In name alone, the University is packed with prestige, and in reality, the campus doesn’t disappoint. The Diag, the Law Quad, Hill Auditorium and Angell Hall do an inspiring job to ceaselessly impress prospective students and visiting parents. But some structures don’t frequently leave the same impression — buildings like the David M. Dennison Building.
Seven of 11 students randomly interviewed by The Michigan Daily said that Dennison was their least favorite building on campus. In the opinion of LSA freshman Adam Oxman, there are several things working against it.
“It’s old,” he said. “(It) doesn’t look like much thought went into the architecture, classes are small, it smells bad, very hot.”
According to a Michigan Daily article published on Sept. 29, even Provost Philip Hanlon believes Dennison is in need of renovations, citing a need to change the poor acoustics and flat-floored classroom structure.
Former University Provost Teresa Sullivan, now president of the University of Virginia, was also reported calling the building’s classrooms “crummy” and in need of a technological upgrade.
Architecturally, the building doesn’t have much to say either, according to Robert Fishman, a professor in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
“Frankly, you hardly notice it in spite of its size,” Fishman said.
According to Fishman, there are two theories that speak to architecture on college campuses. One of these theories suggests that each building should have the ability to bask alone in its architectural beauty and integrity. Angell Hall and the Law Quad fall into this category. The other proposes that buildings on a university campus simply function by fitting in.
“Dennison, in my view, is simply one of those buildings that just fits in,” Fishman said. “It does its job, but not in any specific way … It just delivers a basic look.”
Back in the day, the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library was considered to be the focal point of central campus, sitting squarely in the Diag’s center. According to Fishman, this building’s intent was to make a statement about the University — but Dennison has always been a background building, Fishman said.
The architectural legend Albert Kahn, who at his peak in the early 20th century was responsible for 19 percent of all industrial buildings in the United States, founded the firm Albert Kahn Associates (now simply called “Kahn”) in 1895. Soon after, Kahn’s buildings began to appear not only throughout the country — like the building for Ford’s Model T assembly line — but also on the University’s campus.
According to Sally Bund, an archivist at the Bentley Historical Library, one of Kahn’s great accomplishments was that he revolutionized reinforced concrete in tall buildings like Dennison.
“With this strong structural system, he could create a lot of flexible space for open windows,” Bund said.
However, the 12-story tower and accompanying two-story auditorium of Dennison was designed in 1964 by Kahn’s associates, after Kahn’s death in 1942.
“The firm that carried on (Kahn’s) work was very competent in retaining the large scale process that adorns the University’s campus,” Fishman said. “But for whatever reason, they didn’t have the genius that Kahn himself had.”
Fishman added: “Dennison basically delivers space in an efficient way.”
On the other hand, the building has a very logical and straightforward design that you expect from an architect but don’t always get, according to Fishman.
“It does the job,” he said.
From a student perspective, the building has made a similar impression.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst building on campus, I mean, the Natural Science Building’s auditorium has no leg room,” said LSA sophomore Ellen Stults. “If I ranked it and one was the worst, Dennison’s probably a two or a three. It doesn’t really have any attractive features, just one hall with rooms going off of it.”
According to Fishman, the era in which Dennison was designed may play into what he believes to be a design that isn’t intentionally beautiful.
“I think that the integrity (of Dennison) is reflective of the ’60s,” Fishman said. “The idea that a university building should be elaborately detailed was pretty much dead at that point. Partially because of the sheer expense of it, but also the lack of people who were talented enough to carry out such brickwork. At the time, to be modern was to use plain, simple, basic geometry, a building was to be well proportioned but not snazzy.”
But regardless of what students or professors may think about Dennison’s appearance, countless students have had classes there at some in their college careers, as several departments hold classes in it. If doing its job is the purpose, then Dennison has succeeded, as it seems no one on campus can manage without it. But if architectural aesthetics are desired, students should look to other buildings on campus.