When many of us went to college, no matter how beautiful the campus, the dining hall was for dining only, with few choices on offer; the snack bars served bad coffee; the gym was generic with old equipment. But if you’ve visited a college campus recently, you know how luxurious new facilities can be. There are athletic centers that could train Olympians, and wellness facilities that rival those at a luxury spa. Elegant dining halls serve an array of farm-to-table cuisines, to fulfill almost every dietary desire. There are cozy spots scattered around campuses to snack, lounge, study, or just hang out. Gone are the damp gyms and noisy cafeterias of a more spartan era of college life—at least at many private and some public institutions. Like high-powered tech companies today, top colleges and universities compete to attract talent, and the quality of design—not only of laboratories and libraries but of communal spaces—is part of the draw.

In this issue, we look at projects in the college and university sector by some of America’s finest architectural firms. And if there is a common thread among the projects here—for science or art programs, or for the general population—it is that the architects sought to include light-filled social spaces that allow students and faculty to interact, or just to get away from their labs or desks to sit quietly with their laptops and enjoy a cup of coffee and a view to the outdoors.

Dormitories always have had some kind of shared spaces, but at the new University of Chicago North Residential Commons, Studio Gang included public plazas, gardens, walkways, and courtyards to try to help bridge the town/gown divide; its large complex comprises three towers that house 800 students. Inside, the architects created a variety of flexible spaces for studying, cooking, or socializing. At Duke University, the West Campus Union building by Grimshaw was designed to be a dining facility—with a wide variety of both food choices and places to sit—as well as a place where faculty and students can informally meet and mingle.

Duke’s building is also a campus circulation route, which made places for spontaneous interaction even more essential. Indeed, using circulation for social space is a common strategy in the projects on the follow­ing pages. At the University of Iowa’s Visual Arts building, Steven Holl Architects designed purpose-built art studios, but it is the large light-filled atrium at the core that is the “social condenser,” says Holl, that brings students together. At Vassar College, connecting scientific disciplines—chemistry, earth and environment, and robotics—under one roof was part of the brief for the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, but the building, which spans a ravine, also provides a key route from one part of campus to another. So Ennead Architects created an open, double-height, light-filled space along its curving spine for a café and informal seating. For their new tower for Columbia University’s Medical School, Diller Scofidio + Renfro made the most of the stairs and ramps that connect the 14 floors by inserting seating niches, outdoor terraces, and other social spaces on landings along the way. 

And at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment at Princeton, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects responded to the challenging site and program by weaving a multilevel building of interlocking bars and towers with a series of outdoor courtyards and gardens. Yes, there are modest lounge spaces sprinkled throughout the building, but it is the many instances of large windows open to daylight and nature that gives this surprisingly complex yet serene building its humane rather than institutional quality. 

Also this month, RECORD reports on three significant new buildings that are destined to become landmarks in their cities: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; the Port House in Antwerp; and the National Museum of Switzerland in Zurich. All three use bold architectural language for great effect within their surrounding contexts. 

So, enjoy this issue of RECORD, packed with writing from the magazine’s editors and contributors who have, as always, explored firsthand the impressive works of architecture in the pages ahead.