Ten years ago, then-University President Lee Bollinger encouraged campus architects to think ahead. Far ahead.
“We need to take a long view,” he said in a 1998 press release. “To consider what our University Campus might be like, what its character should be, one hundred years from now.”
Bollinger chartered the acclaimed architecture and planning firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates to conceive a fresh campus master plan that would unite the University’s buildings into a recognizable whole. Michigan’s physical campus was to herald a new vision.
Today, that new vision has gotten old. So how will campus be remembered? And more important, what will the class of 2027 see when they look around it?
Amid the ebb and flow of social tides, throughout the ups and downs of the economy and within the hearts and minds of generations, one thing remains: the buildings. So when architects and planners gaze into their crystal balls, they must do so with vigor, optimism and, because ultra-futuristic buildings usually look dated within a few months, a sense of caution and the realistic notion that we probably won’t be wearing jet packs anytime soon. Their propensity for foresight is crucial because the stakes are so high.
Although much of the VSBA work still provides the foundation for the University’s planning principles, it has been constantly updated and refined. University planner Sue Gott said it’s important to realize the difficulties of planning a campus with ever-changing needs.
“Campus planning will continue to be influenced by many unpredictable dynamics,” she said in an e-mail interview. “But the need for social interaction and a physical environment that is inspiring will likely remain timeless.”
University structures are steeped in tradition, whether they’re glorified icons, like Burton Memorial Tower, or just backdrops for memorable events. Take the Big House, where football fans find solace in the fact that no matter how well the team does, they will always be part of the largest crowd in America watching football on that particular Saturday. Recent criticism of the stadium’s upcoming renovation is most likely fueled by nostalgia and pride rather than architectural woes.
So take a moment to anticipate what the next decades will hold in store for Michigan’s campus. Large projects like North Quad will become fresh pillars for Michigan’s campus, yet most change will occur on a smaller scale. Gott pictures a campus shaped by the interstitial space between buildings and the overall campus fabric. She stresses the need for informal areas like walkways, plazas and green space. It’s these places, she says, that “contribute to the vitality, energy and invigorating social realm of campus that typically contribute to some of the most memorable experiences for students.” While charging toward the future, though, it’s important to concurrently re-examine the present and engage the past.
In the 10 years prior to Bollinger’s late-90s address, campus buildings mirrored growth throughout most of the country. During the 80s, America glamorized indoor shopping malls and thrived off cheap gas. Suburban sprawl was not yet a buzzword, and communities continued to radiate outward where land was cheap and untainted by historical reverence.
“The last ten years have witnessed an unprecedented period of construction,” Bollinger wrote in 1997, regarding Michigan’s own growing campus. “We are, however, at risk of centrifugal sprawl, of diluting our essential coherence and sense of community.”
His comments were remarkably prescient considering that at the time not only were the coming trends of architecture unknown, but most people contemplating the future still thought Y2K was an apocalyptic threat and prophecies of global warming seemed far-fetched to many.
Observing the modern world is an easier task. As important as it is to heed Bollinger’s words of advice and look toward the future when creating Michigan’s architecture, buildings are inherently products of contemporary ideology. Consider that the Michigan League was born out of a male-dominated culture as an alternate union for women, or the rumor that says the quirky Fletcher Administration Building was built as a 1960s anti-riot structure. Just as Neo-Gothic was the style when the Law Quad was built and 45-degree angles were fashionable when the Duderstadt Center was designed, today’s campus buildings will eventually become cultural relics. Therefore, to predict what the next 10 years of Michigan architecture will hold, it’s important to investigate the trends now.
In many ways, new construction is shaped by what’s popular, not just in the field of architecture but in urban planning as a whole, and consequently, by prevailing social movements. Contemporary architecture is no longer defined by style as much as it is by process. Though it’s debatable, many claim that the post-modernist style was dead after 1994 and that nothing substantial has risen to take its place. Take the neo-traditional Weill Hall, the sculptural Biomedical Research Building and the airy and linear Museum of Art expansion – aesthetically, they’re radically different, but in a way, they capture the spirit of the times. With no predominant architectural style, the less artsy, more social mantras of using technology, maintaining sustainability and fostering globalism have become the guiding forces in most new construction.
Infusing technology into architecture no longer just means having more Ethernet outlets or automated drop-down projection screens. Interactive media and its corresponding connective tissue of complex communication technology are transforming the way space is perceived, especially on a university campus. As new technology further imbeds itself into our culture, campus architecture will respond.
Gott said the Residential Life Initiative has played a major role in defining the importance of technology in aiding social interaction.
“The social needs of our students combine with the extraordinary advances in technology have a tremendous role in shaping facility needs. But there are other contributing factors, too,” she said. “We also see interdisciplinary opportunities for new collaborations influencing faculty and student requirements for space as another example of a dynamic that influences siting and planning of current programs.”
Consider the aspirations of North Quad to integrate academic space, media cafes and student housing. Programs that may have never been thought of as amiable partners are now being interwoven into single projects. Striving to be cutting edge, the Ross School of Business is also tackling technology head-on to create spaces that don’t look futuristic but function futuristically. While it’s hard to predict future innovations now, whatever they are, they’re sure to be valuable fixtures of each new building erected on campus.
On the other hand, building technology is rapidly changing industry, so staying on the cutting edge means accruing considerable risk. New architectural features often adorn modern structures as aesthetic highlights, and often they’re soon dated as new innovations outpace them. The Biomedical Science Research Building is a prime example of pioneering building technology with its undulating double-glass fa