College Campus Design Goes From Reflecting the Time to Reflecting the Future

Architecture, both in terms of design and materials, has always reflected the cultural zeitgeist. Universities around the world provide a perfect microcosm for viewing these changes and evolutions, as university architecture tends to be cutting edge, and reflective of both the culture and the time. Oxford and Cambridge feature gothic and neo-classical buildings that are exemplary of those periods, while the University of Pittsburg’s Cathedral of Learning is a 1920’s masterpiece mashup of late gothic revival and art deco skyscraper.

Just as with these storied campuses, today’s university projects are highly representative of both the times and the student culture. In the US, dorms were once associated with cinderblock walls, tiny rooms, and prison-like furniture bolted to the walls. There was little, if any, active emphasis on community building or sustainability. Today’s students find this unacceptable, and universities are responding. 

In an effort both to bolster retention rates and to respond to changes in student expectations, new student residences are built as all-in-one living and learning centers. These buildings are supposed to be social spaces, where learning started in the classroom can continue, and where students can easily meet and socialize with one another. By focusing on creating a tight knit social and learning environment, new residences prioritize common spaces such as rec-rooms, theaters, dining halls, and communal workspaces over sheer room numbers. New residences need to have the latest in connectivity and power, as well as the all-important sustainability focused certifications, such as LEEDs, that the current crop of Gen Z students find paramount.

In a way, universities are being incentivized to do this in order to create living spaces that students love and want to return to, increasing retention. On the other hand, they are almost being forced to do so. As college prices continue to go up, students are becoming increasingly selective in their choice of alma mater, making colleges with less attractive housing options far more likely to be passed over by prospective students.

When combined, these factors of avant garde architecture and inclusive student focused amenities, fueled by the need to keep and attract students, have led to some stunning residences. MIT’s Simmons Hall is a futuristic undergraduate residence that fits neatly into the trend towards more amenity rich freshman and sophomore housing. It packs enviable features like an on-site cinema, chalk-able walls, and even a giant ball pit into a porous, gridded structure that looks decidedly modern, but should still age well.

University architecture has always been a mirror of campus culture, and today it is no different. Gen Z students’ priorities of quality of life, communal living, and sustainability are producing striking new designs that are helping colleges in the increasingly desperate fight to attract and retain students as the cost of education continues to rise.

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