Why are our higher education buildings so bland, asks Archiboo founder, Amanda Baillieu?

Linda Grant’s new novel Upstairs at the Party is set in a futurist university in the early 70s. The new students find themselves on a campus that’s so different from their normal lives it seems to influence their behaviour. Their horizons are stretched, and they behave in a way they’d never dare at home.

The narrator says it was like being “a lab rat in a giant social experiment,” and although the novel has a tragic twist, the architecture encourages a sense of freedom that is liberating and new.

These days, new university buildings seem light years away from York University designed by Andrew Derbyshire in the 1960s, and where Grant’s novel is allegedly set.

Architects were so busy – £100m a year was spent on building universities in the mid-60s – that they could pick and choose their clients. These days it’s estate managers who choose them, and in the same way as they select in-house caterers, by price and from a list put together by accountants.

Speaking at an archiboo talk earlier this year,  Malcolm Reading, from architectural competitions consultants MRC, singled out the higher education sector as “not really interested in proper competitions” owing to the expense.  This is shocking when you consider that the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s top universities, plans to spend £9 billion on new facilities over the next five years.

Sadly The Russell Group’s legacy threatens to be buildings so bland they could be anywhere. A new university research centre in the UK is now indistinguishable from one being built in South Korea. And instead of thrilling architecture that expressed the principles of a state-funded education, the new campus has about much character as a business park, which is really the point.

One university that’s bucking the trend is the London School of Economics (LSE), whose Saw Swee Hock Student Centre by architects O’Donnell and Tuomey has been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, which will be awarded on 16 October.

Archiboo has secured Julian Robinson, director of planning and development at the LSE, for one of its breakfast talks this week on 8 October: ‘Higher Education – an opportunity or challenge’. He’ll explain the background to the current boom in higher education spending, tips on how to get a foot in the door, and his own view on why the sector remains so worryingly risk averse.

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