Dorman Masterpiece?

Mississippi State University's Dorman Hall is not the shiniest or nicest of buildings on campus. In fact, one could not really be faulted for labeling it as slightly dilapidated. The current home of plant and soil sciences, biochemistry, molecular biology, entomology and plant pathology is overwhelmingly beige, perhaps from decades of dust accumulation.

The building is baffling with its bizarre restroom antechambers sealed with uncomfortably powerful door hinges and is awash in the most generic of linoleum tiling. Is it time to relegate this edifice to the dustbin of campus architecture, where outmoded buildings are condemned to languish in their twilight years until a hefty donation with promises of a glistening new structure palatable to current tastes arrives? No, I contend emphatically: Dorman Hall is an architectural window into its own time. 

If you are waiting for cavalier hipster-irony which conforms to the trope of "it is bad and old which makes it cool," you might not necessarily be disappointed. Dorman Hall, which was built with a solidly modernist and forward-looking design, is today a monument to the late International Style, forward-looking only insofar as it is retro-futuristic. But most interestingly, it fails at its aims as a modernist building in today's context.

Construction of Dorman Hall began in 1964, with the former location of Dudy Noble Field being cleared away for the new building, according to MSU's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology's webpage on departmental facilities. 

Public buildings of this period very often have a distinct set of stylistic signatures: vertical sweeps of concrete, sharp angles, cantilevered slabs and regimented rows of windows define the later period of the International Style in its transition to what might be termed Postmodern architecture. The modernist outlook of these buildings is apparent in their monumental, extruded-rectangle shapes, which profess the stability of the institutions housed therein and a firm confidence in the empiricism upon which they are founded. 

Robert W. Collier, in his 1975 book "Contemporary Cathedrals: Large-Scale Development in Canadian cities," names these public buildings "cathedrals," since they serve as an embodiment of contemporary social values.

Does Dorman Hall, then, inspire confidence in academia or encourage its occupants to devote themselves to learning? If it succeeds in its function as a "contemporary cathedral," then the answer would be yes, but there is something too off-putting about the building to unequivocally assess it as something of a modernist temple.

In fact, one could call the building "brutal" in aesthetic, especially today when the exposed materials have weathered significantly. The hallways are tunnel-like, with no external windows; fluorescent light bounces off of the white wall tiles and linoleum. The uniform orange-brown of the brick and the use of wood paneling on the first floor might seem to inject some warmth into the corridors, but this attempt feels cold and synthetic. 

Dorman Hall is not Brutalist in any formal sense, but as Reyner Banham's 1955 article in The Architectural Review explains, "Brutalist architecture tends to drive one to hard judgments," and makes its harsh impact through the "ineloquence, but absolute consistency" of its components. Its interior is more apt to elicit anxiety than a hope in the scientific establishment.

Dark? Dingy? Dated? Yes to all three — that is the brutal charm of Dorman Hall.

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