Big names on campus

Celebrity architects are shaking things up at universities across the country, but it's all part of a grand design
August 11, 2010

Imagine yourself joining a typical campus tour at Case Western Reserve University sometime soon. The sky is a dull steel gray, the wind off Lake Erie is sending icicles down the back of your neck — this is Cleveland, don't forget — and the prospective scholars you're tagging along with are bored out of their minds hearing their tour guide delineate the 1.5 million items in the library collection.

Then, just past Fraternity Row, your little clump of humanity turns the corner at Ford and Bellflower Streets, and one of the future Einsteins wakes up. "Whoa!" he exclaims, careful not to risk a second syllable. "What is that?"

That would certainly be the kind of reaction the school was hoping for when it commissioned Frank Gehry to design a new home for its Weatherhead School of Management. Since its dedication in October, the Peter B. Lewis Building has projected a relatively unknown program into the national spotlight among management schools.

Case Western is not the only university to exploit the talents of high-image architects to shake up their campuses with buildings that make bold statements. Whether it's staid Eastern establishment schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., or up-and-coming state schools like my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill., university boards and administrators are using world-class designers to help execute dynamic strategic plans.

Since the day Thomas Jefferson took pen to paper to design the University of Virginia, the built environment has been an integral philosophical component of America's institutions of higher learning. But for some schools, the lush, green quadrangles and turreted stone buildings that have long provided a sense of prestige, tradition, and solidity no longer cut it when it comes to attracting the best faculty and the brightest students.

Innovative architecture is becoming a strategic component of the master plans of forward-thinking universities. Building Teams that fail to recognize and integrate the new demands of hard-nosed university boards and management will find themselves out in the cold when it comes to getting the big jobs on campus.

 
Since its dedication in October, the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, has projected the school into the national spotlight. The university commissioned Gehry, in part, to help its Weatherhead School of Management compete with the top schools in the nation.

Not just another pretty façade

In the halls of academe these days, "everyone's trying to compete however they can, not only for students and faculty, but for peer respect among other schools," says Mark Maves, senior vice president and director of the Learning Group with Detroit-based A/E SmithGroup Inc.

Some schools have turned to celebrity architects in part, he says, to create a sense of identity. Many are hoping to regain what Maves calls "the character and quality of a special place," which they lost in the '60s and '70s when a construction boom in higher education resulted in a glut of "mostly mediocre" Modernist buildings.

University architects and planners say commissioning top architects goes well beyond the immediate gratification of creating "pretty" buildings. Meeting expanded programmatic needs, creating innovative environments that promote new ways of learning and living, and helping fundraising efforts are also among the chief reasons.

"I don't think it's a case of saying, 'We need to compete,'" says Vicky Sirianni, chief facilities officer at MIT. "I think it's a by-product of our strategy for expanding the campus."

During the past several years, MIT has commissioned a stellar list of signature architects, including three Pritzker Prize winners — the omnipresent Mr. Gehry (computer science village), Kevin Roche (new recreation center), and Fumihiko Maki (media lab expansion) — as part of a $1 billion capital improvement effort to remake its campus. It is MIT's second-largest building boom since it moved to Cambridge in 1916.

"There has not been a deliberate attempt to hire stars, but rather to hire innovative, thought-provoking architects who push the envelope in the same way the institution pushes the envelope," says Sirianni.

She points to Steven Holl's recently completed Simmons Hall as an example of "a wild reflection and innovative response to the need of an integrated life and learning environment."

The 10-story, 350-bed dormitory was imagined as a "vertical slice of a city," says Sirianni. Study lounges, kitchenettes, laundry rooms, game rooms, and outdoor terraces are strategically placed throughout the 195,000-sq.-ft. dormitory to encourage interaction among students, graduate resident assistants, and even visiting faculty, who are housed in apartments near social spaces.

"We created town squares up in the air that become places where people can gather and interact," says Tim Bade, project executive with Steven Holl Architects, New York. "It's all part of trying to balance out stressful academics with ways of build strong social groups within the dorm."

 
For Simmons Hall, MIT turned to Steven Holl to create "a wild reflection and innovative response to the need of an integrated life and learning environment.” The resulting “Lego like” concrete structure houses 350 students and is comprised of about 50% public space.

Bade says Holl broke down the vertical barriers of typical residential towers by fashioning two- and three-story atriums. To lend individuality to student rooms, Holl created a variety of room layouts ("There are virtually no floor plans that are identical," says Bade), as well as a system of stackable plywood bunk-bed elements that can be arranged in a variety of configurations (see illustrations and photos above).

"By making every unit radically different, we found that everyone is curious about their neighbor's room layout," he says. "Therefore, we hope everyone will get to know each other quickly."

Friends in high places

Securing donor support for new construction is a crucial issue for private universities like MIT and Case Western, especially in the current economic climate. Hiring signature architects has helped both universities gain financial support.

Hiring Gehry helped Case Western collect the entire $61.7 million in donations needed for the construction of the eponymous Peter B. Lewis Building, whose lead donor is chairman of auto insurance giant Progressive Corp., Mayfield Village, Ohio. Lewis dropped $36.9 million on Case Western and another $60 million on his alma mater, Princeton University, for a science library that is currently under design by Gehry, who is also a friend.

"There's no question that Gehry helped to generate donor interest," says Ken Kutina, vice president emeritus of institutional planning for Case Western. "But I think the programmatic impact the new building will yield was also important."

Case Western has been quite vocal about its desire to make Weatherhead one of the top business schools in the nation (it currently ranks about 50 in the popular polls). "They want to compete with brand-name schools," says Gerhard Mayer, senior associate with Gehry Partners, Santa Monica, Calif. "They want to excel by being different."

The new facility consolidates the management school into one block on campus and, more to the point, creates an environment that fosters Weatherhead's philosophy on management.

"The university thought that Frank Gehry's architecture would be helpful in interpreting what their management school is all about — being creative, innovative, and open-minded; having more of a design-type approach to management, not a linear, rational, deductive approach," says Mayer.

The five-story, 155,000-sq.-ft. concrete and steel structure consists of Gehry's signature stainless steel ribbons bursting from the top of two red-brick structures. Inside, curving perimeter walls surround a two-story atrium and numerous interconnected paths that are meant encourage interaction among students and faculty.

"We wanted to create an environment where students basically crash into each other," says Mayer. "So we scattered the faculty offices and classrooms throughout the building and created many points of contact."

The building also houses state-of-the-art technology. Data ports located at every classroom seat provide students with access to the university network. Classrooms are also equipped with the latest audio and video technology to enable multimedia presentations and distance learning.

Heat in the heartland

Creating a landmark building for the campus of Eastern Illinois University was the impetus for the $48 million expansion to the Doudna Fine Arts Center. The new facility, which is expected to break ground in February, will consolidate the school's music, theater, and art programs.

But when Antoine Predock was named as design architect, Steve Shrake, manager of design and construction at EIU, had a few qualms. "This is a very traditional campus," he says. "At first, we struggled with Predock, because he's out there a little with his designs."

Now he's convinced that the university's 11,000-plus students will one day be treated to something special.

"It certainly created a buzz of excitement across campus," says Shrake. He says the state's quality-based selection law, by which architects are chosen based on specific qualifications, enabled the university to select Predock even though his fee was higher than other design firms on the shortlist.

"We believe that people will come here to see Predock's work," says Shrake. Community involvement is key to the university, which relies to some extent on revenue from performances.

A lesson for Building Teams

From these examples, it is clear that the climate at the nation's universities with regard to the physical plant is changing dramatically.

No longer are buildings viewed by the leaders of academe as boxes in which to stuff as many students, faculty, and functions as possible, at the lowest possible cost, with little concern about the impact of design.

Clearly, strategic planners, administrators, and fundraising staff at U.S. universities are experimenting with out-of-the-box design as a means to lend individuality and excitement to their campuses, as part of a larger strategic plan.

That's a lesson smart Building Teams are going to have to study much more carefully in the future.