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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

The Burden of Bad Campus Architecture

The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, England. Not a residential college, but emblematic of much barbarous architecture of the 1960s and 1970s. It was blessedly demolished in 2005.

— There is no necessary correlation between the wealth or age of a university and its ability to create and sustain a vibrant residential college system. Residential colleges are not for the “elite” (whatever that might mean)—they are for everybody. If honor students deserve them, average students do too. If private university students should have them, so should public university students. The only necessary components are students, faculty, dormitories, and dining rooms, and most campuses have those already. Creating a residential college is largely a matter of arranging resources that exist; it’s not necessarily a matter of acquiring new resources. These are positions I will always cheerfully defend.

That being said, the particular accidents of history on any individual campus can indeed leave obstacles behind that are quite difficult to overcome, especially with respect to architecture.

Not long ago I toured a small public university campus, a regional one serving about 3000 students, most of them undergraduates. In many respects, institutions like this are ideal settings for residential college systems. The president of a small public university, who really understood the residential college idea and implemented it vigorously, could strike fear into the heart of every private university and every liberal arts college in the region. The marketing slogan is simple: “An educational environment like the best schools in the world, at a fraction of the price.” Could third-tier and fourth-tier private liberal arts colleges survive such a movement? I don’t think they could.

But on some campuses, bad old architecture really gets in the way. The regional campus that I visited had three principal residential areas: (1) a group of three ten-story cinderblock towers; (2) a wholly separate collection of nine mid-sized apartment-style buildings with student suites; and (3) another wholly separate group of house-like three-story buildings with suite-like apartments.

There is nothing in the institutional structure of this small university that would prevent it from developing a residential college system: it has students, it has faculty, it has the right numbers and a decent campus. But the pre-existing configuration of the buildings—a contingent consequence of many different decisions made by many people over several decades—would make it difficult to pull off.

Where to begin? The group of house-like apartments (3) is definitely the best set of residential buildings on campus. They were built on a fine human scale, and while they aren’t quite configured around a courtyard, some good landscaping (better than what now exists) could help to articulate them as a group, and their existing irregular placement could in fact support the creation of a range of quirky corners and small gardens that would look quite nice. Drawbacks? The rooms in this group of buildings are all suite-style, and that’s not necessarily the best configuration for freshmen, who are better off in a more populated setting with less isolation. A mix of suite-style and corridor-style rooms within each building (not segregated by building) would have been better. There is also poor provision within this group for faculty apartments, although this could be remedied through renovation of one or more existing suites.

The separate group of apartment-style buildings (2) are not bad in terms of scale and appearance, but the details of their organization get in the way of community building. This group provides the greatest degree of individual isolation: there’s little sense of a courtyard and no channeling of traffic to make the buildings feel like a cohesive unit, and there are exits and entrances going individually in all directions. For this reason they are perceived to be “senior housing”—an unfortunate category in itself, both for the seniors and everyone else. As with the previous group, these need to be renovated to support a full mix of age groups, and re-landscaped to give them a bit of cohesion as a group.

Lastly, the concrete high-rises (1). There’s only one thing to do with them: tear them down. The brutal cinderblock high-rises that erupted on hundreds of campuses in the 1960s and 1970s are monstrosities that no one should be required to live in. A harsh judgment? I don’t think so. The long-range plans of every campus should include the explicit demolition of these kinds of buildings: if not this year, then next year; if not next year, then in five years; if not in five years, then in ten. In the mean time, consider converting them to office and administrative space rather than residential space, or taking over distinct floors or sections for office and administrative space to reduce the overall residential density. If buildings of this kind must house freshmen, deal honestly and openly by saying that, yes, these aren’t the best buildings on campus, and once you have been here for a year and risen to be a sophomore and then a junior there will be better places to live: persistence will be rewarded, and everyone here follows this same path. If you anticipate a long delay before demolition can be completed, or if you have to successively phase out a group of such high-rises over time, break open the rows of cell-like rooms that these buildings usually contain and create a variety of larger rooms that will be able to support a better mix of age groups. Add sinks or partial baths to as many of these rooms as possible to enhance privacy and reduce the load on communal facilities.

So, on this particular small campus—a campus that in many respects would be an ideal home for a residential college system—the existing architecture is a considerable obstacle to the creation of properly cross-sectional units. The campus as a whole is treated as one big housing system through which students flow like isolated machine-parts on a conveyor belt, starting here, moving there, winding up over there. The small and stable homes that the students deserve while they are on campus are just not provided.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016