Campus architecture: building blocks of the future

From Christopher Wren to Zaha Hadid, we celebrate the finest examples of campus architecture in the UK

Founded in 1096, the University of Oxford was not only the UK’s first university, it was also the first higher education establishment of its kind in the English-speaking world. Its shadowy cloisters, cosy quads, wood-panelled libraries and vaulted ceilings are still what spring to mind when most people hear the word ‘university’.

Yet, over the course of the next 924 years, campus architecture would evolve dramatically.

Some campuses were adapted from existing buildings, such as the English Baroque University of Greenwich completed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1712, and originally designed as a hospital (see panel opposite).

University architecture has always reflected its time and place. Indeed, the great Victorian-Gothic architect Alfred Waterhouse used so much red brick and terracotta in the buildings he created for universities in the industrial north of England, that he helped give rise to the term ‘red brick universities’.

Fast-forward to the higher education boom of the 1960s, and university architecture mirrored the cultural radicalism of the time – see the audacious work of Sir Basil Spence at Sussex, Arne Jacobsen at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and Denys Lasdun’s famous ziggurat halls of residence at the University of East Anglia. Much of this era’s campus architecture has now been listed by English Heritage.

The late 1990s proved to be the golden age for setting the democratisation of higher education front and centre of the UK political agenda. As access to university-level education increased exponentially, so too did access to the finest faculty facilities. Foster, Libeskind, Rogers – in recent years, many a ‘starchitect’ has turned their hand to designing UK campus architecture, but to what end? Furthermore, what constitutes good or bad design within the higher education sector?

And what is the future of campus architecture in such a changing world?

It will be up to the architects at the forefront of design in the higher education sector in the future to create spaces that will never again leave us so helplessly unarmed in the face of such a threat

Class in session: expert commentary

Cora Kwiatkowski, divisional director, Stride Treglown

Architecture firm Stride Treglown’s portfolio ranges from academic buildings, specialist and research facilities, libraries and student accommodation to estates strategies and masterplans. As divisional director, Cora has been responsible for a wide range of campus architecture projects with a focus on different higher education environments, creating award-winning, stimulating places such as the Shilling Building at Royal Holloway and the £39m Bristol Business School at UWE.

“Increasingly adaptable ‘loose-fit’ buildings are becoming more and more prevalent in the higher education sector – not only offering flexibility for different uses, layouts and furniture but also possibly being able to accommodate universities’ partners in the future to foster collaboration,” says Cora.

“We think more about ‘space’ rather than lots of different specific building types which helps universities to be agile and respond to students’ expectations and needs.

“Creating spaces to meet and learn together to enjoy social and physical contact is essential and is on the rise, even more so in today’s environment. As an example, we reinvented University of Reading’s library circulation and layout, creating collaborative break-out space and technology-led learning. Built in the 1960s, it was rated by the university as ‘functionally unsuitable’. A variety of learning environments and options for flexible use of space have now created a highly attractive and well-loved environment in this existing building. Given that the project had three main phases, it was also important that the library would look complete at every stage.

“Our student and stakeholder engagement, a linchpin of our people-focused design, was key to understanding the balance of spaces and set priorities for health and wellbeing within a largely fixed envelope.”

Richard James, sector manager for higher education, Willmott Dixon

Construction company Willmott Dixon maintains a strong profile in the higher education sector and delivers circa £200m of project value annually. Richard James’ role as sector manager for higher education drives him to understand the needs of the HE estate, and shape how Willmott Dixon responds to these through design and build projects.

“Campus design continually evolves and we can see that in the wonderful variety of building architecture that we see across the HE estate,” Richard says. “But the true measure of a successful HE building is in its timelessness. Buildings that have a sense of space; good levels of natural light and outdoor views invariably stand the test of time. The quality of construction and finishes, including furniture, also contribute to an HE building’s ability to endure. As design evolves, buildings will inevitably age but any building that I’ve been to that manages to capture these elements has always been a space that students have congregated to, and felt comfortable to learn, work and socialise in – no matter the age of the building.

“This is certainly the case for Kingston University’s new Town House building. Designed by Grafton Architects, the feeling of space and light throughout the building – coupled with exceptional-quality finishes – will undoubtedly lend longevity to this building for many, many years to come.”

The true measure of a successful HE building is in its timelessness. Buildings that have a sense of space; good levels of natural light and outdoor views invariably stand the test of time

Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, pro vice-chancellor (strategy, planning and partnerships) and director of property and facilities management at the University of London; chair of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF)

In addition to her senior role at the University of London, Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr is also chair of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF). The HEDQF is an independent organisation which exists to promote high-quality design in university campuses, buildings and facilities, in the knowledge that this enhances teaching, learning, research and public engagement.

Ghazwa says: “The three key ingredients to creating great architecture for the higher education sector are: Firstly, an engaged and committed client team working hand in glove with a good team of designers who take their time to listen, explore and challenge the client’s brief; secondly, a design that integrates a deep understanding of the community, history and surrounding urban landscape; and lastly, the use of the highest-quality materials and modern sustainable technologies. Good old-fashioned people, place and purpose.”

School’s out: Testing times ahead

Despite the current Covid-19 chaos, higher education buildings will endure.

It is important to remember that what sets humans apart from the animals – besides our opposable thumbs – is our ability to comprehend, and communicate, ideas.

Big ideas, small ideas. Ideas make the world go around and without them, or environments designed specifically to cultivate them, our species’ progression would be stunted.

Universities the world over, like many other sectors currently struggling, will bounce back stronger than ever following the pandemic if changed ever-so-slightly to accommodate multi-pronged notions of sustainability. Both environmental and economic sustainability will matter now more than ever but so too will social sustainability. At the time of writing this, students across the UK are fearful for their futures – some have even been locked-down in their own halls of residence; the toll on their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing unimaginable.

It will be up to the architects at the forefront of design in the higher education sector in the future to create spaces that will never again leave us so helplessly unarmed in the face of such a threat. Spaces that incorporate all the aspects of good design mentioned in this article and then some. Rather than spelling the end for campus architecture in the UK, it may be that the pandemic is but a necessary teaching moment in the history of its design.


First class: Top 5 highlights of UK campus architecture

Bartlett School of Architecture. Photo courtesy of HawkinsBrown/Jack Hobhouse

1. The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, by Hawkins\Brown (2016)

British architecture practice Hawkins\Brown’s award-winning design for The Bartlett School of Architecture did not disappoint – and delivering on a commission to house one of the best architecture schools in the world is no mean feat.

Hawkins\Brown masterfully reconfigured the original Wates House site, while retaining its existing structure, to double its capacity. A key aspect of reworking the building’s envelope was opening up the facade to provide those at street level a glimpse of the next generation of architects and designers.

The Bartlett School of Architecture by Hawkins\Brown does a fantastic job of both capturing and communicating the institution’s unwavering commitment to architectural excellence.


University of Oxford Investcorp Building. Photo courtesy of Luke Hayes

2. The Investcorp Building (Middle East Centre), The University of Oxford, by Zaha Hadid (2015)

A year before her untimely death, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid fulfilled her University of Oxford contract to deliver an extension to St. Anthony’s College’s Middle East Centre. Through the project, dubbed the Investcorp Building, Hadid sought to enhance the spatial capacity of the Centre to meet the educational establishment’s present and future needs.

At first glance, the world-renowned neo-futurist and the UK’s oldest university made for a somewhat unexpected pairing but the resultant building spoke volumes for how, when expertly executed, old and new structures could co-exist as well as complement one another.

As the building spans two large mid-Victorian houses, Hadid conceived the Investcorp Building’s singularly sensitive form to both respect and respond to its rich historical context.


3. University of Greenwich by Sir Christopher Wren (late 17th century)

An oldie but most definitely a goodie; the University of Greenwich is a personal favourite of mine.

Completed in 1712, Sir Christopher Wren originally designed the building to house the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Although the hospital closed 157 years later, it retained its close connection to the Navy and eventually became the Royal Naval College in 1873, before finally closing its doors in 1998.

Today, Wren’s homage to English Baroque is home to the University of Greenwich.

It remains a testament to the British architect’s genius that the building has been able to adapt to so many different programmatic functions during its vast 308-year (and counting) lifespan.

Arguably, one might even consider Wren to be the world’s first ‘starchitect’ to design a university campus project – although he didn’t know it at the time!


Saw Hock Student Centre. Photo courtesy of ©Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

4. Saw Hock Student Centre, London School of Economics, by O’Donnell + Tuomey (2013)

Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey’s maverick brick masterpiece, the Saw Hock Student Centre, led the duo to receive one of the most prestigious honours in UK architecture – the Royal Gold Medal.

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s magnum opus not only pays tribute to the built environment’s most humble material, it employs it as the unassuming poster-boy for structural gymnastics on a somewhat uninspiring site.

Beguiling brickwork comprised of 175,000 individually shaped and baked blocks make for a fittingly precise architectural monument to an institution dedicated to economic education.


Barbara Hepworth Building, University of Huddersfield. Photo courtesy of AHR

5. Barbara Hepworth Building,
University of Huddersfield, by AHR (2020)

UK-based practice AHR unveiled the University of Huddersfield’s new home for the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture earlier this year.

Dedicated to the late British sculptor, the Barbara Hepworth Building immortalises the ideals of colour, form and materiality that characterised her work as one of the 20th century’s finest artists.

Most significantly, the building’s carefully curated interior spaces reflect Hepworth’s signature organic fluidity. AHR’s implementation of interconnected spaces, as well as studios, aims to foster inter-disciplinary creativity between the three, previously self-contained, schools.

As a campus architecture project that honours the past while looking towards to the future, the Barbara Hepworth Building stands as a bricks-and-mortar commitment to the University of Hudderfield’s ambition to becoming a localised hub of international creative talent.

Sitting alongside a host of primarily London-based universities on this list, the University of Huddersfield makes a strong argument for investing in first-class educational infrastructure more equally throughout the UK. And if the trends triggered by the current coronavirus pandemic are anything to go by, capital-centric design has had its heyday.

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