An estate of mind: learning to build the perfect campus

Defining institutional mission is the cornerstone of a successful development, Matthew Reisz hears

October 2, 2010

After many years working in campus development, Paul Roberts has seen “many more disappointments than successes”.

Around the world, said Mr Roberts, co-author of a new book seeking to distil the attributes of the perfect university estate, “there is often a mismatch between the strategic aspects of what the university is seeking to achieve and the architecture that is actually delivered.”

Mr Roberts is a planner and a director of Turnberry Consulting, which offers strategic help to developers of projects such as racecourses, new towns and universities.

Despite the disappointments he has seen, he believes that many universities – from Singapore to South Africa – have come up with powerful solutions to the challenges that have long faced the sector.

In University Planning and Architecture: The Search for Perfection, published this week by Routledge, he and his colleagues Jonathan Coulson and Isabelle Taylor survey the scene and spell out the lessons to be drawn from institutions across the globe.

The design of a good campus, they write, should “ensure that the experiential sequence is one of fluidity and lucidity”.

This usually means giving “precedence to the pedestrian through the provision of spacious footpaths linking lecture theatres, libraries and recreational facilities”, although there can be problems if the whole area is surrounded by “a necklace of parking”.

Historical roots

Yet they argue that such issues, however important, must be viewed in a far broader context.

Many of the key dilemmas have their roots deep in the past.

When Merton College in Oxford was founded in 1264, it created an inward-looking, “monastic” community that offered accommodation and pastoral care to students alongside academic teaching.

Even today, this makes Oxbridge and its imitators rather different from most of the great universities of continental Europe, which, Mr Roberts said, “typically have one or two very impressive buildings in the centre of a city and often a modest 1950s or 1960s laboratory and medical campus on the outskirts”. The universities of Uppsala and Vienna, he said, are striking examples.

For obvious reasons, those planning new universities today usually look for inspiration to the US, whose leading institutions offer a range of different models.

The early US colleges of the 1730s and 1740s tended to be much more open and outward-looking than the quadrangles of Oxbridge.

But there soon followed universities deliberately set deep in the countryside, far from the supposed corruptions of the city. Other institutions were conceived instead as “cities of learning”, built around streets and public spaces.

Finally, in the later 19th century, the Gothic Revival marked a return to the perceived ethos of the Middle Ages, and to elitism and introversion. Although originally a British style, elsewhere it was seen to confer instant venerability and can be found in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and even South Korea, as well as at many US universities.

The 20th century saw two further major developments: the “whole cloth” campus, planned and constructed in a few years on a new site; and the rise of “starchitecture”, with a big-name firm brought in to create iconic buildings that “make a statement”.

Having set out the parameters and historic turning points, Mr Roberts and his co-authors present 39 case studies that explore how universities have responded to the core dilemmas that date back almost 1,000 years.

Should they reach out to their surrounding towns and cities, keep them at arm’s length or hide away in remote surroundings? Should they aim to be democratic or preserve an aloof elitism? The Free University of Berlin, founded in 1948 as part of efforts to recover from the Nazi period, adopted the maxim “democracy as client”, and it does not have a central focus or even a central entrance.

Other questions addressed include whether a new or redeveloped university should embrace local architectural traditions, modernist variations on a theme (as in Beijing and Doha), or a fashionable international style; whether “Mediterranean” buildings are appropriate to Perth or Palo Alto; and how far the British architect Norman Foster managed to create something distinctively Malaysian at the University of Technology Petronas.

Function first, then form

A number of key principles, in Mr Roberts’ view, can help universities find their way around these issues.

While planning is crucial, it must always serve overall strategic goals, so the leaders of universities need to think through the big philosophical questions of their institutions’ missions. The right design must take account of the balance between teaching and research, the spectrum of subjects taught, and whether the university’s main focus is local, regional, national or international.

Considering the larger context – political, climatic, geographical and architectural – is another vital first step. This can then lead to a master plan to shape day-to-day decision-making.

“Universities need a long-term vision and must not fall under the influence of a single individual,” Mr Roberts argued.

“A master plan is not a short-term plan, or today’s plan, but should endure over many decades. Some last only two or three years until a new set of ideas and people come along. But good developments adhere to the integrity of the original plan. Don’t let the rough and tumble of individual professors who want new buildings interfere with the long-term plan.”

Ensuring such continuity can be difficult. Aarhus University in Denmark has managed to preserve a distinctive identity, based on yellow rectangular buildings set within rolling parkland, but that is partly because it has been able to employ the same firm of architects for nearly 80 years.

What can often help, suggest the authors of University Planning and Architecture, is to appoint as master planner someone “external to the university because it lends [him or her] a detachment that is conducive to fulfilling their purposes”.

Master plans that are carefully thought through and widely broadcast can help ease the tensions that are inevitable between universities and their neighbours.

“Buying up peripheral land can cause anxiety,” Mr Roberts noted. “Building projects can lead to friction. But if you have a well-communicated long-term master plan, there is less fear of what is round the corner – and the project you are not telling us about. When universities don’t plan properly, they can’t communicate well with local authorities.”

The big-bang approach

Although he acknowledged that spectacular architecture can act as “a brand and marketing tool to attract students, staff and funding”, Mr Roberts said he was wary of the assumption that parachuting in a star architect is always the right solution, since “iconic buildings” are invariably expensive and can often disrupt the harmony of the campus and age badly.

“There are good examples of where it has worked,” he admitted, “but it is often more effective to adhere to a slow and steady long-term vision than to pursue today’s fashion.”

Yet, here as elsewhere, the key is for universities to think through what they want in advance.

“If you need a new campus in five years,” explained Mr Roberts, “the sheer pace means you will probably go for a whole-cloth approach, which tends to involve modern Western construction methods.

“Glass and steel have been the preferred solution of the world’s most successful architects. If you employ one of them or hold an international competition, you are likely to end up with a campus in a very modern international style, rather than one rooted in a particular environment.

“That can be great, but if it makes people unhappy because the buildings ‘could be anywhere’, it’s your own fault for abrogating your responsibility to determine the kind of place you want to create.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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