School starts Tuesday, and while we’ve previously featured architecture-school design, dorms designed by starchitects, and buildings that actually make you want to go to class, there’s one architectural aspect of student life we have yet to discuss: the frat house.
Now, fraternities are not generally lauded in popular culture—thanks to all the hazing, underage alcohol use or abuse, and other issues that have plagued them in recent years. Aesthetically, they are even more poorly regarded. Just think of the quintessential image of a frat brother: a disheveled John Belushi in his “College” sweatshirt (or toga) raising a bottle of Jack Daniels to his lips while standing outside the dilapidated ruins of Delta Tau Chi.
But while architects don’t often think about the fraternity house, there are some notable frat houses out there: architecturally, historically, and also for sheer gawking pleasure. Here, we present a brief survey or frat-house architecture, from the historically landmarked and the surprisingly modernist to the unabashedly tacky.
The Thorsen House, home of the Sigma Phi chapter at UC Berkley, was designed by influential firm Greene and Greene. Known for its Arts and Crafts residential buildings, Greene and Greene created the “ultimate bungalow” with this quintessentially West Coast residence. Indeed, the Thorsen House is a registered landmark, and Sigma Phi actually seems to take the responsibility of caring for the home seriously, having undertaken improvements such as a seismic upgrade.
The Sigma Phi Fraternity house, in Madison, Wisconsin, is also a protected Historic Landmark. Louis Sullivan originally designed this Prairie-style home for a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who subsequently sold it to Sigma Phi. It is a rare of example of a residential building by Sullivan, who is better known as the “father of the skyscraper.”
Photos: Chris Mottalini
More modern architects have dabbled in fraternities too. In 1961 Paul Rudolph designed a house for the fraternity he had belonged to as a student at Auburn University. Rudolph’s Kappa Sigma house at Auburn has subsequently been abandoned, its structure deteriorating.
Interior of Paul Rudolph’s Townhouse in New York via homedsgn.com
A current photo of Rudoph’s old New Haven residence, now home to Sigma Phi Epsilon. Photo: Calgary Leveen
The residence that Rudolph lived in while Dean of the Architecture School at Yale is also now a frat house. But the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon who now live there have undertaken renovations of the space, changing key aspects of Rudolph’s interior design such, as putting in a normal staircase instead of the architect’s signature cantilevered treads.
Michael Graves has also dipped his toes into the frat-design waters. While attending University of Cincinnati for undergrad, Graves became a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, and in 2003 he designed a restrained house for his fraternity brothers at George Washington University. The Sigma Chi House at GW is surprisingly straightforward, and it seems strange that Graves didn’t take the opportunity for some architectural fun.
Contemporary Fraternity houses, such as Oklahoma’s Phi Gamma Delta and Alabama’s Sigma Chi, seem to have more in common with Wal-Mart or Holiday Inn, with square footages pushing into the tens of thousands. These buildings, with their bloated floor plans, are a good reminder of how saccharine and overwrought architecture can become.
“Animal House” wasn’t featured in our architecture + movies post, but you should check it out anyway.