Ask Wellington: Was the Psychology Building's Design Influenced by '60s Student Protests?

An anecdote often shared by campus tour guides is that the fortress-like Psychology Building, located on the corner of Walnut Street, was designed with small, narrow windows and giant exterior blocks of concrete in the early 1970s to protect faculty and staff from protesters.

According to Lauren Walton, in her 2015 thesis, “Building a History: Evaluation of Central Washington University Campus Buildings to Determine Eligibility for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” the story reflects the political climate of the times, when students on many campuses protested the Vietnam War and other issues.

Some even suggested that the building needed such concrete protections because it was built on newly-acquired land located near the ROTC offices on campus (in the former Peterson Hall).

By 1970, demonstrations against ROTC offices and other types of disruptions were common on many campuses, including the University of Washington, which experienced a massive student strike in May of that year.

Is any of that true? No, according to Walton.

“Although the austerity, the heavy, reinforced concrete, and the fortress-like massing of the upper stories over the lower stories of the Psychology Building seem to speak to the atmosphere of tension on U.S. campuses in the 1970s, it is unlikely that the construction of the Psychology Building . . . was a conscious action to create a ‘safe haven’ for professors during possible student riots,” she wrote.

The building, completed in 1972, was actually constructed in a then-common architectural style known as “Brutalism.” The style was popular because it was relatively inexpensive, quick and easy to build, and functional.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Brutalist architecture was the rage for many public buildings throughout the country, including Boston City Hall, the Buffalo (New York) City Court Building, and the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. With its block-like forms and concrete construction, however, the Brutalist style fell out of favor by the late 1970s.

So, the answer is no.

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