Campus and City: An Evolving Boundary


Essay by Sharon Haar.


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Cornell University High Tech Campus, New York. © Kilograph.

The boundaries define a space of containers and places (the traditional domain of architecture), while the networks establish a space of links and flows. Walls, fences, and skins divide; paths, pipes, and wires connect.
—William J. Mitchell

In his early twenty-first century book, Me++, the urban theorist William J. Mitchell described the dissolution of the distinction between information and matter, as well as our bodies and the spaces that contain them, as “the machinery of digital communication continued to erode the primacy of physical boundaries.”1 Although he briefly touched on influence of wired and then wireless networks on the creation of continuity in the academic community, “challeng[ing] the regime of control that has long been built into schools, campuses, medical facilities,”2 he did not weigh in on how these new networks would inform the actual design of a campus. Nonetheless, as Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, and involved directly with the expansion of his own institution, his conception of the campus was of an inwardly-focused, if “unstable,” “evolving,” “messy,” “disputatious” space.3

The traditional idea of the American campus as “a place apart”4 is being modified today through increasing porosity with the surrounding urban environment and the advent of online education. Framing the campus as both container and network allows us to understand how the idea of the campus as a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas and the production of knowledge is being internalized in large-scale urban university buildings at the same time that distance learning and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are breaking down the boundaries that define access to higher education. The history of the relationship of the campus to the city illustrates this changing boundary condition.

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Ray and Maria Stata Center by Frank O.Gehry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2012. © Iker Gil.

City of Learning

Each college or university is an urban unit in itself, a small or large city. But a green city…. The American university is a world in itself.5
—Le Corbusier

On the front page of its January 27, 2013 Sunday edition, The New York Times revealed a startling account of philanthropy. Beginning with a five-dollar gift upon graduation and factoring in a recent $350 million donation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York had given over $1.1 billion to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University since 1964. The reason for this long-term commitment to his alma mater: “[It] was where he escaped the crushing boredom of Medford High and discovered an urban campus of stately Georgian buildings brimming with new people and ideas.”6 Crediting his spatialized experience of knowledge and opportunities for independence and leadership—the campus—with his personal transformation, Bloomberg has returned Johns Hopkins’s investment in him, funding financial aid and endowing faculty chairs, new buildings, and campus improvements, including building an underground garage so that the historic quads could be returned to socializing. The Times equated this last move to the Mayor’s “banish[ing] cars from parts of Times Square.”

The traditional American university assumes a mission-specific community living in an internalized urbanity. Paul Venable Turner noted, “The early buildings of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore were simply separate structures on the city streets, with nothing in their overall plan to give the university a special physical character.”7 But as aspirations to become a “city of learning” rose, so too did the University’s architectural ambitions. Like other institutions of its kind, such as Columbia University in New York, in the early-twentieth century it moved to a site at the edge of the built-up city, conceived in the spirit of the “City Beautiful,” using Beaux Arts planning techniques. What constituted the city of learning was not its urban location, but its all-encompassing form and community, establishing the campus as “a place apart,” with its own built-in urbanity. Indeed, the architects of many universities, anticipating disorderly twentieth-century urban growth, tightened the buildings at the perimeter of the campus to create solid walls facing urban streets, necessitating controlled access points through gates.

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Proposed Plan for Johns Hopkins University, 1909. © Popular Science Monthly.

Mayor Bloomberg’s experience of collegiate life, mainly his engineering classes, fraternity, and leadership opportunities, is what most people think about when they ponder an American campus: the undergraduate experience of the “academical village,” best exemplified by Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, where professors lived above their classrooms within range of student dorms, and the entire complex focused on the seat of knowledge, the library. Many consider the ideal form of this campus to be “an arrangement of buildings in the open, separate from the structure of a surrounding city.”8 Even today, as students desire more dynamic urban-like experiences, this urbanity is focused internally, with the University of Cincinnati’s “Main Street” a primary example.

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University of Cincinnati’s “Main Street,” 2008. © Iker Gil.

This “internal urbanism”9 stands in contrast to the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where “[r]ather than stacking activities in a multi-story building, [OMA] opted to arrange each programmatic element of the Campus Center in a dense single plane that would foster an urban condition.” Within IIT’s building, paths “[link] the multiplicity of activities via a network of interior streets, plazas, and urban islands that form neighborhoods: 24-hour, commercial, entertainment, academic, recreation, and other urban elements in microcosm.”10

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McCormick Tribune Campus Center by OMA, (IIT), 2009. © Iker Gil.

The re-urbanization of the IIT site is internal, and the experience of students focused inward rather than outward toward the amenity-less streets surrounding the campus. In this respect, McCormick Tribune is the opposite of “Loop U,” just a few miles to its north, where over 50,000 matriculating students belonging to over half a dozen institutions of higher education attend classes, live (in some instances), eat, and socialize within the context of Chicago’s Loop and South Loop neighborhoods. Here, the desire of undergraduates to attend school in a dense urban setting and professional graduate students to co-locate among the law offices, courts, and businesses of their future professions has produced a 24-hour revitalization of the central city, which many urbanists see as a model for university-city real estate development.11 In Loop U, the campus space and urban space are one and the same. At the IIT Campus Center and the University of Cincinnati’s Main Street, urbanity is simulated within the carefully monitored space of the architecture.

Cities of Knowledge

Research universities, a scientifically-educated workforce, and collaboration play an important role in driving metropolitan innovation.12
—The Brookings Institution

The image of the campus described above focuses almost exclusively on the student experience of learning—the transmission of knowledge—while neglecting the second leg of the purpose of the university, the production of knowledge. The research enterprise of universities has had considerable impact on campus design and the institution’s role in shaping space outside their borders. As the historian Margaret O’Mara has noted, by the middle of the twentieth century, the previously anti-urban campus had been suburbanized, in the form of corporate campuses and research parks, the latter best exemplified by the Stanford University Research Park and the growth of Silicon Valley that it inspired. These new cities of knowledge were engines of scientific production, filled with high-tech industries, homes for scientific workers and their families, with research universities at their heart. They were the birthplaces of great technological innovations that have transformed the way we work and live, homes for entrepreneurship and, at times, astounding wealth. … Magnets for high-skilled workers and highly productive industries, cities of knowledge are, in fact, the ultimate post-industrial city.”13

Important to O’Mara’s definition of the city of knowledge is its dependence on federal funding and policies, a location distant from the declining industrial city—the growing suburbs of the mid-twentieth century—and models of architecture, planning, and landscape derived from the campus tradition. Silicon Valley is a prime example, with communities of researchers, co-located geographically, but internally secured by moats of parking lots or garages and controlled access: “campuses” even more bounded than the academic campuses they imitated. A Google Earth view of Silicon Valley reveals islands of corporate research floating in a sea of parking and access roads.

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The Googleplex, 2009. © Steve Jurvetsen via Flickr.

Today, the Googleplex itself is one of these islands. “Googley” culture has quite a bit of the college atmosphere about it:

Though no two Google offices are the same, visitors to any office can expect to find a few common features: murals and decorations expressing local personality; Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and “huddles”; video games, pool tables and pianos; cafes and “microkitchens” stocked with healthy food; and good old-fashioned whiteboards for spur-of-the-moment brainstorming.14
In our weekly all-hands (“TGIF”) meetings—not to mention over email or in the café—Googlers ask questions directly to Larry, Sergey and other execs about any number of company issues. Our offices and cafes are designed to encourage interactions between Googlers within and across teams, and to spark conversation about work as well as play.15

This serendipity of casual encounter, both physical and virtual, is a hallmark of contemporary start-up culture and what motivates twenty-first century young entrepreneurs to choose cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and New York over the suburbs they are likely to have grown up in. Creating the next city of knowledge in the context of this new culture of innovation is what drives another of Mayor Bloomberg’s interests in higher education: the production of knowledge, not for solving the world’s issues, but for promoting economic development and continuing global city status within a networked, knowledge economy. The Cornell NYC Tech campus for graduate education in applied science, a joint venture of Cornell University in upstate New York and Technion University in Israel, is one result of this vision. Master planned by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, with its first building by Morphosis Architects, it will be built on underutilized land on Roosevelt Island. Its northern edge will provide needed public amenities to Roosevelt Island’s inhabitants, and its campus greens will be open for public use. The majority of the build-out (the city requires a minimum of 1.8 million square feet by 2037) is “campus-oriented,” but only one-third of these spaces must be for academic purposes. The rest—research space, conference facilities, hotels, retail, and partner R&D facilities—suggest the beginning of a city of knowledge technically located in New York City, but held at a distance from it by dint of the limited access created by the island setting.16 Although it is too early to tell at this point, its buildings will likely promote the kind of interior urbanism of a Googleplex or the IIT Student Center, rather than the more interactive exchange between interior and exterior suggested by the University of Cincinnati’s “Main Street.”

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Cornell University High Tech Campus, New York. © Kilograph.

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A rendering of the atrium of the first academic building, New York. © Morphosis Architects.

Spaces like Cornell NYC Tech embed the teaching of the historical campus with the research of the research park. They increasingly take their design cues from the interactivity promoted by urban incubators for start-ups and innovation spaces within corporate campuses. As The New York Times noted, “Cornell NYC Tech is not just a school, it is an ‘educational start-up,’ students are ‘deliverables’ and companies seeking access to those students or their professors can choose from a ‘suite of products’ by which to get it.”17 The most significant boundaries being crossed here are those between academia and business.

Yet, while the boundary of the campus has been shrink-wrapped to the building’s exterior glass walls, its green spaces are a vast improvement over the parking lots of Silicon Valley.

Certainly, universities think they are opening up their borders to the city at large. Marilyn Jordan Taylor has referred to the new Columbia University Manhattanville campus as “Campus and Not Campus.” Writing of SOMs work with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, she has stated: “Our collaboration… is intended to create a place of transparency, porosity, and urbanity,” where “the energy of the city and academy [flow] together.”18 By contrast to Columbia’s Beaux Arts Morningside campus, with its perimeter buildings walling off the neighboring context, the design of Manhattanville allows the street grid to run through it, provides outdoor space to the public, and reserves the ground floor for public and commercial uses.

Campus in the Cloud

“By selectively loosening place-to-place contiguity requirements, wired networks produced fragmentation and recombination of familiar building types and urban patterns… Similarly, by selectively loosening person-to-place contiguity requirements, wireless networks and portable devices have created an additional degree of spatial indeterminacy…”19

As the research enterprise of America’s large universities grows, where has the “teaching” gone? Increasingly, the site of learning is located in virtual space. As higher education moves online, the idea of the campus as a “bounded” space needs to be reexamined. Higher education is moving into ubiquitous, collaborative spaces, in which faculty and students are no longer co-located. This sector includes for-profit, online institutions such as University of Phoenix, free or close to free MOOCs offered through portals such as Coursera and edX, built of consortia of some of the world’s leading liberal arts and research universities, as well as Udacity, who’s “mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world.” Already “…MOOCs are causing higher education to shift from a vertically integrated model to a horizontally integrated one. For centuries, higher education has been a vertical enterprise: Its core functions—knowledge creation, teaching, texting, and credentialing—all have been housed within colleges and universities. MOOCs disrupt this model by decoupling teaching and learning from the campus on a mass scale.”20

Ironically, the web pages promoting courses on sites such as edX and Coursera tend to feature the ways in which the campus experience will be brought to you. The preview for Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class at Harvard University, known to draw upwards of 600 students to the in-classroom experience, focuses on the interactive space of the lecture within the hallowed Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall and the repartee between professor and students both inside the classroom and as they walk across Harvard Yard. More intimate is the Coursera, offering “The Modern and the Postmodern,” by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, with whom we enjoy a face-to-face encounter in his book-filled office.

Where does that leave us? Returning to William J. Mitchell:

“These new civic formations will be embedded in particular physical structures…. They will have geographic shape, and will result from investments in specific places. But they will be spatially discontinuous, overlapping and intersecting, and messily asynchronous in their patterns of daily activity. And they will be defined not by circles of warmth, not by surrounding stone fortifications, nor even by the borders and boundaries draw on today’s political maps, but by the endless hum of electro-magnetic vibrations.”21

However, even as the physical place of the campus has become “spatially discontinuous” through the migration of teaching to virtual space, the opening up of formerly gated spaces to neighboring communities, and the dispersal of facilities around the urban fabric, old town-gown divisions still exist. Many neighborhoods are pushing back against campus expansion. Witness debates over NYU expansion in Greenwich Village, community activism over the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville, and fears of gentrification at the fringes of the University of Chicago.

While some campus boundaries have disappeared, new ones have emerged. Either way, the image of the campus survives.

1 William J. Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 7.
2 Ibid., 150.
3 William J. Mitchell, Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 5.
4 See for example: Robert A.M. Stern, Pride of Place: Building the American Dream (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986).
5 Quoted in Mitchell, Imagining MIT, 2.
6 Michael Barbaro, “$1.1 Billion in Thanks from Bloomberg to Johns Hopkins,” The New York Times, January 26, 2013.
7 Paul Venable Turner, Campus: An American Planning Tradition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), 163.
8 Barbara Hadley Stanton, “Cognitive Standards and the Sense of Campus,” Places 17 (Spring 2005): 38.
10 (last accessed February 18, 2013).
11 See: Sharon Haar, The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011).
12 Jonathan Rothwell, José Lobo, Deborah Strumsky, and Mark Muro, Patenting Prosperity: Invention and Economic Performance in the United States and its Metropolitan Areas (Washington DC: Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, February 2013): 1.
13 Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1.
14 (last accessed February 19, 2013).
15 (last accessed February 22, 2013).
16 Draft Scope of Work to Prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the CornellNYC Tech Project, April 18, 2012.
17 Ariel Kaminer, “New Cornell Technology School Tightly Bound to Business, The New York Times, January 21, 2013.
18 Marilyn Jordan Taylor, “Crossing Beyond the Boundaries: Columbia University in West Harlem,” Places 17 (Spring 2005): 51-52.
19 Mitchell, Me++, 144.
20 Joseph E. Aoun, “A shakeup of higher education,” The Boston Globe, November 17, 2012.
21 Mitchell, Me++, 211