Aspirant v-cs take note and listen to your buildings

University Architecture - University Builders
December 14, 2001

Most readers of The THES will have lasting memories of their student days. We recall a freshers party in a futuristic hall designed like an ocean liner with long south-facing galleries like promenades, and everywhere flights of stairs to suites of rooms. One of us recently returned to see how the place had been altered piecemeal over the decades, and to plan its renovation for the next era. Now the galleries are "wasted space" that must be inhabited; and all facilities are to be upgraded to obey fire-escape and access rules, with summertime use as a hotel essential for the business plan.

Another memory is of campaigning against the design of the new architecture department building that the eminent professor promoted as being an office building, a "universal space, good for everything", but that we discovered was by no means ideal for teaching. This is a familiar story of high ideals yielding to changing demands on the fabric of our universities.

The idea that buildings are silent teachers is not new, but in the hectic commercialised world of education today, it is getting harder to hear what the buildings are telling us. It is often difficult for an institution to define a distinctive academic mission, harder still to have a master plan for an inherited campus of buildings, and even rarer to have the space and funds to make architectural dreams a reality.

Everyone involved with university building will pounce on these volumes by two architects in academe because there have been few recent books on this subject.

University Builders is one of a series with separate volumes on libraries and theatres, with future books planned on offices, housing, schools and hospitals. The 30 or so projects illustrated in the book's case studies show campus plans, specialist teaching and research buildings, and buildings that are the focus of academic life (but no student residences). The examples are mostly from the United Kingdom and the majority are by UK architects, some of whom offer two or three schemes to show how they respond in different contexts. The format is a short introductory essay with heavily illustrated case studies and credits and project details at the end.

This looks the more attractive of the two books, but it is not evident for whom it is intended. The introduction races through the evolution of universities from Plato to Private Finance Initiative but is essentially a coffee-table accessory. The main problem, however, is the brevity of the commentaries on the projects, with no hint of a critique; that is left to the reader. There is no exploration of how such wonderful buildings came to be commissioned and turned into reality. The accompanying drawings are quite technical, without labelling or scale and so of marginal use to designers. The statistics are methodical but without a methodology for comparison across country, region, size, date or complexity, and imply a rigour that is absent and needed by the user. University Builders is a book to flick through for ideas but does not satisfy serious academic inquiry.

University Architecture , by contrast, begins by stating that it is a guide to designers and estate managers and an inspiration to staff and students. This is a challenge in 157 text pages. Though it does not wholly satisfy the first two groups, it should be on the reading list of every director of estates and vice-chancellor. The author is an enthusiast with an erudite and accessible manner, who dissects a huge subject area with chapters on mission, master plan, sustainability, crime and politics. Half the book is about specific building types.

The chapter on master plans and development frameworks is excellent, emphasising the need for someone to be custodian of the spaces between buildings. But there are some surprising omissions in the book. Student unions receive scant mention as do other crucial facilities such as careers centres, nurseries and health and counselling centres. The role that universities, especially the former polytechnics, play in urban regeneration could have been explained in detail, as could the encouragement of entrepreneurship and the wave of incubator work spaces that bring new meaning to town-and-gown relations. Given the academic nature of this work, it is surprising that it does not contain perspectives from staff and students. Surely the people who live and work in the buildings might be the best judges of whether they are successful? Some constructive criticism would have been useful to give balance and to encourage the debate to continue.

Both authors alert us to the influence of remote learning and new technologies and how they will continue to have a profound impact on the organisation of university space. The corollary is that the remaining core buildings become of even greater significance for the image and identity of the institution.

Much university architecture, especially since the 1980s, has been banal, poorly designed and lacking in purpose. But it seems that a better genre of university buildings is emerging. It is a pity these books do not explore this. Universities should lead the way with innovative architecture, as they do with research. It is axiomatic that a great university has great buildings - aspirant vice-chancellors please ponder.

Julian Robinson is projects director, Queen Mary, University of London. David Prichard is a partner at MacCormac Jamieson Prichard.

University Architecture

Author - Brian Edwards
ISBN - 0 419 24440 9
Publisher - Spon
Price - £60.00
Pages - 164

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