The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


How to Build a Residential College

6. An Alexandrian Generative Sequence

A college is essentially and simply an association, a group of people joined together for a particular purpose.

—G.H. Martin & J.L.R. Highfield, A History of Merton College, Oxford

The architectural work of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues has made Alexander’s notion of structural patterns popular in many fields from architecture to computer programming. (See the influential book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.) A design pattern in Alexander’s sense is rather like an anatomical feature or organ, and when you look at a large number of successful buildings and neighborhoods you can readily identify many anatomical features—patterns—that they all share and that contribute to their success.

If you wish to construct a complex many-featured thing from scratch, however, you must not only know the components that will be present in the final structure, you must also know the correct embryological sequence—the set of assembly rules—for putting the components and sub-components together in the first place. Alexander calls these assembly rules generative sequences or generative codes: they tell you what decisions you have to make in what order during the construction process. A good generative sequence allows you to avoid backtracking—it allows you to avoid saying, “Oops, we’re stuck because there was something we should have done two steps ago that we forgot.” A generative sequence also allows a project to have flexibility, because it doesn’t require that the details of each pattern element be specified earlier than necessary.

The other sections of this website that explain how to build a residential college describe the anatomy of residential colleges—the “patterns” relating to membership and administrative structure, buildings and grounds, college life and the annual cycle, pastoral care, and academic life. This page, by contrast presents a simple generative sequence for growing a new residential college. In order to understand the generative sequence you do need to have a picture in your mind of the final structure of your college and the components that will make it up, and so you should first read at least the “How To Build a Residential College” summary page. Once you do have that final picture in your mind, review this generative sequence to see how the parts should be initially assembled.

How long will it take? If you have existing buildings available that can provide adequate common space, or can work collegiate enhancements into a pre-existing renovation cycle (see the separate discussion of residential college buildings and grounds), the planning and establishment of a residential college as an academic society doesn’t require very much time. This entire sequence can be carried out in one year, and the college can take in its first resident members the following year.

What about costs? If usable buildings already exist, the principal costs arise from incidental operating expenses—largely food and the maintenance of a college office (2.1.6)—and from salaries for the master and the dean (1.2), each of whom can hold half-time appointments in the residential college and half-time appointments in an academic department. A rule of thumb might be to expect to spend the equivalent of one and a half to two faculty budget lines for each collegiate unit of 400.

¶ Note that this sequence describes the initial development of a college as a membership society; it doesn’t describe how to build college buildings. As such it is applicable not only to traditional residential colleges but also to non-residential house systems as one might find in a