Physical and Virtual Portals

When students or visitors enter a college campus through a gateway or a building doorway, their expectations rise. What will they see and learn as an active participant in this exciting learning environment? Through these real and symbolic portals they are entering into an academic world that strives to look towards the future while still respecting the past, a place that fosters learning to bring out the full potential of each student.

Can our buildings be designed using both physical and virtual portals to enhance openness, community, and connection to the intellectual activity that is all around? Can our buildings be designed to help create and reinforce an institutional identity? Can our buildings and campuses tell the big story about what goes on behind closed doors and at other locations of a modern college or university? These are the types of complex questions we are now facing as our clients challenge us to transform both the physical and virtual role of campus architecture.

Over the last several decades the focus has been on the development of facilities that supported program (designed from the inside out) and created dialog with the campus context (designed from the outside in). Today, these requirements provide the foundation for more complex discussions and the catalyst for more innovative solutions. Posing thoughtful questions is a good start, which will hopefully spark some discussion and feedback.

Revealing Campus Mythology

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, our assignment is to reveal the“mythology” of the campus. Although majestic, the historic architecture of the campus is challenged in revealing the intellectual activity happening within. How can we make the wonderful advances happening in every corner of the campus more accessible to all? When prospective students and other visitors arrive on the Homewood campus, they hope to have an immediate, authentic connection to the leading, teaching, and research occurring on the campus. Where can they see the Hubble Space Telescope control room or the oceanographic research tanks for robotics? Also, they hope to connect to the world of Hopkins, including education and healthcare activity worldwide. So, during a relatively short visit, what assistance can future facilities provide? New buildings will seek connections to the world of Hopkins through portals — both physical and virtual.

Physical portals have always had the power to connect visitors to unique physical environments. At Hopkins, we are developing literal transparency in the procession through buildings to exploit the passage as an experience to truly connect with the learning activity. Placing demonstration labs, classrooms, lounges, and impromptu meeting spaces along a path creates opportunities for engagement. The goal is one of connection, for the campus community and the neighboring communities. The impact on the architecture is transformative. Historic campus styles of architecture such as collegiate Gothic and Georgian, although beloved, struggled to tell the story of the inner community, but now highly transparent portals will energize the community as well as the architecture.

Creating Institutional Identity

How do we celebrate the future and also honor institutional legacy? Our assignment at Duke University has been to reinforce the institutional symbolic identity, the University’s“brand,” through the use of Duke stone and other traditional materials, while also expressing the aspirations of a community looking boldly to the future. The physical portal at Duke’s new Perkins/Bostock bridge connects the historic west quad to the new science and engineering quad — the historic collegiate Gothic style library is now connected to the new library done in a forward looking re-interpretation of that style. There are also new connections to the variety of learning events happening all around, creating a truly transformative experience.

Virtual portals provide opportunities to extend the connection beyond the physical building itself, connecting visitors to environments in other places and at other times. Our goal at Hopkins is to connect visitors with the history of the university by leafing through a virtual historic scrapbook, experiencing manuscripts and artifacts virtually, tailored to the individual’s requirements. Technology will allow visitors and the campus community to experience the global reach of Hopkins from the Homewood campus by making visible the larger community of scholars and research. Colloquia and other academic events occurring within the buildings can be brought to the surface through various types of display technologies that give the passerby a glimpse into the inner academic world. The goal is to draw together scholars that might not otherwise collaborate through some impromptu meeting.

As both symbolic metaphor and practical building solution, portals can be utilized when designing new buildings or adapting old ones. Portals made of real space and cyberspace can work together to tell stories, make connections and reveal campus mythology. Portals made of transparent building materials and transparent teaching methods can work together to create an institutional identity. To be in tune with the present and respectful of the past, while zooming into the future. is a tricky place to be for architects and campus planners. But it is also an exciting time, a time for questions and creative solutions.

Thomas D. Kearns, AIA, LEED-AP, is principal at Boston-based Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott (