Design in Life: The Law Quad

Every admissions tour is a sales pitch, and every sales pitch needs a visual hook. You’ve gotta sell the customer on a quarter-million dollar education. Angell Hall is nice, the Union is pretty alright – but there’s a reason every “Future Wolverine” steps inside a grass rectangle at the corner of State and South U. Jaws drop, smartphones come out, and the “my school looks like Hogwarts” texts are sent. This quadrangle of verdant grass and dull stone belongs to an era far removed from MWireless. It’s the same reason why engaged couples line the very same street sidewalks on bright spring days; whether a prospective student or an alumnus planning wedding announcements, there’s just something special about the Law Quad. The first building to line the Quad was the Lawyer’s Club, finished in 1928. The Lawyer’s Club faces out towards South U and houses 227 Law students. The Club was built in a collegiate Gothic style, drawing particular influence from the campuses of Cambridge and Oxford. “Collegiate Gothic” architecture was the style du jour for college campuses in late 19th to early 20th century America.

At their founding, Ivy League universities took shameless influence from the Oxbridge floor plan of a college constructed around a central quad, and the link was established. All it took was an influx of philanthropy money coinciding with the rise of Gilded Age industrialists to finance a full vis-à-vis copying of the source material. Former Associate Director of the Law Library, author, and historian Margaret Leary said, “The ‘collegiate gothic’ style strikes most as an important design element: emulating Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, which architects Edward York and Philip Sawyer visited before planning the Law Quad.” What York and Sawyer saw on their travels translated directly into the buildings they created upon their return to Michigan.

Then-President of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson, quipped that, “by the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton.” His message was clear: build the new in the style of the old in order to grow a legend.

By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history.
— Woodrow Wilson

All architecture is both thoughtful and intentional – of course constructions should look good, but what we shape also shapes us. There is a hidden psychology to design. To the casual walking tour, the main purpose of the Lawyer’s Club is in its archways; each arch serves as an entrance to the Law Quad and crops out most of the scale of the Law Library. As you walk through the arch on South U closest to the Union, the viewer is lined up directly with the door of the Law Library – only when you pass through the portal does the massive cathedral-inspired library reveal itself.

From the arch above, there is a single path beckoning you forward towards the crown jewel of the Law Quad: the William S. Cook Legal Research Library. I’ve dragged my friend, Taubman College of Architecture sophomore Taylor Boes, along to better breakdown the design features responsible for the aesthetic completeness of the Law Quadrangle.

“The Law Library is essentially a Gothic cathedral, and the builders of the original cathedrals wanted to remove worshippers from their daily lives by creating an ethereal experience on Earth,” Boes explained. Massive towers at each end of the Law Library place the visual weight on the central entrance. “Relief etchings, tracery, arches in lavish materials, all are there to show off how technically proficient the builders were and how they could honor their God through how technical, expensive, and beautiful they made their creation.”

From first sight to entrance, pilgrims (religious or academic) are meant to feel purposefully drawn to the interior. Every step, if taken with willingness to immersion, should be entrancing. Just as 15th century churchgoers wanted to worship, this walk is designed for someone who wants to be there. According to Boes' analysis, many Las Vegas casino facades employ a similar technique: massive, outwards grandeur designed to push audiences forward towards the interior.

The interior-exterior transition is an intentional part of the immersion process that is meant to be meaningful. The weight and size of the exterior wooden doors dwarf their guests, and intricate stone carvings in delicate script adorn the frames of these massive entryways. This is both decoration and psychology – while cathedrals displayed the works of dedicated worshippers, the Law Library displays the prestige of the University of Michigan.

Then you are inside. The massive, uninterrupted room spans hundreds of feet; it is ringed by stained glass windows and the room is completely silent. “This building is oriented so that all of these windows catch afternoon light," Boes said. "On a sunny day, the light through the stained glass coupled with the high vaulted ceiling is supposed to make you feel insubstantial and heavenly.”

The Library’s enforced silence policy only compounds this effect. “The architecture of the Law Quad is critical to the buildings' function: a place where scholars teach, study, research, and seek to improve the law," Leary said. "The best example is the Reading Room, whose ambience encourages careful reading and deep thinking. The room gathers a few hundred people together at large tables, but unlike a dining hall, it encourages quiet.”

Furthering the collegiate character, stained glass windows are adorned with the insignias of English and American colleges of the time. The Michigan insignia appears on windows flanked by both the colleges of Cambridge in one window, and the colleges of Oxford and the American Ivy League in another. Religious iconography has been usurped by symbols of international educational prestige, tying Michigan to the traditions of the Old World and the global arena of the new. The Law Library is a modern-day cathedral of study, whose acolytes pour over textbooks in the grandeur of a heavenly chamber.

For the most part, renovations of the Law Quad have been tactfully hidden inside the original exteriors. One major exception not visible from the usual tourism angles deals with the crown jewel itself: a massive underground addition to the Law Library, necessary to house its growing collection. Excavation of the Library began in 1978. Three years later in 1981, the expansion was finally open to the public.  The expansion’s architect, Gunnar Birkerts, had a tall order from the University: to incorporate the modern, international style of architecture into a structure inspired by history and beloved for its age. Birkerts had extensive experience adding to existing buildings without modifying their character, and so the lighting emphasis and strong academic feel of the main library features heavily in his work.

Like the Law Library, the Allen and Alene Smith expansion features high ceilings, an open floorplan, and a dramatic use of natural light. In many ways, it is a modern interpretation of the Cook library. Leary, who was Head Librarian during the expansion, recalled the focus of the project. “The Smith addition uses similar materials to the original buildings, but with a twist: light oak instead of dark; stainless steel instead of bronze; straight lines instead of curved; simplicity instead of complexity. As a library, it functions beautifully,” Leary said.

Light oak instead of dark; stainless steel instead of bronze; straight lines instead of curved; simplicity instead of complexity.

Study areas are both open and solitary; in the most notable example, students sit facing a massive concrete wall, yet with only a slight ridge in the desk separating them and their neighbor. Looming overhead, through panes of glass, is the façade of the original building.

This arrangement, combined with the same enforced silence policy of the Cook, creates an environment of intense focus. Three great glass “light wells” and the organic forms found in the desks and stairwells combine to create a very soothing environment. Studying in the Smith expansion is the exact opposite of studying in the Stacks – while silence is the constant, you are not penned in; the environment expands far beyond your desk, yet you are made to feel like the only thing in it. Isolation accented by harmony. In fewer words, the Smith expansion is purposefully serene.

On a bright April Sunday, when that essay you procrastinated has to get done by tomorrow and you need a place to knock it out, try the following: walk from the Lawyer’s Club entrance with the single metal pylon. Not quickly, but with a goal in mind. Take in the shining sun and the green spaces that surround your concrete pavers. Open the massive oak doors that require just a bit of concentrated effort. Mentally check that you aren’t being loud (whatever it means, we’ve all done it) before walking through the glass portals to the Cook. As you scan the room for a seat, take no more than a second to think about how elevated and focused you feel. Realize dozens of people burned midnight oil to make that all possible. That’s what is special about the Law Quad.

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Special thanks to Margaret Leary and Taylor Boes for their help with this article. Leary is the author of Giving It All Away: The Story of William W. Cook and His Michigan Law Quad, which is available for $25 on Amazon.com.

Alex RakestrawComment