Q&A with Paul Roberts, Co-Author of "University Trends"

A university campus is a place with special resonance: conjuring images of cloistered quadrangles and wood-panelled libraries, often echoing centuries of scholarly tradition. And yet it is also a place of cutting-edge science, interactive learning, youth, vibrancy, and energy. In our exclusive interview, Paul Roberts, co-author of University Trends: Contemporary Campus Design, discusses the book and current trends in campus design.

Why did University Trends need to be written?

For hundreds of years, building a campus followed a stable formula: universities needed to provide places for teaching, dining, sleeping and entertainment. However, today this formula is much more complex. After many years of practical experience working in the strategic planning and design of universities, it has in recent years become increasingly clear that the scale of demands placed upon campuses has escalated; they face administrative, pedagogic and financial pressures that a few years ago were unheard of and, what’s more, these are in constant flux.

This context is having a very real impact upon the physical design of campuses. We are seeing new building types and new approaches to planning and procurement. University Trends was written to explore this changing climate, and examine how different institutions were responding in physical terms to the financial, pedagogic, and technological conditions of contemporary higher education by looking at real-life current-day projects from around the world.

What are some current trends in the field?

We analysed the types of construction and planning projects that are currently underway, have recently been completed or are being contemplated to build a simplified list of the principal ‘trends’ that are shaping the planning and architecture of universities today:
• Adaptive reuse
• Starchitecture
• Hub buildings
• Interdisciplinary science research buildings
• New universities beyond the West
• Transnational education
• Commercial urban developments
• Large-scale campus expansions
• Revitalising master plans
• Online learning

Why is campus design so significant?

A campus must meet the operational demands placed upon it (and these are substantial), but its role extends far beyond this. Buildings and landscapes lay at the heart and soul of the university community. They can assert institutional identity and values, boost community spirit, and attract potential students and staff. Even the most exclusive universities are facing mounting competition for the best students and faculty, and, to phrase it bluntly, the appearance of a campus can be a deciding factor in tipping the balance.

Can you offer some guidelines for those responsible for designing new or existing campuses?

The key thing to remember is that commissioning a new building or public realm or master plan is not an isolated action; it is part of a sequential activity that should not be attempted until institutional strategic goals have been devised. Careful and thorough forethought is essential.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

There are a lot of death-knell predictions about the future of place-based higher education right now. Yes, it is facing reduced public spending, higher costs and competition from online alternatives. However, the idea of a university education is firmly tied to the idea of ‘place’. What we want readers to come away with is a conviction in the continued importance of physical environment to twenty-first-century universities, and an appreciation that to meet the challenges they face and thrive over the long term, institutions must maximise the value of ‘place’ by creating destinations that enhance the university experience.