Spotlight On Maintaining Architectural Continuity

When a college or university is planning to renovate existing facilities or design new ones from the ground up, they often need to maintain an existing campus aesthetic. This may present a challenge when a significant amount of historic building stock exists, especially when taking into consideration contemporary educational needs. College Planning & Management recently spoke with Gabe Guilliams, IESNA, LEED-AP, principal and regional discipline leader with BuroHappold, to learn how institutions can strike a balance between architectural continuity and creating effective learning spaces for today’s students.

Q. What are challenges and opportunities when renovating or designing new buildings on university campuses, to help maintain architectural and historic continuity and as well as meet contemporary educational needs?
In education at the moment, students are experiencing higher levels of stress, lower wellness levels, and a digital world that can reduce in-person interaction. For universities, the question is, how do you create social centers where people want to mingle and be together? How do you loosen programming and encourage more support and social connectivity?

For this reason, the larger trend on campuses is connectivity and visibility. Especially when we work with an older school and its historic fabric, we’re often creating spaces and buildings that are much more open and transparent, more accessible to people, so they will be enticed to come in and engage.

Examples include Washington University in St. Louis. A new building for a school of social work opened a few years ago on its historic campus with red granite, Collegiate Gothic architecture. The school was doing lots of interesting research, and the university leaders felt the students and entire campus should know more about it. The challenge became, how can we make our building more accessible to everyone?”

Q. Can you give examples?
BuroHappold was working with the architect Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners to create a building with similar connectivity and materials as the rest of the campus, but with much more transparency in the façade and better illuminated interiors. The design moves away from Washington University’s traditional architecture and offers a much higher ratio of glazing to solid walls, and the spaces facing campus are much more activated. It includes a space called “The Forum” that is visible from a large green space. The result is more connectivity and visibility to the interior volumes. The school studied its impact and learned that traffic to the café has increased. By counting access card swipes, the university found that 80 percent of the people using the café aren't associated with the school of social work, which proves the premise. It’s a magnetic gesture to the campus.

Q. Have university priorities changed in terms of learning environments? If so, how?
As part of a smaller architectural intervention at Columbia University's School of Journalism, for the Brown Center for Media Innovation, where BuroHappold worked with LTL Architects, we had informal, conversational discussions. We wanted to understand better how journalism students learn today. The dialogue showed how the faculty and professors’ roles have evolved to serve more as a mediator, rather than proclaiming ideas. Instead, faculty today tend to engage people in experiences they are already having, asking, for example, “What is your view into life in journalism?”

Later, we convened a focus group of educators to discuss these trends. As an architectural response to this, many classrooms no longer need to have a lectern or “front” to the room. More and more we see nontraditional layouts that let faculty lead people as a collective, or as a global community. At the Columbia University project, students have long benches that are mobile and can be rearranged. Instead of a whiteboard and roll-down screen, walls around the entire room are wrapped all in fabric scrim, creating a 360-degree projection surface. The scrim is offset from room shell by about 1 foot and backlighted, so the students and faculty can turn off the lights, creating a glowing wrapper around the room. It’s all about communal conversation and creates an enticing, lounge-like atmosphere.

Expanding on this, universities would like to see their schools become vehicles for the community at large, their host cities itself, and not just the university in a bubble. This is especially interesting and challenging for land-grant universities: Many want to do more with their communities or create a larger community around the university. We’re interested in how to help institutions that may be 200 miles from a city to become more relevant—and remain relevant 100 years from now. Some of these building solutions point in valuable directions.