When people used to talk about institutions of higher learning, they spoke of the “ivory tower.” It was only architecture as metaphor, of course, for that idealized place of edification, elevated above the gritty reality of humdrum life. (At Princeton, though, there actually is an Ivory Tower—the 1913 Graduate College was once so dubbed because one of its donors was an heir of Procter & Gamble, maker of Ivory soap.)

But no one talks about ivory towers anymore—it’s elitist and outmoded. How can professors and students cloister together, living and learning, when 85 percent of U.S. college students are commuters—a figure that pre-dates Covid.

Yet architecture, in bricks-and-mortar form, remains integral to the identity of universities and colleges. Venerable institutions have added to their collections of historic buildings over time, with designs by stars of the day: Harvard has Le Corbusier’s only structure in America; Saarinen, Kahn, and Rudolph jazzed up Yale’s stolid neo-Gothic colleges. I.I.T. is unimaginable without Mies, who created the campus on Chicago’s South Side and completed 20 buildings there, including his masterwork, Crown Hall. More recently, Frank Gehry designed a concert hall at Bard College (PDF), while Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis, built Gates Hall for computer science at Cornell. And Princeton has moved far beyond the ivory tower in favor of new architecture by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, as well as by Steven Holl, among others.

The tricky part for older schools is how to mix an in-bred reverence for tradition with what’s current. When a college is trying to lure the next generation of students, branding matters: what used to be called a gymnasium is now commissioned as a wellness center, and the once lowly cafeteria must be a dining extravaganza that can serve cuisines from half the countries in the United Nations.

But more significant trends, too, are expressed through design, as evidenced by the projects we survey in this month’s annual look at college and university architecture. Key is a sensitivity to context. Barkow Leibinger’s Sid Richardson Residential College at Rice University deftly navigates the school’s rich architectural history, with its handsome brickwork echoing earlier masonry buildings, but it is clearly modern, in such details as cleanly punched windows in the solid plane of the facade. Similarly, in Baltimore, Teeple Architects’ Tyler Hall, for student services at Morgan State University, a historically Black institution, founded in 1867, is unmistakably contemporary in form, but acknowledges its place among older structures in its scale and stately limestone exterior.

The mixed-use complex by NADAAA for MIT takes the old/new model even further, incorporating two renovated warehouses at its base, topped by a crisply detailed 29-story tower for graduate-student housing. Though university functions fill much of the project, the building engages its neighborhood and blurs the lines between gown and town with a food court and shops open to the public.

Urban universities often offer patches of green space rare in dense neighborhoods, and the spectacular new addition to Bocconi University in Milan by SANAA does just that. The architects created gardens, requested by the city, on the nine-acre site, by weaving open areas and sinuous covered paths among the curving, cloudlike structures that house the business school’s activities.

While SANAA designed this luminous cluster of buildings in glass, the team wrapped the exteriors in metal mesh as part of an energy-saving strategy that is earning the complex a LEED Platinum designation. Indeed, high marks for sustainability are demanded from university and college clients, as the projects in this issue ahead demonstrate. For his Weill Neurosciences Building for the University of California, San Francisco, Mark Cavagnero used glass curtain walls to bring abundant daylight into the laboratory and clinical spaces, but the building went beyond the university’s minimum requirement to achieve LEED Gold.

Environmental sensitivity was the driving force in Susan Rodriguez’s design for a new classroom building at the College of the Atlantic; founded against the backdrop of the 1960s counterculture, in a beautiful part of coastal Maine, ecology is part of the school’s DNA. Rodriguez’s two-story, L-shaped building, on a promontory overlooking a bay, is a largely timber structure built to the rigor of Passive House standards.

As repositories of history and arcana, colleges and universities can seem removed from the real world beyond them. But as the best institutions evolve, they better reflect the needs and interests of more diverse student bodies, new fields of study, and the communities around them. Those shifting values are reflected, too, in the best new academic architecture.