Tuesday22 August 2017

University challenge

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Universities might have billions to splash on new buildings but they need to set their ambitions a whole lot higher, writes Amanda Baillieu

There’s a poster I often pass. It says: “Come and study in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires.” The image is a montage of famous Oxford landmarks dominated by the Radcliffe Camera on which someone has written in black felt pen “I can’t read” and drawn a smiley face.

Not many universities have a skyline of golden stone buildings but despite this they believe that architecture can exert a powerful pull. But what are they building exactly?

To find out, one needs to look at the projects proposed by the country’s top universities represented by the Russell Group, which last week announced a £9 billion spending spree on new facilities over the next three years.

It includes Sheffield’s “Diamond” engineering building, Newcastle’s “science city”, Manchester’s £1 billion campus “upgrade” and Oxford’s Big Data Institute – part of a £1.8 billion investment, also announced last week.

They are big bold buildings, but they are also safe and office-like which exactly fits universities’ business-like mindset.

Creative endeavour is spent on the image and the name (Sheffield’s “Diamond” is just one in a line of trite names given to buildings in honour of their dubious physical attributes) so it looks impressive on marketing brochures and on websites, but its architecture is less important. After all, who knows if students will need to carry on coming to a physical place if they can watch a lecture on their laptop?

But to ensure Britain doesn’t miss out on the millions to be made from non-EU students, who helped English universities generate more than £10 billion in export earnings last year, this generation of buildings must be indistinguishable from those being built in China and South Korea which are now the competition.

There are exceptions, of course. One of the standout buildings of this year is O’Donnell & Tuomey’s LSE student centre. Julian Robinson, LSE’s director of planning and development has a long track record commissioning award-winning architects via competitions, but he is unusual.

Most university estate managers are bean counters with a project management background. They’re not keen on competitions – they take time and cost money – and why award a project to an architect, however delightful, weird and wonderful, if they don’t have the necessary PI cover?

Of course it was not always like this. In the 1960s British universities were some of the most daring, leaving a legacy of audacious, wonderful buildings that include Sussex, East Anglia and the Leicester engineering faculty building – all much loved by students, and listed.

But this time round the architecture is uninspiring, prosaic and capable of damaging the very image it’s trying to sell.

Take Oxford, which has chosen not to show its new Castle Mill student housing in its poster campaign. The series of bulky blocks that now marches along the edge of the ancient Port Meadow landscape has caused outrage.

How could Oxford – so steeped in heritage and learning – become a “bunch of crass, money-grubbing philistines?” asked one protestor after the project was entered for BD’s Carbuncle Cup.

We may be about to enter a golden age in terms of capital investment in universities, but Oxford isn’t the only university that needs answers to a very pertinent question.



Readers' comments (6)

  • Quote "How could Oxford – so steeped in heritage and learning – become a 'bunch of crass, money-grubbing philistines?' "

    And now we have the case of the "refurbishment" of James Stirling's Florey Building, which threatens to completely wreck Stirling's concept (as first reported by this newspaper, after which everything has gone dead quiet).

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  • "How could Oxford – so steeped in heritage and learning – become a 'bunch of crass, money-grubbing philistines?' "

    Perhaps because it specialises in producing this section of society.

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  • A bit harsh about Poets there prole?

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  • Stewie

    "...the country’s top universities represented by the Russell Group"

    Says who?

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  • It would seem to be another aspect of the US-inspired trend of mass-marketisation of universities, from fees to competition to examinations. Sadly, the nature of universities is that we won't know the effect of this trend for some time, but my feeling is that it is detrimental to the core purpose of universities - the pursuit of knowledge, not economic output.

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  • Getafix

    And yet the US has a far greater number of top universities than anywhere else in the world... Odd that.

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