COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Let's Stop Letting Starchitects Ruin College Campuses

Dec 1, 2015
Jan 5, 2018

“At some point, things began to fall apart in planning campuses.” - James Howard Kunstler

College tuition has been on the rise for forty years, with no signs of leveling off. This means that more students are graduating with loans, and a lot of them -- in 2013, 70% left school in debt, with an average owed amount of $28,000. But rather than cutting costs, colleges are spending more and more money on their exterior aesthetics. This practice is part of what Washington Monthly calls the “prestige racket,” in which universities hire big-name architects to design “upscale” campus buildings in an attempt to attract students.

One of the boldest examples comes from the University of Cincinnati, which has enlisted a “murderers’ row” of architects to redesign their campus, including Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne. This adds up to a lot of shiny new buildings, including the crown jewel - Mr. Mayne’s exorbitant $112.9 million Campus Recreation Center, which opened in 2006. But there’s even more in the works: UC’s Department of Athletics has requested a $70 million renovation of the basketball arena, which, if approved, will open in 2017.

‍The Campus Recreation Center, a monument to rising tuition | Image from Richie Diesterheft via flickr

To support all of this construction, the college has taken on a massive debt load, currently around $1.1 billion. The school has also experienced dramatic spikes in tuition, while its professors earn salaries that rank far below those at similar research institutions. As more and more of that money goes to debt service, students take the hit. The average UC student leaves with $23,000 in debt, and that number could be closer to $30,000 for those on the more expensive (and flashy) main campus. And as they are taking on more and more debt, they are receiving less and less from the school itself. According to The College Fix, between 2005 and 2013, academic spending per full-time undergraduate student at UC dropped 24 percent.

Once the architect leaves, the academic community is left to deal with the fallout of buildings that don’t just  ignore their surrounding contexts, but also frequently overlook basic construction principles. Notably, MIT sued Frank Gehry when his $300 million Stata Center made headlines not for its eye-catching deconstructivist design but for the “pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that have required costly repairs.”

‍The Stata Center is attractive from afar, but offers little at the ground level. | Image from Nathan Rupert via flickr

Gehry isn’t the only “starchitect” guilty of construction problems: At Cornell University, one architecture professor has taken it upon himself to document continuing structural issues in Rem Koolhaus’s Milstein Hall, which has “egregious code violations.” Indeed, Cornell has had a string of bad luck with big-name architects, suing I.M. Pei for “architectural malpractice” that led to “structural deficiencies, roof cavities, ceiling cracks and other flaws” at the Johnson Museum of Art.

Down south, Florida Polytechnic dropped $60 million on a new Innovation, Science, and Technology building designed by Santiago Calatrava, who is as famous for his budget overruns as he is for the quality of his architecture. That project made Slate’s “11 Worst Buildings of 2014” list for violating “possibly every tenet of good planning and design in 2014.”

Cooper Union trades founder’s  principles for swoops and angles

The back of the PPS office gives a fine view of the irregular geometry that defines the Thom Mayne-designed Cooper Union academic building, which was completed in 2009. Although lauded by the critical establishment for its “bold, aggressive profile,” it has received criticism from every other angle for driving the school into debt, so much so that it had to start charging tuition for the first time in its 150-year history. (Funds for the $166 million building did not come from donors, but rather through a mortgage, at a 6% interest rate.) Taking up an entire city block, the structure breaks up the neighborhood with its massive concrete supports and a series of surrounding (and uncomfortable) benches. The building’s street level is abysmal -  clearly an afterthought for an architect far more concerned with how his buildings will be received from afar. Paying no attention to the “architecture of place, the building is situated uncomfortably amidst historic East Village landmarks. A fitting symbol, perhaps, of a neighborhood that is being gradually erased through overdevelopment and gentrification.

‍The building that caused Cooper Union to start charging tuition for the first time ever | Image from Steve Silverman via flickr

Cooper Union is already one of the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world, so they certainly didn’t need to make a grand statement in order to attract more students. Both the school and the community would have been better served had the institution spared some of the $166 million they spent on the building and erected a simpler structure. There are a lot of losers here: the students who must now pay tuition; the institution's founder Peter Cooper, whose philosophy that education should be “open and free to all” has been compromised; and PPS employees who have to look at the damn thing every day. But the biggest loser is the surrounding community, who have lost a key link in their place network. The building stands as a tangible marker of this loss, and hopefully as a warning call to other institutions who still believe that a big-name architect is a valuable investment.

It’s time to start thinking of our campuses as places

Where do we think universities should spend their money instead? As former PPS staff member Phil Myrick has written: “Billions of dollars go into building facilities that hide their assets behind blank walls. If a tiny part of the investment was directed to bringing the building program to the outside, it would make a vast difference on people’s experience of the campus.”

Universities need not cease new construction altogether, but students, faculty, staff, and administration would all be better off if new buildings were required to be integrated into a larger conception of the campus as a public commons (in light of ongoing anti-racism protests on campuses, it is more important than ever to ensure that public spaces are available to foster debate). The first step in creating this vision is a placemaking plan, created with all of the stakeholders (students, faculty, staff, administration, the community) to determine how the campus’s built environment can best serve everyone. This input can then be organized into a public space master plan for the campus, which can dictate how buildings interact with the spaces around them.

“Campuses need to be thought about in terms of destinations, how the various buildings relate, where the gathering places go, where you want walkways–and then fit the streets to that vision. In most cases this will result in a total rethinking of each street’s design.” - Phil Myrick

A great example of a campus that is building itself around its common spaces is Harvard University, where PPS has worked for the past ten years on various projects. In 2008, the university established a “Steering-Committee on Common Spaces” to drive new activity and life to under-utilized sections of campus. “Imagine places where classroom conversations and debates are continued informally, places where serendipity leads to discovery” said committee member Evelynn Hammonds, describing the space. “This kind of community interaction holds great promise.”

‍A much better use of precious dollars than a new Gehry building | Photo courtesy Harvard Campus Services

The program at Harvard has been a resounding success, especially in “The Plaza,” a one-time “pass-through” route that has been turned into a thriving destination. It has become a lab for experimentation, hosting at various points a skating rink, markets, fire pits, a “Plaza Pet Therapy Zoo,” and much more. The program shows what is possible when a university dedicates itself to building its campus around places, and institutions everywhere should be taking notes.

Many institutions of higher education have a limited pool of funds, and when they spend unwisely the entire academic community suffers. Students pay higher tuition, faculty members are paid less, and the residents of surrounding neighborhoods lose a potential gathering space. But more than this, universities don’t need expensive buildings to attract students. Potential students visiting the school likely won't remember the buildings themselves, they will remember the quality of its public spaces and how people were interacting in and around them.

Campuses that encourage sociability through an architecture of place will come out on top, and save money to boot. It’s time to scale back on pretentious starchitect-designed campus buildings and start spending more time thinking about the role of the university itself, and the the public spaces therein, to nurture the social, intellectual, and cultural life of our students and future leaders.

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