Private ambitions: what more can universities do to ensure their buildings contribute to cities?

The best opportunities for architects to express their skills and challenge the possibilities of built form are provided today not by the Church or the State – but by universities. Unlike cathedrals, museums or railway stations, university buildings tend to be private, shielding both brilliant ideas and brilliant architecture from a wider public. Whilst it’s inspiring to see universities commission architecture with such confidence, more must be done to share the possibilities these buildings create with a wider public.  

Fig 1. The new Engineering building at the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC), Lima.

When the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the UK gathered to award its first international prize in November, they settled on a wondrous building by the awe-inspiring Grafton Architects created in Lima, Peru’s capital.  The building sets up a fascinating dance of concrete and voids, certain yet fragile, like a honeycomb. It’s a bold responce to a challenging site and a clear symbol of Lima’s ambitions for the future.

What’s even more remarkable is that this building is a university Department of Engineering.

When I went to university, university campuses were functional affairs where it was obvious that considerations of price had overtaken those of design. This was especially true of Departments of Engineering where “assembly of drafty sheds stapled together by pre-used packing boxes” was the over-riding and not ironic design aesthetic.

Beyond the shed

Not anymore. University after university is commissioning buildings at the forefront of architectural capabilities and campuses have become amongst the most inspiring and uplifting of places in our busy cities. Shedding off the sheds, Departments of Engineering from Melbourne to Sheffield have become particularly astute in the use of stunning built form.

Fig 2. New builds for engineering students and researchers at the University of Sheffield (left) and Melbourne Institute of Technology (right). 

Building for the Knowledge Society – or building for all of society?

At the heart of this transformation is a repositioning of the role of knowledge in our society. Research and new ideas used to be for the few (with some notable exceptions) and slightly less than ten percent of each generation – and only men – attended university. In today’s trumpeted Knowledge Society, research and new ideas have been placed centre-stage and become “assets” to which we should aspire. Many do, in most OECD countries over half of each generation goes to university now.

That still means that a significant proportion of each generation does not go to university. How open, navigable or inviting are these awesome new university buildings to people who have chosen other routes in life? Today, too many university buildings seem selected to impress and reward the few, rather than engage the many.  Are campuses in danger of becoming architectural theme parks funded by students who have dwindling resources for such riches? I don’t think so – but think we have to chart a better path forward.

Architecture that invites a wider public

A thriving knowledge society requires that we engage more and different people in research and education – and that we make these engagements at many more points throughout a person’s life than we currently do. The buildings of a university should enable this, being built to welcome and engage diverse audiences. Churches, railway stations and museums were built by the State and Church with wide, indeed, unlimited, public access is mind. To do justice to the work of Grafton in Lima, the bottom levels of the new university building are indeed designed to give access to different publics and host a wide variety of events.

To expand the knowledge society and make sure its rewards are shared, universities must see it as their responsibility to commission truly civic architecture, buildings that have a wide public in mind. This is a challenge to which many architects can rise and, I hope, will release another wave of  both architectural and human creativity on university campuses.













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