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Typology: Universities

The university is one of the oldest surviving institutions in the western world. It has colonised the globe, its architecture reflecting the prevailing ideology – of which it is the reproductive machinery

Plato may have been able to make do with a tree, but since the Middle Ages universities have been among the biggest patrons of architecture. The ancient madrasahs of Fez and Cairo and the universities of Bologna, Paris and Oxford originated as training facilities for the feudal elites, and since they were administered by prelates,they borrowed forms familiar from buildings of worship. The cloister became the quad, monastic cells became student rooms, and both facilitated the control of unruly youths.

Other buildings, such as libraries, chapels, professorial offices (where teaching took place), kitchens, dining halls, servants’ quarters, and, later on, lecture halls, administrative facilities, common rooms, gyms and labs, demonstrate that the university is not a true type. Rather it is a community of students and teachers requiring a variety of functions, usually in a number of separate buildings. These originated piecemeal, or occupied existing structures, spreading out through urban settings with which they co-existed in a state of semi-permanent conflict.



Norman Foster’s Law Faculty at Cambridge (1990-95). The university learns to speak the language of business.


Source: Getty Images

British colonialism exported the medieval university across the world. This is the Gothic Revival Fort campus of Mumbai University. Its clock tower (1869-78), based on designs by George Gilbert Scott, houses the library.

The idea of a self-contained campus university created ex nihilo in a uniform style was not to arrive for hundreds of years. When it did develop, in the New World, the Gothic splendour of the medieval universities became the default mode for these landing-pods of a colonial ideology: Yale (with acid-washed stone to create an illusion of venerability), Sydney and Mumbai are a few of the grandest examples. Jefferson’s Virginia was influential in its village-like planning, if exceptional in its classicism; its wooded lawn, encompassed by colonnade-linked pavilions, rejects old-world feudalism in favour of Athenian groves of academe.

Back in Europe, religious control of the universities slowly diminished. In France, the Grandes Écoles were established during the Revolution and, in accordance with Enlightenment principles, the activity of the university increasingly focused on research and technology – hence the polytechnic. But the idea that this was the training ground for rulers lingered in France, as did domination by the state: teaching and behaviour were closely supervised there (and in 1852 beards were banned). In German institutions, Humboldtian ideals of secular, autonomous, scientific education prevailed from the early 19th century onwards, before conquering the world. Meanwhile in the UK, University College London was established in 1825 as the country’s first non-denominational school, and was given a toga to clothe its shocking paganism.


Source: University of Virginia Library

Thomas Jefferson’s 1825 design for the University of Virginia rethinks the campus as an ‘academical village’ surrounding a lawn. He rejected Gothic for Classical forms, linking his pavilions with colonnades and crowning the plan with a library in a rotunda.



Denys Lasdun’s plan for the University of East Anglia (1962-68) incorporated halls of residence and teaching facilities into a unified whole, with the intention of getting students from their rooms to lectures within five minutes.

In the late 19th century a new group of provincial British universities was founded to spread higher learning – with an emphasis on technical applications – beyond the aristocracy, as administration fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie. The architecture of these buildings expressed civic pride with Oxbridge-aping Gothic, albeit in the red brick after which they are known. Elsewhere, Institutes of Technology like ETH Zürich and MIT trained a new generation of technocrats.

At the start of the 1960s there was a boom in state-funded institutions in Britain, the ‘plate glass’ universities. As the name suggests, these abandoned the Greeks and the Goths in favour of new materials and forms. Sequestered in out-of-town campuses, partly in order to accommodate increased student numbers, they therefore had to deal with questions of planning and the topography of their greenfield sites. The first was Spence’s campus for Sussex; Lasdun’s ziggurats rising from a former golf course outside Norwich are another remarkable example. North America, more familiar with campus planning, also adopted Modernist styles: Mies was slowly crafting his sublime buildings at IIT, and in Canada, Erickson’s Lethbridge answers its wild backdrop with aplomb. Slightly later, Brutalism became a popular choice: Rudolph sculpted an entire campus for UMass Dartmouth in shuttered concrete. Typically, these postwar campuses aimed for a compactness that would encourage (it was hoped) encounters between students and staff, and cross-pollination between hitherto embattled faculties. Whether this ever really worked is a moot point; it certainly tended to lay the groundwork for problems vis-à-vis expansion in the style of the foundational buildings.   


Source: Creative Commons

A similar concentration is achieved in an urban setting by Lomonosov Moscow State University. Since 1953 it has occupied a tower designed by Lev Rudnev, one of Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’ – a group of monumental historicist skyscrapers that encircle the city.


More generally, these institutions were meant to forge a more democratic age in the white heat of technology. At the new campus of Paris University in Nanterre in 1968, this had unintended consequences as the newly diverse student body rebelled against the architecture of the welfare state that housed it, which was seen as authoritarian rather than utopian. Indeed, although these campuses had been built to bring learning to the masses, their critics had a point about their paternalism, and architectural avant-gardism was – as ever – no guarantee of egalitarianism. Even the most ancient and stuffy institutions were commissioning cutting-edge architects to advertise their modernity: Jacobsen at St Catherine’s, Kahn and Rudolph at Yale, and Cambridge has an entire Modernist bijouterie (including Stirling’s History Library) at the Sidgwick Site.

During the Cold War, university architecture acquired a fresh political charge. As Berlin University fell under the influence of communism, the Americans set up the Free University in their sector – or the ‘so-called Free University’, as it was referred to by the East Germans for the next 30 years. The institution was accommodated in an American-style suburban campus, quite unlike the monumental homes of traditional German universities, which had been located in city centres. In Moscow, by way of contrast, Stalin built the world’s largest self-contained university in one of the neoclassical ‘seven sisters’: the skyscraping opposite of the Jeffersonian academic village.


Source: Creative Commons

Kenzo Tange’s Mode Gakuen (2008), Tokyo, shows that, despite e-learning, physical presence is still necessary for technical training

This tension between dissolution and concentration has taken on a new urgency today. Stalin’s all-in-one approach has its successors, such as Kenzo Tange’s tower campus for Mode Gakuen in Tokyo. Meanwhile, radical ideas for the dispersal of the universities, such as Cedric Price’s ‘Potteries Thinkbelt’ – which was to be an institution on wheels traversing a deindustrialised landscape – came to fruition in the Open University, founded in 1969. The birth of the OU was facilitated by new communications technologies, a process that has accelerated to the point that videoconferencing and online libraries are now making an entirely dematerialised university possible. However, this would be inimical to the physical proximity of student bodies in a community – the very meaning of the word university. This still requires architecture, but even the physical university is being transformed by new media, as libraries become ‘resource centres’.

At the same time student halls are privatised (resulting in the most consistently hideous buildings in Britain today), and student unions – union is now a dirty word – become pod-filled ‘hubs’. So the long march of neoliberalism through the institutions conquers the final refuge of a declining humanism, which – in an admittedly compromised form – had defined these bodies since the Renaissance, and had taken on a new self-criticality in the wake of 1968. Today that spirit is under attack, and flees into the ether – where it may discover that it has mistaken a trap for a sanctuary.

Case Studies


Diego Portales University in Huechuraba, Chile

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Taroudant University in Morocco

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École Centrale, Saclay in France

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