The Innovation Campus: Building Better Ideas (Published 2016) (2023)


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The Innovation Campus: Building Better Ideas (Published 2016) (1)

By Alexandra Lange

Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas. They and their partners in industry are pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace, itself inspired by the minimally partitioned spaces of the garage and the factory.

If the Silicon Valley creation myth starts in Steve Jobs’s garage (now a designated historic site), the creation myth on campuses starts at M.I.T.’s Building 20. That warren of D.I.Y. offices, allocated to researchers from across the university, produced, through proximity, many breakthrough encounters in its 50-plus years. The building was demolished in 1998, replaced with Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, one of the first campus structures that tries to recreate Building 20’s creative ferment.

What architects take from Building 20 is not its ramshackle aesthetic — though some believe less polish provides more freedom — but the importance of mixing disciplines, of work performed out in the open, and of transition zones like hallways and staircases as sites for productive run-ins.

Though studies have shown that proximity and conversation can produce creative ideas, there’s little research on the designs needed to facilitate the process. Still, there are commonalities.

In many of the new buildings, an industrial look prevails, along with an end to privacy. You are more likely to find a garage door and a 3-D printer than book-lined offices and closed-off classrooms, more likely to huddle with peers at a round table than go to a lecture hall with seats for 100. Seating is flexible, ranging from bleachers to sofas, office chairs to privacy booths. Furniture is often on wheels, so that groups can rearrange it. (The Institute of Design at Stanford, a model for many, has directions for building a whiteboard z-rack on its website.)

Staircases and halls are wide and often daylit, encouraging people to dwell between their appointments in hopes of having a creative collision. Exposure to natural light itself contributes to improved workplace performance. There’s also much more to do with your hands than take notes in class: The need to move your body, by working on a prototype, taking the stairs or going in search of caffeine at a centralized cafe, is built in, providing breaks to let the mind wander.

The rationales for these buildings are varied: Employers are dissatisfied with graduates’ preparation, students are unhappy with outdated teaching methods, and colleges want to attract students whose eyes are on postgrad venture capital and whose scalable ideas might come in handy on campus. And so universities of all sizes, both public (Wichita State, University of Utah, University of Iowa) and private (Cornell, Northwestern, Stanford), have opened or are planning such facilities.


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Cornell Tech: Creative Collisions

The first three buildings on Cornell Tech’s 12-acre campus on Roosevelt Island won’t open until next year, but their structure is already becoming visible. A transparent masters studio for collaborative study will be the first thing visitors see as they stroll from the subway or tram along Tech Walk, the central avenue of a project with an estimated completion date of 2043.

The studio is in the Bloomberg Center, named to acknowledge a $100 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, matching New York City’s contribution toward the total cost for phase one, which is estimated at $800 million. A sculptural staircase, jutting provocatively from the side of the building, was designed to encourage students and faculty members to take the stairs to their work space instead of the shorter elevator route between front door and desk. So much of contemporary design for innovation involves adding friction to people’s work lives, as unexpected encounters (with people, with different spaces, with art) are supposed to lead to unexpected ideas.

“Being in bigger interactive spaces encourages expansive thinking, while being in a box of a room encourages box thinking,” said Dan Huttenlocher, founding dean and vice provost at Cornell Tech. “Sometimes you need to be in a box to concentrate, but to always sit in a little box is a problem.”

No one has a private office at the Bloomberg Center, the primary academic building, and opaque walls are few. The only spaces faculty members can truly call their own are lockable storage cabinets, with carts for equipment. Traditional classrooms, too, are few — the Cornell Tech curriculum privileges projects over lectures. Instead, there will be options so that people can choose how they like to work, from open-plan spaces by the windows, to a roof deck with a garden, to huddle rooms for groups of five or less.

“As you begin to understand how people work together, there is an ideal size of collaboration,” said Ung-Joo Scott Lee, principal at Morphosis, the architects. “Beyond five people it is too much of a crowd.”

If this sounds like Silicon Valley, it should. “We looked at Pixar in Emeryville very carefully, along with Bloomberg L.P. and Google, who have sizable office space in New York and understand the constraints of the urban environment,” Mr. Huttenlocher said. (Until it moves onto its own campus, Cornell Tech is headquartered in the Google building in Chelsea — every designer working for a university, it seems, has taken a swing through Mountain View.)

“Pixar had to bring together very different cultures and get them to work as one, the creative and the business side, but also creative and tech people,” Mr. Huttenlocher said.

One of the things the Cornell Tech team most appreciated about Pixar was its “surprise” spaces. The Morphosis building will have a series of unexpected rooms, focused on art, including a round one built to hold abstract murals by Ilya Bolotowsky salvaged from the 1940s hospital demolished to build the campus.


University of Utah: Living Over the Store

“Live. Create. Launch.” That’s the tagline for the University of Utah’s $45 million Lassonde Studios, opening this month. The residential component has been absorbed in

to this live-work building, anticipating the early lifestyle of dot-com employees, whose living quarters usually resemble walk-in closets. The Utah version is more plush, however: Residents, who can be graduate or undergraduate and in any major, can choose pods (cubbylike rooms with built-in bed, desk, storage and TV), lofts in an industrial vernacular (beds in a communal setting with shared kitchen, lounge and bathrooms) or more traditional single or double rooms.

Different floors have different themes, based on Utah’s existing strengths: one for games and digital media, one for adventure and gear, one for design and the arts, one for global impact and sustainability. The ground-floor “garage” has workshops equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters and other prototyping tools, available to anyone at the university and staffed by work-study students. All the programs offered by the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute, the division that is building the studios, are extracurricular and interdisciplinary; a few degrees are offered in partnership with the business school.

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“One thing about the building is it has no formal classrooms, and no faculty or staff offices,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the institute. “We didn’t want to have a classroom because that says, ‘In this room you learn, out here you don’t learn.’”

Innovation buildings tend to be affiliated with schools of business or engineering, but there is a strong arts presence within them. Lassonde Studios, designed by Yazdani Studio of Cannon Design, hopes to attract students from industrial design, the fine arts and communications. “We have made an effort to say, ‘Entrepreneurs create new things, and you do that too,’” Mr. D’Ambrosio said.

A thousand students applied for the 400 beds this fall, and 37 percent of the chosen are women. “It’s important to have a critical mass of women involved so women will come in,” he said. “Engineering is very heavily male, the business school is more male than female, but we are getting applicants from the fine arts, humanities and health sciences. Students have 35 to 40 different majors, and that happened pretty organically.”

The studios are named after a Canadian businessman, Pierre Lassonde, who gave the initial $7 million for the building (he and his late wife, Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, are Utah alumni). The bulk of the $45 million construction costs were funded by a revenue bond, to be paid back with “rents” from students. The experience will cost. A double goes for $6,830 for the academic year, a three-person loft for $9,135. Elsewhere on campus: $4,874 for a double, $4,367 for a triple deluxe.


York University: Diversity by Design

Pierre Lassonde is also a $25 million benefactor of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Toronto, which officially opened its new Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence, by ZAS Architects, in April. Dean Janusz Kozinski speaks of trying to create “Renaissance engineers,” in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, and has set the ambitious goal of a student body that is 50 percent female. They have a long way to go. Currently, 17 percent of undergraduates are women.

The radical restructuring of both curriculum and architecture are supposed to contribute to greater parity. Gone is a first year of large lecture courses on basic science. Instead, students work alone or in small groups on a “passion project.” “If you are working on an efficient filtering system for water in Ethiopia, you will need to know more about mathematics, about partial differential equations,” Dr. Kozinski said. “They would come to us, and then we would gently start introducing mathematics. Learning by doing and learning in social spaces with professors is reflected in the design.”


Informal lounges are threaded throughout the building, from a generous one at entry level to small banquettes in the wide hallways. Active learning classrooms (there are no lecture halls) combine different sizes and heights of tables and chairs, and are equipped with projectors and I.T.-integrated furniture from Steelcase. The “Sandbox” space, which includes collaboration-size rooms and a 3-D prototyping lab, gives students the option to brainstorm on their own or work with classmates. The architects specified some furniture with built-in scribble pads, and many of the walls are writable back-painted glass.

“We equate it to a design lab like in architecture school, a place where you can go brainstorm, sketch on the scribble pads, work with classmates,” Paul Stevens, a senior principal at ZAS, said. “Or you can take your sketches and use hand tools to start making a sample.” Tool cribs hold smaller materials for experiential learning. Larger, purpose-built labs are equipped with professional-grade equipment for testing and prototyping, including a concrete-lined mechanical lab with a 12-ton crane. “This is where you get to build things like solar cars, or crush concrete,” he said.

Once students have their model, they can pitch it to industry leaders in a dressed-up lounge intended as a bridge space between students and the wider world. It was important, Mr. Stevens said, that it resemble a corporate lounge — “a beautiful, high-end-finish space” — rather than an intimidating board room, and the school made it a priority to have best-in-class furniture, including Eames chairs, to set the tone.


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Northwestern University: Park Here

The 11,000-square-foot Garage, Northwestern’s interdisciplinary accelerator space, opened last year inside a parking garage. To maintain a sense of the provisional and knockabout, the architects preserved the parking lines on the (cleaned-up) concrete floors and used inexpensive plywood, embellished with spray-painted graphics, for many of the walls. “We embraced the raw nature of the parking garage,” said Todd Heiser, design principal at Gensler in Chicago. “We left the cinder block. We left the concrete in its natural state.”

The Garage provides cafe, meeting, classroom and workshop space for anyone on campus — a student center with an entrepreneurial purpose, with amenities like 3-D printers, Bluescape interactive screens and design software. Programs focus on helping students develop ideas and finding them mentors. Melissa Crounse, the executive director of the Garage and a former Google employee, holds weekly dinners for alumni and students, asking the successful (one assumes) alumni to tell a story about a previous failure.


Gensler began the design process by diagraming the paths of potential users, from visiting entrepreneurs giving a lecture to a student prototyping a project through sewing, 3-D printing or laser cutting. By overlaying those paths they saw “hot spots” where students, faculty members and guests might naturally congregate, like areas around whiteboards on conference room doors.

“If you keep the schedule on the outside of the conference room, the act of signing up in an analog way causes a lot of discussions,” Mr. Heiser said. “Maybe meetings tie together. You need to create experiences that heighten the potential interaction.”


University of Iowa, Stanford: The Art in STEM

Art schools have always had open plans, daylit work spaces and power tools. But the new arts building also has many elements of the STEM-focused innovation campus in hopes of facilitating the mixing of disciplines and modes of instruction.

“If you look at successful businesses now, the people who get hired are people who have ideas; art school offers models for that,” said Chris McVoy of Steven Holl Architects, designers of the new Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa. “I believe one of the needs behind this surge in arts buildings is as a reaction to overfocusing on STEM. The world is more and more in need of those qualifications, but it doesn’t fulfill a basic human need. Arts programs are where students and faculty can more easily engage in the undefined aspects of life.”

Iowa’s building attempts to embody that idea by placing itself along a primary pedestrian route, so seeing new work is unavoidable. The curriculum, too, draws in majors from across the university, with popular classes that include building your own bicycle.

“Our last four hires in the school have been faculty who teach engineering and computer science students alongside art majors,” said Steve McGuire, coordinator of Iowa’s studio division. “The building, as programmed, will include 16 Steam and engineering courses” — that’s Steam as in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Four hundred engineering majors typically take courses in the art department each year, and the makerspaces are available to students in all disciplines.

“Engineering majors are often impressed by art students’ relative high level of tool knowledge,” Mr. McGuire said. “They see their experiences in various studios, from the suite of CNC equipment to traditional fabrication, complementing and enhancing theoretical knowledge they’ve learned in engineering courses.”


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At Stanford, the McMurtry Building, which opened last fall to house the department of art and art history, wraps rooms for making art, design and film around those for studying the history and theory of those topics. At the building’s groundbreaking, the architect Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, described the two strands as locked in a “gentle embrace.”

Set near the university’s museums, the building, like Iowa’s, is positioned as a campus crossroad. People from other disciplines may literally be stopped in their tracks by what’s going on in the transparent ground-floor galleries and workshops, or be drawn inside by a glimpse of people studying in the treehouselike reading room.

Here, classes that combine art and science and art and technology include “Drawing With Code” and, most appropriately, “Data as Material,” which delves into the history of using information to create art.


Wichita State University: Real-World Experience

The Innovation Campus, which is being built on a former golf course, is the brainchild of Wichita State’s president, John Bardo. His ambitions are not small: The project will take 20 years to build and potentially increase campus size by 50 percent, with new business and engineering buildings and residence halls alongside headquarters for private industry.

“We reached out to the local business community and asked what they wanted in a graduate, and they told us there was a two-year gap between a graduate and someone who is a productive worker,” said Emily Patterson, associate director of facilities planning at Wichita State. “They were asking for a more prepared student.”

So in the $25 million Experiential Engineering Building, set to open for classes in January, students will be able to do hands-on and applied learning in 25 specialized science and engineering labs; engineering hub rooms will be open 24/7. A separate makerspace with evening hours, run by GoCreate, will offer facilities for metalworking, woodworking, textiles and digital creation to students and local residents. Dassault Systèmes, a software company, is planning a 3-D immersive lab, and a few other spaces have been set aside for local businesses.

Today’s innovation campuses tend to make their pipeline to the real world explicit. Airbus Americas is moving its engineering center, and 400 Wichita employees, to a new structure on the campus, to be built on ground leased from the university. The center will also have room for up to 100 student workers. In another partnership, a law enforcement training center, with construction costs paid by the city and county, will serve the police departments as well as Wichita State’s criminal justice students.


Kansas public education has experienced state cutbacks at every level in recent months. Wichita State, along with other Kansas universities, has increased tuition 5 percent to make up for the budget cuts. “State funding is dwindling, so we have to be innovative in our financing,” Ms. Patterson said. Construction has gone forward on the Innovation Campus because the Experiential Engineering Building, designed by Perkins + Will and WDM Architects, is financed via grants to Kansas universities to produce more engineering graduates in a state where aviation and energy are top industries.

How successful will Wichita State and other universities be at fueling innovation and, ultimately, a new entrepreneurship economy? The proof may be many years out, and difficult to quantify. But the pressure on administrators to change their campuses may soon come, not just from above and within, but from below.

An anecdote from Kevin B. Sullivan of Payette, whose firm has interdisciplinary science and engineering centers under construction at Northeastern and Tufts, underscores the urgency. “I’m on the board of my daughter’s high school, and what they are doing there is taking the existing library, gutting it and turning it into a tech-enablement space,” he said. “The college process may be dumbed down from what they do in high school.”


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