July 1, 2008
Exporting the Quad
Moore Ruble Yudell—and a handful of other top firms—is reshaping the university experience by creating, overseas, that uniquely American place: the college campus.
“I Get Money” blasts from the front porch of College Hall as the smell of barbecue wafts over North Main Street and across the green of Dartmouth College, a colossal lawn dotted with Frisbee players and crisscrossed by diagonal walkways that unmistakably designate the core of the American college campus. For a moment, you think the infamous Delta House fraternity lives again, but it turns out to be just a function organized by the student association. A half hour later, everyone’s back to work, huddled in alcoves over their laptops.
Nowhere in the world is the idea of higher education as strongly associated with a distinctive form of urban design as in the United States: the quads and diags and ovals, with their tree-lined lawns, fountains, and rambles that stitch together dormitories, dining halls, and academic buildings into a unified campus environment. Dartmouth College is not just a school in Hanover, New Hampshire: its library is the tallest structure in town, with a spire that combines the symbolic elements of town hall and church steeple. The campus is like a city unto itself, spilling over its edges and overwhelming the place in a way that epitomizes the stereotype of Collegetown, U.S.A.
“The American education model is about place,” says John Ruble, of Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY), which master-planned a campus extension at Dartmouth and has in recent years been spreading its higher-education expertise to Europe and Asia. “It’s different in Europe and other places: universities tend to be just integral parts of cities, whereas the whole idea of a campus as a real feature of the educational experience is uniquely American. Oxford is an accumulation of entities that add up to something, but here the whole experience of learning is about being in a special place for a special time, and campuses are meant to foster that experience. What’s maybe different about the American model is that a lot of times it was associated with getting out of the city.”
According to local lore, Dartmouth’s history goes back to the colonial era, when Eleazar Wheelock, an idealistic missionary, paddled up the Connecticut River and in 1769 founded the school to educate the youth of the Northeastern Native American tribes. Today it’s part of a network of universities spread across the Northeastern seaboard, fundamental drivers of the region’s economic activity—the medical and information-technology corridor stretching from Boston to Bethesda—and part of a $373 billion higher-education industry that makes up 2.7 percent of the U.S. economy. Last year there were nearly 600,000 international students enrolled in the United States, from places like India and China. And for the past few years, as other parts of the world have grown exponentially—outstripping the capacity of their own institutions as well as ours—American universities and the architects who build them have been rapidly emulating the campus model around the globe, building universities in countries with burgeoning economies such as Ireland and China, and in Arab kingdoms from Abu Dhabi to Libya. “These countries where they have money from things like oil, it’s the smartest thing they can do,” Ruble says. “In a lot of countries, higher education is the starting point, the springboard for economic development, because increasingly it’s about technology.”
Moore Ruble Yudell’s office is located in a converted warehouse with huge wooden trusses and a generous backyard garden on Pico Boulevard, about seven blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California. From there, Ruble and partner Buzz Yudell—who formed MRY with Charles Moore 30 years ago—along with James Mary O’Connor, the principal in charge of international projects, oversee a broad portfolio of campus master plans and academic buildings. “Our core has been to bring the work back here, not to grow really big—fifty or sixty people—but do the creative work here and then team up with very good firms abroad,” O’Connor says. “We’ve resisted opening up offices in other places, but the result is that we end up doing a lot of traveling. I’ve been to China thirty times. The nice thing about Los Angeles is that it’s just about midway between China and Europe.”
MRY’s master plan for Dartmouth’s north campus fluidly merges a new cluster of student housing, a mathematics-and-humanities building, and a dining hall just breaking ground into one of the oldest American college settings. It’s a good indication of what they and a handful of other education specialists are doing all over the world: taking a hodgepodge of buildings and introducing interconnecting pathways and open spaces to sew them together into total educational environments—and in some cases planning entirely new academic communities. “It’s creating a footprint,” O’Connor says of the master-planning process. “It’s saying certain things are important—the landscape and paths. It’s setting the table for other architects to do good work. We’re creating an armature for that.”
At first blush, the master plans all look pretty old-school. MRY adheres to the principle that when you’re presenting master plans you shouldn’t gussy them up with 3-D renderings masquerading as architecture. Their drawings take the form of watercolors meant to evoke the spirit of the place, signal some initial directions, and allow the process to remain open to comments from the community—rather than selling an imaginary bill of goods that will never be realized. “The funny thing is that certain clients love them and others don’t,” O’Connor says. “Our Asian clients love those high-tech renderings and don’t like the watercolors at all. Our local clients here don’t trust the computer stuff. They’re not looking for reality: they want something different, something magical and more about a vision, so they’re looking for something more suggestive. High-tech computer renderings often look like all of the decisions have been made, whereas the watercolor can be loose enough that it seems to last longer. When you present those computer drawings to a community, they’re incontestable. They feel like, ‘You’ve already done it, what are we doing here?’”
It’s that openness to discussion, rooted in a humanistic tradition that still connects the firm to Moore’s early work, which has won it dozens of university projects over the years. “The local architects in some places have a certain approach, and it doesn’t involve a whole lot of listening,” Ruble says. “We gave a presentation recently where we talked about the school and its goals, and the faculty came to us afterward and said, ‘This is the first time anybody said anything that made sense to us.’ And they’ve been working on the project for two years.”
The international expansion of MRY’s academic work over the past decade also reflects the increasing global influence of a university model that puts a high value on an active, round-the-clock academic experience. Most of the firm’s campus-master-planning commissions, including a major restructuring of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; a campus for Dong-Hwa National University, in Taiwan; and a new hub for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, seek to establish connections between places and creating active spaces rather than designing buildings as such. “We’re quite good at doing master-planning,” O’Connor says. “When it comes to these buildings on the campus, we’ve built most of those types, and we have a pretty good idea of what it takes.”
A few weeks ago, Ruble was in Russia to discuss a graduate business school for St. Petersburg State University, whose dean spent a lot of time at University of California at Berkeley. MRY built Berkeley’s School of Business Administration in 1995 and is currently working on a project to combine its law and business schools into one complex. “There’s no telling where pursuing educational projects in the rest of the world might lead you,” Ruble says. “It is very much this kind of thing where they’re trying to reach a world-class model, but in a way that really seems to mean an American model, because they’re thinking about education the way it is at Berkeley and Harvard and places like that. For Russia, where they have a long way to go in terms of achieving a world-class business environment, working on a business school is like a special kind of foreign relations. We’d all like to see Russia get more normal and lose the mafioso element and the corruption, and I see something like a graduate school of business as a starting point.”
O’Connor is leaving next week for his native Dublin, where he’s presenting an updated version of the firm’s master plan to convert Grangegorman, a sprawling former mental asylum on the city’s north side, into a 73-acre campus for the Dublin Institute of Technology. The school is currently dispersed around the city in dozens of buildings, and the project will consolidate it on one site; repurpose existing structures for business, science, engineering, and architecture schools; and add a library, a recreation center, and new facilities for student housing, health care, and outdoor sports. But the key isn’t the buildings so much as the way a series of fingerlike paths, quads, and open spaces relates the structures to one another and back to the city. The whole campus links up with an existing chain of parks and historic streets, and a proposed light-rail extension, to regenerate a long-neglected section of Dublin and to create an active academic environment. “I grew up next door to this asylum,” O’Connor says. “It’s been walled off there for about four hundred years, and what’s happened is, the city has spread for miles, but right in the center you’ve got this idyllic landscape with an incredible view. This site is a missing piece for the entire north side; because of the scale, you could actually use it to stitch existing parks together through development, and reconnect and repair the city.”
Both O’Connor and Ruble marvel at the way a particular image of students in the library looking out over Dublin through a wall of windows—with a view of the rugby fields below and the mountains in the distance—has continued to be a central reference point for the project as they show it to community groups. “We don’t show much architecture, but this drawing will survive the whole process,” O’Connor says. “It’s all about this window—this fundamental view is not going to change because it just sets an idea.”
The asylum was built on higher ground to expose patients to fresh air, and the architects decided to make the library the centerpiece of the academic part of the development, which has another quad oriented around social activity. “In this project, there is a key moment where you look out over Dublin to the south and realize where you are,” Ruble says. “It’s a unique place—you can celebrate the experience of being there—and for students this will be something subliminal. A lot of people do images of architecture where you’re looking at buildings from the outside, and we’re very much interested in looking at them on the inside or looking out from them. That’s the experience people are really going to have eventually. We see architecture as about place-making, trying to design a sort of experience.”
The Dublin project was an unusual chance to insert an entire campus right into the center of an old city, but a lot of the high-profile large-scale academic work happening now—Foster + Partners’ Masdar Institute, in Abu Dhabi; HOK’s plan for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology on the coast of Saudi Arabia; and Ayers Saint Gross’s Vedanta University in rural India—are being built in remote and underdeveloped areas, where competition for land is not so intense. MRY’s master plan for Dong-Hwa National University, in Taiwan, is the firm’s version of the type: a complete campus, built in a floodplain about an hour south of Taipei, that takes its cues from feng shui, Beijing’s Forbidden City, and a traditional Chinese painting of a village surrounded by lakes. The strategy was to encircle the campus with a string of lakes to remediate the floodplain and to insert a ceremonial center intersected by a series of quads along a set of formal axes. “When we did Dong-Hwa, the whole point was not just to have a campus there, and not just to get the kids out of the city,” Ruble says. “It was to provide an economic boost to this region of Taiwan.”
It’s basically Dartmouth with a Chinese twist, but the architectural sketches were a bit too traditionally vernacular for the ever-modernizing East: the university awarded the firm the master plan and then hired the local runners-up in the planning competition to build the academic structures in a more contemporary style. “That’s the funny thing sometimes about a competition,” O’Connor says. “The first prize is you get to do the streets and roads, and place the buildings. The library went to the second-place competitor, and each of the other competitors got buildings. We didn’t get to do any of them; we did some bridges.”
The dense setting for MRY’s Chinese University of Hong Kong is more typical: the campus of an expanding university on a packed hillside where a lack of attention to infrastructure and landscaping demanded some major restructuring to accommodate new facilities and create real places within the academic environment. “What’s happened over the years is that people have just dropped buildings in various places and there’s no overall master plan,” O’Connor says. “They were having great trouble getting the students around and wanted to look at the campus as a whole.”
In this case, the design had to start by conceiving a more functional transportation infrastructure to get students from the train station at the bottom of the hill to academic buildings along the slope. The solution—inspired by Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, the world’s longest escalator system—was to create a transportation spine running straight up the hillside composed of a progression of covered escalators stopping at a series of plateaus along the way. The new academic buildings are oriented in semicircles at various points along the spine; and at the bottom the architects imagined an arrival sequence from the train station that uses retail spaces, a student union, and a public performing-arts center to connect the campus with the neighborhood. “This is a master plan, so these are not really designed,” O’Connor says, pointing to the watercolors of academic buildings. “It’s just a suggestion of how you could place the buildings and how it would work as an overall strategy, how you could connect all the way down and create this series of places.”
But probably the most common type of academic master-planning is MYR’s proposal for the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, to transform it from a placeless urban commuter college into a true university campus through student housing, gardens, a glass pavilion, and a boulevard connecting it to the city. You see this type fairly often in the work of other American higher-education specialists working abroad: RMJM Hillier’s project for Duke University’s medical school in Singapore, which inserts a new high-rise research, classroom, and administrative facility into a tight urban site and uses it to create a quadrangle in relation to the existing buildings; and even SHW Group’s project for Michigan State University in Dubai, which provides ample interior social spaces to compensate for the limits imposed by the hot climate on exterior public space.
“Over the last few years, the issue of globalization has hit the education world as well,” says Gordon Hood, of RMJM Hillier’s Global Education Studio. “We’re currently seeing major initiatives by U.S. institutions that are looking to set up campuses, research institutes, or foundations in the Middle East. It’s becoming a much wider frontier, and it’s very much about trying to create a sense of place and a community for scholars—some kind of quadrangle, a social space for people to meet and gather—and a lot of our work looks at those spaces between buildings as well as the buildings themselves.”
Years ago, when MRY first began expanding its campus work into Asia, the planners were astounded by the scale of the transformations taking place: a university in China was talking about enlarging its campus from 60,000 to 360,000 students, which would rank it among the 50 largest U.S. cities. “I thought, My God,” O’Connor says. “They asked me to come out and see the site, and it’s one of those things—what site? The scale of it was so enormous, it was a bit like building a new city.”
According to some statistics, India will need 600 new colleges in the coming years to educate its expanding middle class. Barely two years after emerging from international pariah status, Libya is planning 27 new college campuses and has invited RMJM Hillier to build one of them. It’s a reflection of what author Fareed Zakaria has called the post-American world: emerging economies throughout Asia and the Middle East are no longer dependent on or cowed by the United States but are self-consciously adopting models that replicate its practices and institutions—a kind of soft power less spectacular than bombs or signature buildings but that suggests that American influence is still strong. “These things that maybe sound important in the architecture world—like Frank Gehry doing a building—get a certain level of attention, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to have a ripple effect over time,” Ruble says. “You can see a new university or business school just having a slow, steady effect on a whole society.”