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  • Writer's pictureBDR Partners

Higher Education and Architecture

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

I recently read a great article in the Financial Times about “how universities are using bold campus architecture to market themselves (” and thought about how university Presidents must walk a very delicate balance of being part curator / part visionary.

Universities are dependent on alumni donations and Presidents have this as one of their core duties. Speaking with one President, he said key to strong alumni support is maintaining a romantic memory of their college experience, the education they received, friends they made, and the effect it had on the success they now enjoy. To uphold that memory, university Presidents must maintain a postcard image of the quad, the key structures, the grounds – while retrofitting all of them to meet the electronic and living demands of todays’ students. They are a curator to the memory of that institution – yet must always modify and build new to meet the needs of current and future students.

The problem is that old buildings cannot always be retrofitted to meet these new demands. Nor are they necessarily attractive to the next generation of successful alumni. New students want cool, chic, current. While the Hong Kong Polytechnic School of Design (as featured in this linked article) may take this thought beyond what most Presidents would do here in the United States, it points out the reality of this tension.

At some point, a departure from the postcard is required. Perhaps it’s a second campus? Perhaps it’s gutting a historic building — from the outside it’s similar, but go inside and “Wow!”

The hard part is that new and retrofitted structures are inherently complex. Breaking ground on big, new, bold, different is something the university President has never done before, yet he/she is on the hook for its success. This is the primary role we play at BDR.

Understanding all these tensions, yet delivering long-term ROI on old and new structures alike, makes for a very interesting project.

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