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Windows on the World: How can simple design updates help urban universities flourish?




Source: Goodimages/ flickr

Source: Goodimages/ flickr

by Emma Källblad

This article was first published on Emma’s own blog, Building on Ideas, where she writes regularly on the planning and architecture of knowledge cities.

Through collecting diverse people in space, cities are uniquely generative of ideas and innovations. Through collecting diverse experts in space, universities are likewise super generative environments. The urban university, able to draw on the creative capacities of experts and the city, has the potential to be a remarkably powerful and distinctive environment for the production of new and insightful ideas. Too often though, urban universities physically cut themselves off from the city, frequently trying to carve out exclusive campuses or overawe us with impossibly dramatic buildings by star architects. How can design be used to re-open a dialogue between universities and the surrounding city?

“You see, it’s not only about seeing in, its about seeing out,” says my guide around the new Central Saint Martins School of Art & Design near King’s Cross in London. If he didn’t look so artistically fragile, I would have hugged him. For weeks now I’ve been walking around the campuses of London’s many great universities attempting to understand how campus buildings engage with the public of the city that surrounds them, especially at the level of the street where hundreds of thousands of people walk by university buildings in the course of their everyday lives. The simple truth is that they don’t. Whilst the universities of London occupy some of the busiest and best locations in the city, they make few attempts to engage with that city through their architecture or design. I have a particular gripe about the ground floor windows of universities. The selection of window photos below are sadly typical. Dusty portholes, with broken blinds, bleached “Watch Out for Thieves!” stickers, bottles of wine (empty) and desiccated pot plants are the norm – sometimes added to with an obnoxious poster telling the public to bugger-off because someone is studying.

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Fig 1: Somewhere between disappointing and dusty, blank university windows in London look out over some of the city’s busiest and most fascinating streets

This is plainly a waste. Street level windows in London are valuable, as any retailer can tell you. They are places for spectacular display, useful for showing-off your product and enticing people in to buy (can we still call it ‘study’ in this era of ever increasing fees?). King’s College understands this and uses its busiest street front to promote its brand.

Fig 2: King’s College at least recognizes that its windows have commercial value and can be used to build the brand.

Fig 2: King’s College at least recognizes that its windows have commercial value and can be used to build the brand.

But there is much more –

Fantastic and inspiring things happen at universities that are vital to the creation of a better world; research into climate change, into our DNA, into human rights and global conflicts. Isn’t it essential that the public gets to see the amazing research that will impact their lives and, incidentally, that they fund? Whilst ideas from universities are often word-based and sometimes complex, surely they can be translated in to items or events that can be viewed through windows so that people can start engage with them?

A research group that is showing a way forward is the Institute of Making at University College London. They have put fire-station doors along their front. You can look in on their work as you pass by and, indeed, the doors can be opened up, meaning the whole institute can interact with the street outside.

Fig 3: The Institute of Making at UCL can be seen in to from the street and rolls up its windows on occasion to spread its activities out on to the street.

Fig 3: The Institute of Making at UCL can be seen in to from the street and rolls up its windows on occasion to spread its activities out on to the street.

It’s also about seeing out. Universities are institutions deeply committed to the welfare of humanity. Each and every researcher I’ve meet clearly understands her or his work as contributing to the betterment of our human lot. The mean, squalid windows of universities are just as difficult to see out of as they are to look into – and that denies researchers a view of the world within which and for whom they work. Returning to Central Saint Martins, my guide notes that it is essential for his students to watch the street and sense the city around them; the city and its people are both inspiration and audience for what goes on within.  The university uses large street level windows to allow passers by to see into its studios and workshops; the windows likewise permit students to engage with the streetscape beyond their institution.

Fig 4: Large windows at the new Central Saint Martin’s building mean that student from three floors of the building can se out on to the street.

Fig 4: Large windows at the new Central Saint Martin’s building mean that student from three floors of the building can se out on to the street.

The urbanist Jane Jacobs makes a profound contribution, as ever, when she talks of “eyes on the street” underpinning a thriving city. Seeing what goes on along your city street is the start point from which you can interact with that street and shape what happens. She is talking of shopkeepers and street watchers in New York who make use of their windows and walks to gently weave together the strands of community life – but the metaphor can be expanded. Universities are shepherding social institutions, rich in ideas that the world around them both inspires and requires. If they don’t look out over the street to see what goes on or allow the street to see what they do, a moment of achingly vital and rich human connection is lost. Universities have an essential role to play as the “eyes on the street” of our society; big, clean, interesting windows will allow us all to see better – and further.

So if you work at a university (or pretty much any other creative, people-based environment), why not think about your window today? What view does it give of your work? What does it enable you to see? Windows aren’t just for shop displays or nosey neighbours, they provide eyes for the street – a type of two-way contact that is the basis of a thriving, ideas rich, urban life.

Emma Källblad from the KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment in Stockholm spent the last year in London exploring how the buildings of London’s universities can be redeveloped to enable greater city engagement with knowledge creation – and thereby the creation of better knowledge.