A study in seduction

Universities today need to tempt prospective students with luxurious, innovative learning environments, as Paul Dimery discovers

According to US academic E Gordon Gee, “A truly great university is a nucleus of artistic expression. It fosters creative, critical thought, and serves as a platform for civil discourse.” And he should know – in a glittering career that saw him finally retire last summer, aged 69, he held more university presidencies than any other American.

But what exactly did he mean by “artistic expression”? The freedom among students to share ideas and concepts undoubtedly fits this definition. But is there more to it than that? How about the university buildings themselves? Can a beautifully designed study environment help scholars to fulfil their potential?

A recent study by Which? would suggest so. In a survey to determine what students look for when choosing a university, a massive 57% said that the quality of academic facilities was important. And it seems that their need for eye-catching surroundings in which to flourish isn’t lost on universities and colleges around the world – creative, cutting-edge and sometimes just downright wacky new facilities are being unveiled on an almost monthly basis. A group of canny third-year interior design students at the George Washington University in Washington DC have even got in on the act, setting up a business, ZOOM Interiors, specifically to transform prison cell-like dorm bedrooms into chic living spaces.

One of the most impressive recent developments is the Jockey Club Innovation Tower at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, designed by Pritzker Award-winning starchitect Zaha Hadid and opening in March 2014. The 15-storey structure will house the University’s School of Design, and its interior is clearly intended to inspire a flexible approach to creativity. A photogenic clash of fragmented geometry and fluid curves, it is discordant yet somehow indefectible. Rising up through the building on one of its escalators, it’s hard not to marvel at the sleek, space-age walkways, state-of-the-art spotlighting and 360-degree views from every floor. The message is clear: if you study here, you’re top of the crop. Architecture photographer Edmon Leong, one of the first people to be given a tour of the building, was suitably impressed. “You can see the design’s similarity to the Guangzhou Opera House but on a smaller scale,” he told Dezeen magazine. “The atriums look pretty amazing. I wish I’d had a space like this when I attended university.”

Keeping up appearances as one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Yale has also gone down the route of employing a renowned architect, in this case to conjure up a new building for its School of Management. British-born Sir Norman Foster – himself a Yale graduate and now the owner of Foster + Partners – spent six years designing and constructing the five-storey Edward P Evans Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, and the result is a sumptuous cathedral of study whose sense of light and space can’t fail to stimulate the senses.

As soon as you walk in, you are thrust into a vibrant hub of activity, thanks to an enormous, glass-clad central atrium that allows you to see what’s happening on all five levels at once. Within that, on the second and fourth floors, are 16 free-standing classrooms, double-height and clothed in high-gloss, dark-blue acrylic panels that exude a certain contemporary chic. But best of all is the library on floors two and three: a bookless outlet of digital databases, this lustrous space is dominated by huge windows and features a remarkable, suspended reading room that hangs above it from steel straps. As with the Innovation Tower, the message of intent is clear. As renowned author and architect Michael J Crosbie told The Hartford Courant newspaper, “Evans Hall is a very elegantly detailed, hip, innovative, coolly corporate facility that demonstrates Yale’s desire to be a player on the world’s stage of business schools.”

Image credit: Yale concourse (Tony Rinaldo)

Sir Norman was also drafted in to design the Philological Library at the Free University of Berlin, opened to great acclaim in 2005. For this vast centre of knowledge, containing some 700,000 books across 11 separate mini-libraries, he devised a building in the shape of a human brain. But while this cranial edifice inspires whispers of admiration when viewed from the outside, it’s only when you venture in that you can fully admire its architectural majesty.

A giant geodesic dome casts dappled patterns of sunlight over four undulating, double-height mezzanine floors (there’s another underground), each of which contains a central core of books and a bank of reading desks running continuously around the perimeter. And the Berlin Brain is as environmentally friendly as it is stunning: the dome’s opaque aluminium and transparent glazed panels correspond to the solar path, helping to regulate the internal temperature, while during the day the building is entirely naturally lit.

The senior partner in charge of the project, David Nelson, is satisfied the result will get the best out of bookish Berliners. “We realised that students would spend hundreds of hours in the library,” he told the Arch Daily website, “so we wanted to provide them with the perfect environment to study – one which is animated by natural light and air.”

Another building to be illuminated by natural light is New York University’s Department of Philosophy, whose weird and wonderful interior was executed by Steven Holl Architects in 2007. Entering through the building’s historic but unremarkable frontage, the first thing to strike you is the transformation into a resolutely modern space: students sit on wooden cubes, busily typing away on their laptops surrounded by cork flooring and minimalist white pillars. But your attention is quickly drawn to the pièce de résistance: an awe-inspiring Alice In Wonderland staircase that juts off at a different angle on each of the building’s six floors, and whose distinctive, perforated railings scatter multifarious natural motifs across the stairwells, depending on the season and time of day. As well as being a perennial talking point, its multi-directional structure is intended to encourage social synergy among the occupants.

“University buildings need to focus as incubators for interaction between students and faculty,” Holl explains. “It was a pleasure working with a university that was willing to broaden its design approach, and our staircase now functions as the backbone of the building.”  

Not all colleges are splashing out on swanky new faculty buildings or wholesale refurbishments: some are choosing to channel their funds into more subtle improvements, such as up-to-the-minute, environment-friendly heating and lighting systems, which not only enhance the study experience but also mark them out as a college with a conscience.

For example, the University of Liverpool has revamped its entire heating infrastructure, demolishing its old boiler house and 42-metre chimney, and replacing them with a brand-new energy centre that will reduce annual energy consumption by over 13,000 MWh and CO2 emissions by over 7,000 tonnes – that’s the equivalent of taking 2,226 cars off the road each year.

Meanwhile, the University of Findlay in Ohio was recently recognised by ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for its energy-saving efforts, having installed a geothermal HVAC system in one of its buildings. The result has undoubtedly improved the student experience – the building is now highly insulated, while every room is fitted with a motion sensor to ensure that the lights are activated only when occupied. But the system is also cost-efficient. In the first year after its installation, the University saved $83,000 in energy costs, as well as $7,500 in maintenance costs – money that can be spent improving other areas of the faculty.

Of course, developments such as these don’t come cheap, but universities will argue that the benefits of keeping up with – or bettering – the Joneses far outweigh the drawbacks. For a start, the happier the student, the better his or her results are likely to be – ultimately giving the university a better standing in an end-of-year league table of achievement. And then there are the potential financial rewards: in the UK, the government’s decision this year to allow unrestrained competition for those gaining ABB grades and above at A-level has, as Universities and Science Minister David Willetts says, “put choice and power in the hands of students”. And with tuition fees currently standing at £9,000 per head – that’s roughly £1bn when you add together all the school-leavers looking for a place – being first in the pecking order can reap lucrative gains. The University of East London may have had this in mind when it made the decision to collaborate with its students in the creation of a new campus library, which opened in September 2013. By giving them a say in every step of the design process, it could be satisfied that the outcome would meet every requirement of future academics.

One thing’s for sure: with exciting new developments emerging on campuses all over the world – from architectural jewels to innovations in heating and lighting – choosing a university or college has never been more challenging. And yet, for those school-leavers or mature students seeking inspiration with which to further their education, the selection process is undoubtedly one to savour.



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