Can architecture spur creativity? Universities are investing in big, high-tech buildings in the hope of evoking big, high-tech thinking
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.) […]