Architecture is high on the agenda as universities grapple with the challenges of expansion and new ways of learning and teaching. Harriet Swain reports.
For months, concrete mixers, cranes and cables have littered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as it undertakes a multimillion-pound building programme, creating new laboratories, student residences and social spaces.
MIT president, Charles M. Vest, is unrepentant. The buildings, designed by world-famous architects including Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, will create "an infrastructure for invention that fosters the unfettered cross-fertilisation of ideas", Vest says. In a message to staff, students and the general public, he declares: "The buildings on this extraordinary campus should be as diverse, innovative and audacious as the community they support. They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them."
It is not the first time that a university head has viewed the architecture of his institution in metaphorical as well as practical terms. Nor does it happen only in America. When universities such as Sussex and East Anglia were founded in the UK in the 1960s, vice-chancellors showed great interest in their look because they had to create an institutional identity from scratch and saw design as part of that. As identities became established, building priorities turned to providing more space rather than a unifying vision. But, says Nigel Llewellyn, pro vice-chancellor and professor of history of art at Sussex, this is changing. He says that as the higher education sector expands, there is again pressure on some institutions to define themselves through their architecture. The University of East London has successfully used its striking new student residences on the Thames to draw together a disparate campus and to promote itself and its mission. "It has an agenda to do with regeneration," Llewellyn says. "It is using buildings and the fabric of the buildings to get those sorts of images across." The University of Cambridge, by contrast, now in the throes of a £500 million capital programme, wants to secure its pre-eminence in science and technology - as well as other specialisms - in the face of worldwide competition.
Robin Nicholson, director of architects Edward Cullinan, which designed the UEL buildings and is also working at Cambridge, says many universities have started to develop masterplans and to consider their estates as a whole when contemplating building work. "Universities are very conscious of their image within the community," he says. "It is a competitive market, and what a place looks like is very important. That coincides with a general interest in urban design in the wider community."
The UK government's proposed expansion of student numbers is putting particular pressure on universities to find a strong identity, as well as extra space. But on both sides of the Atlantic, the impetus behind new building schemes is much the same. Institutions face not only increasing domestic and global competition, but also radical changes in how teaching and research are done.
The most obvious change comes from technology. Libraries that for years had to cope with nothing more complicated than increasing numbers of books, now have to become learning centres housing banks of computers. Students are likely to value a room in a picturesque old building less than a modern en suite with internet access. Once all student rooms have access to the web, learning centres themselves may become obsolete - or perhaps return to their original role as libraries.
Michael Bateman, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth and chair of the Royal Institute of British Architects' Higher Education Design Quality Forum, says: "There are real challenges in terms of designing buildings that respond to the new learning technologies. Curriculum delivery on and off campus is changing, and that has implications for what we build." Next month, he will chair a Universities UK conference on the subject, posing the question: "Will education buildings eventually become nothing more than social spaces, with all learning provided electronically and remotely?"
Certainly, the old model of a university providing a collegiate experience - with students studying full time, fully funded and living in halls - no longer holds true. The number of mature and part-time students is rising. Most of them will have a job for at least part of their time at university, which means they will spend less time on campus. Most will also have access to a laptop so they can study and write anywhere they like. The fact that many now pay fees has made them more demanding about comfort and facilities.
Stefan Muthesius, honorary professor in history of art at the UEA and author of The Postwar University: Utopianist Campus and College , says so many different things take place in today's universities that it is hard to achieve long-term campus unity. But, he says, students still look for a coherent environment - even if only for the length of a short course. The collegiate idea of a place where people can congregate and share ideas persists.
If anything, the emphasis on face-to-face contact is greater now than it was before. The new mathematics centre at Cambridge, which consists of pavilions designed around a central meeting space, is supposed to encourage people to bump into each other, talk and spark ideas.
Fiona Duggan is a consultant at DEGW, which works with universities and other clients on how best to use space. She says institutions increasingly mirror trends in the workplace by recognising the importance of multidisciplinary working. "Traditional barriers are breaking down," she says. "There is an acknowledgement that a lot of learning takes place in informal environments. Whereas these were once add-ons to the core academic space, they are now being seen as core themselves."
This is not an entirely new idea. Many of the 1960s universities tried to encourage "chance encounters" between students and staff of different disciplines by incorporating long glass corridors or paved walkways in buildings. The desired encounters turned out to be rare.
But today's approach works, claims Graham Bulpitt, director of Sheffield Hallam University's Learning Centre, which opened in 1996 and was one of the first buildings designed to integrate different disciplines. He says the centre has a buzz that people find energising. About 10,000 people visit every day - 1,000 of them overnight, since it is open round the clock. More than half the students at the university come in every weekday.
The aim was to integrate library, multimedia, computing and educational services to encourage students to move freely between them, and to provide an open building with rooms of varying sizes for different kinds of work. Surveys have shown that students now work in a less compartmentalised way than they did when the centre was first opened.
In designing a building that integrates and involves people, traditional barriers have to be overcome, and this can be hard, Nicholson suggests. He says his architecture firm finds that academics from different departments often resist working with each other. The UEL project involved bringing together eight different departments from different sites and, Nicholson says, senior staff were initially suspicious. Bringing them together for the building project eventually encouraged them to work together academically as well - and a number of joint courses were devised as a result.
Nicholson says it is increasingly common for architects to work with users and in universities. This is particularly important because academics often have strong ideas about what they want. He describes them as "highly intelligent, and often slightly wayward characters".
Working with universities brings other difficulties, too. Some of these are common to a number of institutions, such as considerations of health and safety, legislation on disabled access and the need for energy efficiency. Others are more specialised, such as complicated funding arrangements. But designing for higher education can also be liberating. Cambridge's method of funding its capital programmes, which relies on raising money for specific projects and waiting for the money to be available before starting work, means that the projects can be more considered. Edward Cullinan Architects is particularly excited about its design for a new visitors'
centre at Cambridge's Botanic Garden, which Nicholson says has benefited from having more time and more client interest and input than most projects.
Simon Ruffle, senior research associate in Cambridge's department of architecture, says higher education has long been a source of inspiration for architects. "Some of the most innovative buildings have been on university campuses. All sorts of famous architects have cut their teeth on university building sites." The reason for this is that universities tend to be innovative clients with fewer financial restrictions than commercial enterprises, and although money may be tight, the building is not expected to make a profit.
Duggan says thinking about buildings also helps focus academics' minds on their broader aims. "In dealing with buildings, you are always dealing with the future because building work moves so slowly," she says. "What people talk about to us most often is the need to accommodate change."
Additional research by Jessica Kedward.