Flashy university buildings: do they live up to the hype?

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Flashy university buildings: do they live up to the hype?
The Ocad building strides above Toronto on its colourful skinny legs // © Alami

Universities, suggested the late Sir David Watson (professor of higher education at Oxford, vice-chancellor at Brighton) can be viewed as property companies with education tacked on. Estate issues consume vast amounts of time and money – and prompt emotional debate – within universities.

Everyone’s aim is to create noble buildings and campuses that will attract talented staff and students, boosting the university’s standing in the competitive international league. But some new buildings end up attracting criticism and controversy – they’re judged weird and kinky, and they fail to fulfill their function as icons.

Ambitious university leaders bring together the powerful combination of “starchitects” and wealthy sponsors eager to provide funds for flagship buildings bearing their names. Starchitects play with the ideas of crumbling buildings, irregular shapes and angular geometries, rather than conventional vertical planes and rectilinear structures. Their designs hint that universities are organisations whose mission is to question traditional ways of thinking, to break down conventions.

Daniel Libeskind’s London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre is one example. The Ocad University (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design) in Toronto, is another. Designed by the UK’s Alsop architects, it seems to stride above the city on colourful skinny legs; its gigantic, hovering form implying that art education is important, distinct and elevated from the mundane world below. []