Monster U.’s oddball campus

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The prestigious School of Scaring at Monster University. (Pixar)

Imprisoned in our own home, we decided (that is, Billy, 11, decided, with Mom’s backing) that we’d watch Monster University, a 2013 Disney animated prequel to 2001’s Monster Inc. by Pixar. Monster U. features six cute young frat monsters led by a scare-thee-not cyclops voiced by Billy Crystal. The plot unfolds on a campus whose peculiar ornamental monstrosities add up to a parodic Collegiate Gothic style, with a Richardsonian twist.

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Mike on his first day at MU. (Pixar)

“You should write about it,” quoth my wife, Victoria, referring to the campus setting and recalling her husband’s fixation on the crisis of campus architecture. She added that she’d located on her iPod an article comparing the film’s academic buildings and their various inspirations on real campuses. In “The Real-Life Buildings that Helped Inspire the Monsters University Campus,” author Peter Jacobs, writing for Business Insider, describes the research that went into the MU setting:

In preparation for the film, the California-based Pixar team took trips to local schools UC Berkeley and Stanford, and went across the country to check out Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. … This fits in pretty nicely with Pixar’s goal of creating a unique yet relatable campus laden with “ritual” and “tradition.”

Jacobs notes that no one academic building inspired any particular Monsters U. facility, but that in an effort to “make the movie as realistic as possible,” the Pixar team sought to “absorb the feeling” of the real-life campuses. None of Jacobs’s comparisons with real academic buildings matched very well with the MU buildings they were paired with in his article. This merely suggests that the traveling researchers absorbed plenty of feeling, possibly with some chemical assistance. Perhaps, to borrow a relatively young cliché from the ’80s drug wars, the pixilated Pixarites were “scared straight.”

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A building on the MU campus. (Pixar)

Indeed, Monsters University has an enviable campus, with its academic quad surrounded by buildings that, festooned with monsterly details of embellishment, still resonate with the beauty of the classic quadrangle of a typically historic American elite university campus. No doubt Pixar’s researchers were smart enough to ignore the modernist monstrosities (pun intended) on most college campuses. Leaving them on the cutting room floor was a bow to the difficulty of realism, although, in fact, Ivy League institutions such as Brown and Harvard have tried to keep modernist buildings outside their main campus, much as Paris and Rome have managed to keep towers outside of their central historic districts. Including modernist facilities in the film would have added a confusing dissonance to the academic experience that even a university for monsters would obviously prefer to avoid.

By the end of the movie Mike (Crystal) and James Sullivan (John Goodman) – the rivals who become friends – end up working for Monsters Inc. No doubt the pair look back fondly to their college years at Monster U. Surely the memories of its campus classicism dance in their dreams, and this helps them fill their alma mater’s bulging coffers. Maybe some of the phalanxes of development administrators and facilities managers who bulk out university budgets can learn a lesson or two from the film about good ways to bring in more money to fund their salaries.

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Was MU’s School of Scary really inspired by the Great Dome at MIT? (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Monster U.’s oddball campus

  1. Stephen J. ORourke says:

    Monsters now hey?!Hope you and family are doing well.It’s crazy!  I’m going crazy.Talk tomorrow.S


  2. LazyReader says:

    Underlying most Pixar movies, is an underlying social theme. Was an environmental and energy awareness theme.

    Watch the Lion King over again………….While some strike the film as a G-rated Shakespeare Hamlet…..Conservative message of the Lion King is so strong the themes are ubiquitous. Next to the Incredibles is the most Conservative film ever made. The Film condemns many leftist social ideals and supports various themes.

    – Marxist uprising: Scar murders his brother and usurps leadership, manipulates his nephew Simba into taking the blame; typical leftist tactic of attributing blame to an outside party rather than assume responsibility for their own failings which can be seen later on in the movie with the degredation of the pridelands. Based on the All too familiar history of military coups thoughtout latin america and Africa that ended disastrously.
    – Scar is a model Liberal, once he’s in charge, he pushes towards a fascistic government and ignores all events as the Pride lands fall into ruin.
    – The song “Be Prepared” also shows the Hyenas boot stomping past Scar as he looks down from a cliff in a clear reference to Nazism. A leftist philosophy.
    – The Pridelands are a metaphor for the African American urban community (or urban areas in general rule by democrats) which if governed well and strong family cohesion (Lion prides) the community overall flourishes. But fall apart quickly when those factors are no longer applied (Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans collapse of family cohesion, single motherhood; Crime, education and poor graduation rates)
    – When rallying the Hyenas to aid him in killing Mufasa, he vows that they will never starve under his rule, mirroring what various Communist and other leftist insurgents often vow when trying to get people to aid them in taking over a government or vote for them. (Bernie Sanders praised Venezuela’s move toward socialism years ago. They are now eating their family pets and zoo animals to survive
    – Hyenas also act as a subtle condemnation against illegal immigration and the concept of open borders, as once the Hyenas move into the Pride Lands and take it over upon Scar becoming king, it is heavily implied that they forced the Lionesses to overhunt or did so themselves and that ended up causing the Pride Lands territory to become a wasteland by driving out any remaining animals. (No different than California, which advocates using taxmoney to pay for nearly 3-5 million non- US citizens; to the point the state will potentially go bankrupt in the next few years and Californians are fleeing the state for others; it’s facing fiscal insolvency and it’s unfunded liabilities). While they have no physical barriers per se, the Pridelands are extensively well protected. Zazu makes daily reports of all events of significance, the pride monitors it’s borders and doesn’t involve itself in the affairs outside their own realm.
    – Scar heavily believes he is an excellent king (I’m TEN TIME THE KING MUFASA WAS), similar to most liberal delusion in belief of good governing despite evidence to he contrary.
    – Ultimately when Scar is defeated, at Simba’s mercy he quickly tries to save his own skin by attributing blame to a manipulated party; to the Hyenas for everything he undertook himself (It’s the Hyena’s it was their fault!!!).
    – Hunting’s role in ecology in the film is depicted in a positive light (unlike Bambi which portrays hunting as inherently cruel) The films main characters are predators, thus do so to survive (even though they’re never shown doing it, except once)
    – The film condemns anarchy. One hyena Shenzi, upon learning that Scar is planning to kill Mufasa and Simba, questions the logic of a leaderless society.
    – The film condemns two of Communsims largest tenets hedonism and atheism. The two comic reliefs, Timon and Puumba engage in a philosophy of “Hakuna Matata” (“No Worries” in Swahili), which is shown overall to be negative. Timon abandoned his family (in the interquel movie) and Puumba is too naive to operate without a chaperone…he’s nearly killed because he was too busy chasing a snack. Simba becomes a hedonistic recluse living in the jungle rather than fulfill the ecological role he was meant for ( A grassland predator), despite adapting his diet to an never ending supply of food (insect/worms); in the end he succumbs to what looks to be obesity, laziness, boredom and depression and lack of self fulfillment. When Simba explains that the stars are filled with the past embodiment’s of prior kings, he is immediately laughed by his friends, that emphasis is later true when it shows that Mufasa does indeed ascend to the heavens (whether this is hallucination or actual spirits are left to the viewer)
    – The film supports the ideological conclusion of the consequences of fatherless society and mocks liberal education. Simba was taught about the responsibilities and ecological roles he will inevitably fulfill as King. When adopted by Timon and Puumba, everything he was taught was tossed into the winds and via their parentage turn him into a lazy, hedonistic slob. And initially the reason they kept him around when they found him was so they could have some muscle so no one would ever mess with them.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Underlying most Pixar movies, is an underlying social theme. Was an environmental and energy awareness theme. Where by “Scares” i.e. Petroleum metaphor. And Laughter represent New forms of energy.

    Usually when universities attempt to expand their real estate portfolio it’s for a one of two reasons, charitable tax evasion or good PR for some scandal they’re responsible for.
    Two they hope to get a donor who’ll slap his name on the wall for sponsorship and posterity.
    What causes institutions to build ever more elaborate and complexly expensive monuments.
    Cooper Union in New York City has, for 155 years, never charged tuition for its highly regarded courses in art, architecture and engineering. But that all changed due in large part to the $175-million mortgage the trustees undertook to build an engineering building designed by celebrity architect Thom Mayne.

    Students will now have to fork over 20 grand a year to take courses at Cooper.

    None of these buildings by conflict of their complicated and irrational geometry and complicated engineering and expensive materials is suitable for urban renewal. In the long run their destiny is the wrecking ball when the cost of maintenance and upkeep exceeds the financial value of what these structures can generate or what it costs of refurbish.


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