of the building and on the possibilities for expansion. I would say that only in one case out of 10 was the symmetrical plan justified if initial cost and operating expenses are to be kept to a minimum.

It should be obvious that only rarely can you expect to organize the various facilities of the building, grouping them to achieve property physical relations to each other and the lowest cost of supervision, and the same time succeed in arranging them so that they are balanced on either side of the building. Attempts to do this usually result in either reducing the necessary size of some of the facilities in order to meet the symmetrical solution or increasing others for the same purpose with the result of unnecessary increase in cost. Then again, once the building is built the staff is under the necessity of supervising functions of the building at extreme distances from one another. Furthermore, once a symmetrical scheme is adopted all the difficulties that are inherent in it are duplicated as soon as it is desired to add to the building.Architecture - Oregon

Some of the desire for the symmetrical comes from a traditional and academic approach to architecture. It was a surprise for me to realize that college administrations which are progressive in many other fields are timid in their approach to architecture.
Another source of the forced symmetry is the desire for the monumental. The temptation to do this in war memorials is understandable. However, I think it should be made plain that the social accomplishments of such a project will be a much more lasting and effective memorial than can be obtained through the development of a symmetrical and imposing facade. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the monumental appearance of a building may well detract from its usefulness. When this kind of a monument is carried to extremes, as is often the case, students will shy away from the resulting austere building which is but little related to their natural manner of living. I should like to repeat here that unions should be built to educate in the ways of living. None of us today expect to live in pompous places. 

Needs vs. “Pictures”

I will turn now to a discussion of the present approach to the planning of new buildings on the part of colleges.

The necessity for proper planning and the research entailed was not clearly understood by the majority of those colleges contemplating such buildings. Indeed, as a rule they would go further and authorize the development of some preliminary studies. But it is interesting to note that the only element of these studies which was of real interest to a number of the colleges was the pictorial element.

In other words, the college administrations were so taken up with the problems of obtaining funds that their interest centered in sketches for that purpose to the detriment of the serious surveys of needs which properly should precede such sketches. This would be all right if you could be sure that subsequently it would be possible to go back to the beginning and make a thorough study. But I have the suspicion that in many cases the need for such a study is really not understood and in taking the least line of resistance the colleges will press for immediate completion of plans once the funds are available and be unwilling to spend the additional time and money necessary to obtain a sound educational plan and facility program on which the architecture should be based.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that there is an understanding by the colleges that a professional architect must draw the plans, and it is often realized that the local architect does not have the necessary experience. Nevertheless, it would seem that they expect the architect to confine his efforts to the mere technical business of drawing up instruments from which a building can be built rather than in the creation of an imaginative plan which will solve the problems.

The Question of Building Style

Turning to a slightly different aspect of the problem, it might be thought that our colleges and universities would be more progressively minded than commercial interests on the subject of aesthetics. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. Naturally in many cases the question of architectural style involves the relationship to an already existing style on a particular campus. Granted that the architect must take this into consideration, still as an expert on the subject his decision as to the appearance of the building should be given much more weight than is commonly the case.

It is a peculiar thing that whereas responsible citizens, such as those who head our colleges and universities, could never be so bold as to argue with a medical specialist on an important case in surgery, yet these same men take the responsibility for aesthetic decisions in matters for which they have had no training. This would be all very well if the college authorities had a real understanding of architecture. To me it is curious that while in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance nobody hesitated to place on a university campus a building in the contemporary manner adjacent to others of a quite different period, today this has been lost sight of and a belief in uniformity has grown up which is in every way counter to the trends which existed during the period in which the architecture was developed which these same men admire.

Theater, Craft Shops Appropriate?

I was surprised to find also that often the colleges do not fully realize the possible educational scope that a union project should have. For instance, where feasible, we have recommended the inclusion of theater facilities in the union. It then usually becomes apparent that the theater is not thought of as a social art, and an educational and socializing force properly expressed in a social center. Architecture - AuditoriumOpposition develops on the one hand from theater directors who think only of teaching the technique of the theater, and on the other from faculty and administrative authorities who think of the theater entirely as a luxury, and not as an educational and social necessity.
Actually, even though a theater has already been provided for the drama department elsewhere on campus, there is still great need for a theater for countless functions associated directly with the union—for forums, motion pictures, illustrated lectures, chamber music, conventions, and student variety shows.

A proposal for the inclusion of craft or hobby shops also meets surprise, principally because authorities are unconscious of the large potential student interest in voluntary artwork outside the classroom. It seems that many institutions still think of the college union simply as a place to meet, get a Coke, or give dances.

Need for an Informed Planner

Returning to the problem of the essential purpose of a student union building and the preliminary study necessary to achieve that purpose in the final results, I think it should be pointed out that as a general rule union directors or the man who is assigned in charge of the development of the union project are devoid of any real authority and that their recommendations and wishes are all too often disregarded.

As far as new unions go, the usual difficulty is that the authorities are unwilling at such an early stage of the game to employ an expert union director and that subsequently all major decisions are made by trustees or administrative authorities having no particular understanding of the problem and that the minor decisions, which are still of considerable importance, are in the hands of an officer of the university who is oblivious to the real operating and educational requirements of the building plan.

For instance, a major decision usually concerns the construction budget for such a building and therefore the space requirements. We find budgets being made up out of the blue just to get something on paper. This obvious case of the “cart before the horse” is understandable, of course, but it has some unfortunate consequences and is undoubtedly the result of decisions being made by trustees concerned primarily with money, rather than with the educational problem.Architecture - Wisconsin Lounge

I comment at this point that we have yet to find a college union which the director thinks is adequate in size. For this reason I always urge that whatever the present contemplated size of the building may be the plans should be drawn at this time to take care of its future expansion. Yet very rarely do I find a positive willingness on the part of college authorities to spend the money now for work on these future developments, so that when the time for expansion comes they will be property coordinated with the first unit.

Union Missionary Work Needed

In conclusion, there is still a tremendous educational job to be done. It is not possible for an architect to produce a good union building out of the blue. I recall one project which is a good example of an approach to the problem exactly opposite to what I recommend. In this case we submitted a detailed listing of the facilities, area, and capacity in an approximate budget and requested detailed comment by the institution concerned before we prepared the preliminary sketches. We never received any comment or criticism of any kind and finally were forced to proceed in the dark with the preliminary sketches in order to meet a deadline for presentation to the alumni.
Perhaps later the authorities of this college will reexamine the whole project and eventually we will remove the planning errors due to this first incorrect approach. Yet, if that is what happens, think of the wasted effort and time that went into the development of the first studies. Perhaps this is an extreme example but it points out the lack of understanding by college authorities of the great educational significance of these projects and the need for the same careful thinking which they would apply to details of curriculum on that very same campus.


Architecture - HareMichael M. Hare was the Association’s consulting architect from 1945–58. He had designed the theater addition to the Wisconsin Union and afterward specialized in college unions. At the time, few architects could claim such a specialty, and institutions were using local architects whose designs often resulted in functional challenges. Hare was available to provide members advice and even design new unions or alterations with his partner Livingston Elder in New York City.
Hare is credited with helping to develop the theme for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, “Building the World of Tomorrow.” Additionally, he served as vice chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and was a member of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers’ theater design subcommittee. He attended Groton preparatory boarding school and the Yale School of Architecture before receiving a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Columbia University.