"The benefits of a University education cannot be thought to consist merely in the acquirement of knowledge, but in the opportunities of society and of forming friends; in short, in the experience of life gained by it and the consequent improvement of character."
— Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893) Master of Blliol College, Oxford
The ideas of higher education were established in England in the early 12th century, at a time when the male nobility were trained in law, theology, and medicine. Students and teachers spent time together in the classroom, but also dined, conversed, studied, and lived together. The university's founding fathers believed that students should be taught as "whole people," meaning socially as well as academically. This idea was strongly rooted in the English people by the time the universities at Oxford and Cambridge were built. Therefore, academic spaces such as dormitories, dining halls, chapels and recreational facilities were constructed and organized around a quadrangle in order to provide the students with this total living environment. These live-learn communities (as they have been labeled more recently) provided an environment that brought a small group of students together where they could study, learn, play, eat, and relax together, creating an intellectually stimulating arena for development.
More recently, some British universities have introduced additional elements to the student housing mix. Retail has been incorporated at the street level in many urban environments. This commercial presence animates the street twenty-four hours a day and helps to blend the housing into its surrounding context. Another even more popular supplement to the live-learn communities is the conference center. This concept benefits students, with use of the facility throughout the term and helps to unify the college with its external community by providing a useful resource. With these additions, student housing takes on a whole new role and continues to look at innovative ways to enhance the student's academic experience as well as social development.
These live-learn communities have been a functioning and critical element in British universities for hundreds of years and continue to thrive, but they have just begun to gain popularity in the United States. Why has it taken so long? What can we learn from these British examples?
Although the United States has always looked to the British for its collegiate background, architecturally most universities adopted a different approach. Unlike the enclosed cloister ideal of Oxford and Cambridge, American universities preferred to look at each function of the college to be haled in its own building and set in a field of green space. Except for Harvard and Yale, most university's student housing and other facilities were treated as separate entities with classrooms and seminar spaces always in their own building, thus removing one of the most effective elements of its predecessors.
Today, as our country's population continues to swell and large public universities begin to see enrollments topping tens of thousands, alternatives, such as the live-learn communities are being studied and implemented. These "new" models for student housing of the future look to improve the quality of student life and help to curb the personal isolation that many students and faculty often feel at larger universities. These faculty-led communities of a few hundred individuals give the participants a greater opportunity for growth both personally and academically. The combination of student bedrooms, living and studying quarters with academic, social, recreational, and commercial all under one roof is a harbinger for the United States's new outlook.
The idea of the live-learn community was first introduced to me in Annette LeCuyer's design studio, winter term 1997. We as a class were asked to design a live-learn facility on a specific site in Ann Arbor, an idea that the University of Michigan had been studying in great depth and something they were looking to introduce within the next few years. Our research and work throughout the studio generated a lot of important questions and provided a number of interesting solutions regarding configurations of student bedrooms/baths, integration of teaching rooms within private areas, and the role of circulation as a social, as well as functional necessity.
I was able to put this background to work when I started my current job last March. The project team I joined was just beginning the design development phase of two new dormitory buildings for DePaul University in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. These facilities were to be designed as live-learn facilities and we, as the architects worked with their residential life group to design communities for students and faculty living together along with studies, lounges and classrooms for all to use. Each building contains about 200 beds and several faculty apartments. Although we designed a strong and very well organized facility, there are still a lot of unanswered questions that I still have regarding these new communities, how they function and how the architecture could better shape the student's lives and academic experience. I feel there is much to learn about this fairly new concept to the US and know that there is no better source for this information than to look to the idea's roots.
My journey to the roots of the live-learn community will take me to Great Britain with my focus concentrating on four projects, two in Cambridge and two in London.
The first project is Burley's Field at Trinity College in Cambridge designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. This scheme deals with a play of cross axes, symmetries and subtle asymmetries, all enlivened by the 45 degree rotation of the housing pavilions. Set in a secluded pastoral site, these tower-like pavilions line up along a promenade separated by several rectangular links which house the Fellows' apartments and communal activities.
Also in Cambridge, the newest addition to Fitzwilliam College is Wilson Court. Designed by Van Heyningen and Haward Architects, it uses a square figure ground configuration with an L-shaped housing/ conference building defining the southeast corner and a theater pavilion forming the opposite corner. The crook of the "L" provides an excellent location for the conference/ classroom center and entry, while the legs provide student rooms on both sides and on the floors above.
The Myddleton Street Residence for the London School of Economics is an excellent example of a live-learn community in a tight urban setting. Also designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, it was built as an extension to an existing building. The new residence hall contains a conference facility on the lower level with an independent access, while the levels above are comprised of student bedrooms/baths.
The fourth and final project is another residence for the LSE also found in the city. Located on Gainsford Street this building contains a large number of student rooms on a very constricted site. The bedrooms can be accessed from one of four circulation cores and communal areas are located on the street face with balconies providing a connection to the surrounding context. Designed in the late eighties by Conran Roche, this residence would serve as a prime opportunity to explore the more long term results of a live-learn community and would give some insight into important issues for future reference, such as
durability and flexibility.
This in-depth look brings me to the heart of several newly completed live-learn facilities at British colleges. A detailed exploration through sketches, diagrams, photography and most importantly personal interviews with students, faculty, and staff will provide a complete background and insight into how the facilitates were designed to function in comparison with their own success. I also plan to visit with persons from the administrative staff at each of the colleges, particularly the department for accommodation, as well as the director and fellows that have experienced living in these communities first hand. Finally, I will meet with the architectural firms and team members who were a part of these buildings to discover how they approach their design and what they would suggest as a basis for future projects.
From this research, I will present an accurate and detailed discussion of British live-learn communities and provide an insight into the potential of student housing in the United States. This information will also be made available to the housing staff, faculty, and students at the University of Michigan. A final outreach will be in a forum discussion with the staff of DePaul University's department of Residential Life in effort to conceive of new ideas and goals in their future housing solutions. It is time for the U.S. to look outward in educating its children and how architecture can shape student's lives.