Architecture of college union buildings and the changing meaning of the campus “living room”

  • Clare Robinson University of Arizona


ABSTRACT: Student unions buildings are a window into the architectural and social history of college campuses. Designed to support student government and normative leisure activities outside of college classrooms, the buildings have served as instruments of social education and student culture since the invention of the building type in the late nineteenth century. With few precedents, architects of early student union buildings in North America took cues from private social clubs to shape and arrange spaces for reading, games, club meetings, and cultural events, such as recitals and dances. As the Association of College Unions (ACU) matured into an influential national organization, it augmented the most significant architectural elements and purpose of the buildings, and guided the planning and design of buildings nationwide through publications and appointed expert consultants. Student union proponents and architects regularly referred to the campus buildings as “living rooms” throughout the twentieth century, invoking familiarity and domesticity for an otherwise public campus building. This paper makes extensive use of primary sources to depict and interpret the relationships among architecture, culture, and meaning by wedding methods in architectural history to methods in conceptual history. Specifically, it combines the close examination of college union architecture with the social and cultural intentions of the buildings during three distinct different periods in college union history to chart the persistent use yet changing meaning of the phrase the campus “living room” and other related metaphors. By analyzing the interdependence of architectural design and meaning, this study broadens the role of architecture in humanities research while also arguing for the knowledgeable use of metaphors in contemporary architectural practice.


KEYWORDS: [student union, history, campus living room, home, art of living]

How to Cite
Robinson, C. (2018). Architecture of college union buildings and the changing meaning of the campus “living room”. ARCC Conference Repository.