Finally, a North Quad. For years I have been awaiting this epic closure. All four cardinal directions will soon embodied as dorms, and the quadrangle prophecy will be complete. It has been nearly 40 years since the University addressed the need for more student housing by building a residence hall – Bursley in 1968.

Sarah Royce

Apparently making up for lost time, administrators are planning the most progressive and interactive dorm this campus has ever seen. Since its announcement in late 2004, the hype has grown. Now the schematic designs have finally been unveiled.

Quite clearly, the administration has addressed student desires. The design’s interior spaces optimally cater to both students and faculty.

The exterior, though, could use a little constructive criticism to guide the design from this initial phase to the fully developed design.

Bottom line: The University needs another fresh and exciting icon, and the present design for North Quad doesn’t cut it.

I truly hope that the director of University Housing meant what she said about being open to student input as the North Quad project progresses.

Preliminary concepts of form and material are clearly visible in the design. Connected but distinct, the academic tower and residential wings have completely different dynamics and are clad to match their standard campus counterparts. Visually, the academic tower is a contemporary Angell Hall with vertical limestone elements that mimic Angell’s columns. Red brick is attached to the residential wings, a feature that does not stray from other university dorms and academic buildings. Without the abundance of glass protrusions that indicate interior group space, North Quad would look strikingly similar to South Quad.

Nothing is wrong with this design. Its objectives are clear and obvious, and it works. Architecturally speaking, the design appears rational and responsible. A ground-level storefront offers an extension of the State Street retail corridor. The west side is the institutional front that faces State Street, matching its adjacent context and welcoming pedestrians.

The building’s opposite side opens up to the green space beside Rackham and has softer, more personal elements that invite students to come eat, chill or study. The rear courtyard and winter garden provide sunlit spaces for those who want a change from the Diag.

Had I not been a proud University student when I first saw the design, I would have thought nothing of the lack of presence that the building exhibits. Having heard about the awesome academic and residential integration that would define North Quad would define, however, I imagined a structure that would spatially reflect such radical notions of integration.

In my fantasies of seeing a fourth quad finally realized, I dreamt of a magnificent signature building. Having seen other educational institutions erect crazy schemes that drew national attention, I wanted it to be our turn.

North Quad is the perfect outlet for the next University icon. The structure can be creative and the aesthetics daring, especially because it’s a dorm; students will live anywhere. Steven Holl took inspiration from a sponge when he designed the severely punctuated Simmons Hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The result was a 350-unit residence hall that catches the eye; whether or not the eye likes it is separate question.

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center is the other current MIT icon. Integrating many different academic programs, the Stata Center provides shapes and spaces not easily forgotten. While these projects are much more elaborate than North Quad, the spirit of questing for iconic architecture should be applied to our campus.

Having a signature architectural statement is especially pertinent to North Quad. One of its three key design goals is to create “an entire building that is itself a gateway.”

Although the northernmost Central Campus building, this idea of a gateway appears to be more of a figurative notion than a physical declaration. A more iconic exterior could better articulate this notion physically.

Like the Graduate House at the University of Toronto, building elements could actually extend over the street as a threshold. The dormitory has intricate layers of perforated metal that cantilever over the streetscape. It uses the overlapping materials as elegant signage.

As the North Quad design develops, the core design can still rise from sensible to signature. North Quad should strive for greatness in its structure along with its noble goal of creating an innovative academic atmosphere. Only then will the quadrangle prophecy truly be complete.

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