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America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses

America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses


Our fellow “structurists” over at Infrastructurist recently harnessed the supreme power of the all-seeing eye to subjectively rank the world’s 10 greatest urban parks.  This provocative little inquiry could be replicated and re-oriented in many ways - even at eye level - and inspired me to compile the following ranking of the ten most beautiful college/university campuses (in the United States).

Like urban parks, most college campuses have common elements (e.g., expanses of lawn, processional walkways, core buildings located on or near “quads” or “malls”), but they rarely get confused with each other.  Apart from their different ages, regional influences, and proximity to population centers, there are plenty of factors that throw a wrench into any perceived semblances of regularity.

My top ten list isn’t formulaic either; some campuses are urban, some are not; some are large, some are small.  All are picturesque from at least one vantage point (not including space), and none sap the soul.

As subjective as aesthetics are, I should note that they were not my sole consideration - among other things (e.g., size and geography), I think the way campuses relate to (or are set apart from) their surroundings has an oblique relevance to their perceived “beauty.”  In no particular order (but numbered, nonetheless):


1.  Stanford University, CA - From above, Stanford bears a couple indicators of its ground-level beauty, which benefits from a California climate and Texas-sized endowment.  Most buildings are hybrids (or derivatives) of the Richardsonian Romanesque and Mission Revival styles (hence, the red-tiled roofs, plaster, and rough-hewn stones).  Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted’s consultations, the campus is on a generally flat plot of land and is littered with (un-Olmsted) scenic quads and predictably-dignified axial orientations.  Stanford also benefits from being one of the largest campuses by size, which has allowed it to have the semi-wooded area at the top of the screenshot.


2.  Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR - Lewis & Clark is lucky for a couple big reasons: (1) Portland has many expansive (and hilly and lush and full of footpaths) parks and (2) Lewis & Clark is next to one big one, Tryon Creek State Park.  Plus, as the screenshot shows, the campus itself has a high tree quotient, is walkable due to its small size, and has allowed the naturally hilly terrain to shape the campus’ growth.


3.  United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD - Notwithstanding the Chesapeake Bay’s odd hue in the screenshot, the Naval Academy’s waterfront location is a big plus.  Annapolis is arguably America’s sailing capital (I think the city even trademarked that phrase), boasting historic neighborhoods, many marinas and sailing clubs, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water.  As for the school’s campus, it benefits from institutional traditions and a nation’s willingness to memorialize them in the form of stately buildings and well-tended landscaping.


4.  Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA - (1) Intimate campus, (2) California climate, (3) urban location, etc.  There are plenty other colleges in/near Los Angeles that benefit from these things; but Occidental didn’t assume these alone are enough to ensure beauty (see Pepperdine, below).  The small campus also has plenty of impossibly picturesque red tile-roofed buildings similar to those found at Stanford.  But really, Occidental’s repeated selection as a film location is the best evidence of its beauty (e.g., Orange County, Pat and Mike, Clueless).  Apparently the campus in the movies that looks too-good-to-be-true really does exist.


5. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis - I admit, that the U’s campus has a few low points; the West Bank has that “Martian landscape” vibe, and the only good thing about the “Superblock” dorms is their impersonal nickname.  But on the flip side, campus straddles path-lined cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River, has one of the best campus “malls” you’ll find (designed by Cass Gilbert), a great view of Minneapolis’ nearby skyline, and big clump of picturesque buildings surrounding the original center of campus called “The Knoll.”  Even better, they just finished a new, horse shoe-shaped stadium (with a terrible name), which replaces the unfortunate series of parking lots in the screenshot’s upper-right hand corner, and by 2014, a light-rail line will run right through campus between Minneapolis and St. Paul.


6.  University of Cincinnati, OH - Although its campus isn’t half bad (densely located on hill in historic city, etc.), I actually selected Cincinnati due to its singular focus on cultivating modern architecture (for better or worse) designed by the highest profile architects out there.  As a result, it’s campus has a decidedly different vibe (read: modern, and not slavishly bent on rehashing older buildings) and is interesting in large part because of the many discrete examples of modern architecture - not so much because of their cohesiveness.  Students in the college’s excellent design school can just go on a walk if they want to see representative works by Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, or Charles Gwathmey, among others.


7.  Harvard University, Cambridge, MA - Harvard freshmen are among the luckiest college students; they get to live in extremely picturesque/historic buildings in the center of an equally picturesque/historic campus made up of quads, red bricks, painted clapboards, river paths, proximate commercial areas, and the best that 19th-century revivalism had to offer.


8. University of California - Santa Cruz - If this list’s numbers meant anything, UCSC’s campus would be number one, even though its impossibly photogenic campus doesn’t look like much from the air.  Located on the rising edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the campus has the least traditional layout on this list, perhaps in part due to its young (and decidedly progressive) heritage, and certainly due to its hilly placement just above the seaside town of Santa Cruz (nearly 1000 feet of elevation change from the top to the bottom of the screenshot).  Parks and (former) ranch lands ring the campus, which itself consists of the “Great Meadow” (bottom of screenshot), ravines, creeks, paths, redwood groves, and a number of random “curiosities” made by students.


9.  University of Chicago, IL - If UCSC is the most beautiful on the list, the University of Chicago campus is the most beautiful urban campus, taking up a prime location in Hyde Park’s mix of parks, respectable homes, and green corridors leading to Lake Michigan.  Whereas Chicago has one of the best collections of modern architecture in the world, the University of Chicago has one of the best collections of neo-Gothic buildings in the world, thanks to the deep pockets of its founding benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, who thought “emulating” Oxford University’s look might jump start his own institution’s academic prestige.  Those lofty aspirations led to Henry Ives Cobb’s quad-centric master plan, which emphasized a certain stylistic regularity and has gradually given way to a smattering of later, notable buildings (e.g., SOM’s Brutalist Rugenstein Library, Mies van der Rohe’s Social Service Admin Building, and Eero Saarinen’s Law School Building).


10.  University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN - Notre Dame’s campus reminds me of University of Chicago’s campus.  As the screenshot shows, it also has tons of quads, and a generally homogeneous collection of campus buildings, albeit in a less exciting setting (sorry, South Bend).  But hey, when you have a lore-laden stadium near the center of campus, which itself has an extra long (and lush) mall and Golden Dome to boot, you’re doing pretty well.

The near misses:

Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA - Any university overlooking the Pacific Ocean has a good chance of making the top 10.  Not Pepperdine.  For some ridiculous reason it chose to make itself a temple of 1970s-80s architecture, which has resulted in bunker-like, beveled, concrete rectangles with poorly-lit interiors.  The campus grounds are fine (when the wildfires are held at bay), but those buildings are just plain awful.  One might say unfortunate-looking.

University of Florida, Gainsville - If it weren’t for its Gainsville location, Florida’s pine-laden campus might’ve bumped the U of Minnesota off the list.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville - Has much history (Thomas Jefferson designed the old library and original campus mall), but so does Notre Dame.

University of California - Los Angeles - Situated next to the mansioned-up canyons of Beverly Hills, it is great for runners.  But Occidental College has a better density of campus “jewels” and UCSC has a much better connection to nature (and similarly, reality).

Princeton University, NJ - Loses out to University of Chicago’s urban location.

Which ones did I miss / get totally wrong?

Screenshots copyrights of Google & GoogleMaps


  1. Mike Pinkney says:

    How about Flagler College in St. Augustine Florida?

  2. Luboman says:

    You didn’t mention small liberal arts colleges at all (except, inexplicably, Lewis and Clark and Occidental). There are some very breathtaking small colleges out there. I heard Kenyon College is quite beautiful. Sewanee has some of the best architecture around (from the pics I’ve seen). From campuses I have visited, Mt. Holyoke College is unforgettable. Intimate Neo-Gothic architecture galore in a very intimate New England setting. Parts of Smith College would give Harvard a run for its money. Amherst has an incredible main quad overlooking mountains, while Williams is nestled in a rugged valley. All beautiful, and way better than the University of Minnesota (!?!?) or the University of Chicago.

  3. Robert E. Repp says:

    My alma mater, University of Washington in Seattle, should have made the top 10. No university can compare with the explosion of natural beauty surrounding UW. The Cascade Mtns. to the east, Lake Washington in front, Mt. Rainier at 14,410 feet as a centerpiece, Seattles hills in the background, and the Olympic Range to the west…the quads and the beautiful architecture. Nothing short of spectacular.

  4. robert novak says:

    Florida Southern College has many buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’y understand how that can be overlooked.

  5. Marie says:

    University of Washington has the best of an urban campus and the views are not to be believed!

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