In the popular imagination, the idyllic college campus is a leafy, parklike place, with tree-lined walkways winding among venerable buildings of stone or brick, where students zip to class on scooters or find quiet spots to study on vast lawns.
But, in fact, millions of students in the U.S. and around the world attend colleges or universities not in a sylvan setting but in a major city. In the past, such campuses were often planned in a traditional, picturesque style and built like a city-within-a-city—gated and fenced, with their own power plants, utilities, and security forces.
Cathleen McGuigan, editor in-chief of Architectural Record. Photo © Jenna-Beth Lyde
Yet today, urban institutions, struggling to expand and construct anew, are facing serious constraints: tight sites, high property prices, and often-fractious relationships with their neighbors. And so they are breaking down the walls—literally and figuratively—as they build new facilities, becoming more open to their surrounding communities. In the November, 2022 issue of RECORD, we explore a half-dozen projects that demonstrate how architects are designing institutional buildings that better engage their urban settings.
In Bogotá, for example, the Universidad de los Andes, opened in 1948 as Colombia’s first private, secular institution of higher learning, is grappling with fulfilling its original mission to impart to its students a sense of “social and civic responsibility as well as a commitment to their surroundings.” The first phase of the school’s ambitious new Civic Center is an elaborate structure that helps bridge the historic city center and its adjacent neighborhood, in both scale and a sense of inclusion: when the future phases are completed, it will, ideally, feel welcoming to the public, by creating a central plaza, along with such amenities as a theater and gallery, restaurant and public library.
In designing a new administration complex for Roma Tre University in Italy’s capital, Mario Cucinella Architects paid particular attention to incorporating public space for the neighborhood—a covered plaza and plantings that weave around the three dramatic cylindrical structures at the core of the project.
For London South Bank University, in the city’s Elephant and Castle district, WilkinsonEyre undertook a thorough renovation of the immense, unloved central building for this institution of 21,000 students. Of course, the 1976 structure could have been demolished and replaced, but a limited site and budget—as well as sustainability goals—governed the choice instead to gut the interior of the 220,000-square-foot, four-story pile, opening it up with light-filled, flexible social spaces and a spectacular double-height library. Its reclad exterior and generous glass foyer and entrance canopy signal a new openness both to students and the surrounding neighborhood.
Environmental concerns of a different nature dictated the design of the new University of Iowa Art Museum in Iowa City, by the firm BNIM. A catastrophic flood in 2008 shut down the former 1969 museum by Harrison & Abramovitz; the new museum, a block from the Iowa River, sits 7 feet above the flood plain, with patrons now climbing 14 steps (or using an adjacent ramp) to get to the front door. Beyond that threshold was the challenge of how to articulate a structure that is essentially windowless to protect its fine collection of African art and such significant modern works as a 1943 Jackson Pollock painting. The solution: a handsomely variegated, textured brick facade that changes in the light.
Cultural facilities are one means for colleges and universities to connect to a wider public—the Iowa museum has free admission—and at the College of the Holy Cross, Diller Scofidio + Renfro has designed the stunning Prior Performing Arts Center, overlooking its hilltop campus in Worcester, Massachusetts. Here, its goal is not only to bring all its arts education (drama, dance, music, visual, and multi-media art) under one billowing, concrete-composite roof, but its theater, concert hall, and gallery spaces will bring the arts to the wider community.
Lastly, at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, one of Europe’s most prestigious business schools, Sou Fujimoto was commissioned to design a building for “new forms of learning and teaching.” This did not present the Japanese architect with a particular urban challenge—the historic town of St. Gallen has a population of only about 75,000. But, with his structure of stacked glass boxes, he certainly brought a light and witty touch to an Alpine neighborhood of stolid brick houses and untidy gardens.
In this issue, we also explore how some colleges are working to make both old and new facilities carbon neutral. That is just one more way that institutions of higher learning can assume a role beyond education in improving their neighborhoods, their cities, and the planet.