To See and Be Seen

The role of the campus center is first to be the heart of a college community. It must offer the services and amenities students have come to expect as Generation Xers and Yers and balance the college’s desire to provide an inviting, comfortable, and safe environment that reflects the values of its community with the ability to generate revenue. Schools want a place that reflects the culture of their students and tell the story behind the institution.

As the cost of higher education rises and public funding declines, colleges and universities are searching for new resources to recruit students and raise money to remain competitive. Instead of applying to two or three institutions, high school seniors now apply to eight or 10 schools, with many surpassing 12. Universities are placing more emphasis on making the collegiate experience satisfying not only to improve student retention and quality of life, but also to increase the likelihood that their graduates will someday give back to the campus they held dearly.

The dynamics and demands of a student union have significantly changed since the drinking age increased to 21. A union can no longer rely on a pub, the mailroom, and the dining hall to be the source of life. Campus administrators are looking for program spaces that support student interests and involvement in campus community. Recruitment, although an important issue, is typically not the impetus for a project though it often overwhelms the institution’s original goals as the project progresses.

Many universities are leaning toward campus centers because they can foster campus community and contribute to their arsenal of recruitment tools for future and former students. Campus centers can act as the school’s centerpiece, effectively becoming the first stop for visitors, prospective students and parents new to the campus, as well as for returning alumni trying to regain their bearings. They also can serve as the iconic, recognizable backdrop for beaming parents to photograph their offspring.

Fun and Functional

The campus center must be more than an attractive facade or a space filled with information kiosks. It must also fulfill multiple purposes for visitors to become a memorable and worthwhile stop. The building should include exciting places to meet, dine, socialize, and linger, and these places must appeal to people in all sectors of a diverse university population. It must weave together facilities to become a portal for cultural, recreational and entertainment functions from informal game rooms to formal performance venues. 

Finally, a campus center must fulfill the everyday functions of students who, by including the place in their daily journeys, provide the vibrancy the building needs to become a credible, successful recruitment tool that visitors will take notice. If the design can successfully and elegantly meld these diverse programs, it will be a beneficial centerpiece to the campus.

One-Stop Shopping

Locating the student services offices in the campus center makes them accessible and easy to find. These offices, which include the registrar, admissions, and bursar, equate to a “one-stop shopping” experience unique to college students. Similarly, the campus center should house services for alumni, who find themselves bewildered by the campus’ physical changes upon return. Like the main square of a traditional city, the campus center becomes a place for public orientation, interaction and gathering space for all sectors of the population. 

Because campus stores are often located in campus centers, many school administrators also want to provide visitors a one-stop shopping experience. Information kiosks are common components, and campus tours often kick off at the campus center. For prospective students and their families, the college admissions office is particularly important. Students want to learn their financial aid package, thumb through course catalogs and textbooks, and verify their applications are complete all in one place without traversing all over the campus. 

Blending Suits with Jeans

Integrating a university’s formal and informal needs in the one-stop shopping model creates conflicts the campus center design must resolve. By housing career and alumni services, the center may likely be the first, perhaps only, place prospective employers will visit. Their entire impression of the school may be formed entirely by the campus center and affect their decision to return. Many recruiters are also alumni who wield a great deal of influence; making a positive impression is of further importance. 

However, the campus center must also serve the informal needs of current students. To create an engaging college community, it must invite students to visit and inhabit its space regularly. It must put them at ease as they eat, play games, and unwind in common spaces. University officials may want to clean up or shield these casual spaces from prominent outside visitors, but the campus center must be attractive to students to foster community and include informal programs and amenities such as cafes, wireless internet, and lounge areas. Simultaneously, students want to feel that they have ownership of their spaces. If the campus center design appears to confine their behavior, they will seek alternative venues for dining and socializing. In turn, the campus community will suffer. 

For every campus center, architects struggle with the dichotomy between formal institutional needs and informal student needs. Good designers are those who can successfully strike a balance. 

Case Study I: The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

KSS Architects confronted the challenge of balancing institutional and student needs when they designed the new campus center at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The college occupies a site in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, isolated from other development. The existing campus was planned on a linear model without a single, focused public meeting place. Historically, many students deserted the campus on weekends due to the lack of amenities and the lack of place. 

The campus center is the first element of the college’s new master plan. Stockton envisioned the campus center as a place where students could interact, hang out, eat, drink, and buy necessities and luxuries. At the same time, it envisioned the new building as a public space that would welcome everyone-students, faculty, administrators, prospective students, alumni-while exemplifying the quality of the education it offers. To ensure the success of the project, the college even commissioned a market study to pinpoint their students’ needs.

 As the anchor of a future quadrangle, the campus center had to be a long linear building. KSS took advantage of this form to resolve the conflicting requirements of the program. The design places the most formal elements in the middle at the main entrance of the building, and diminishes in formality as one moves away from the Grand Hall, the building’s central anchor, a double-height formal space that represents the university community as a whole. A large fireplace, a symbol of stability and domesticity, fills one end of the room. The presence of the hearth denotes the Grand Hall’s central position in the hierarchy of the campus public spaces and its function as the living room of the college. The choice of furnishings-armchairs and coffee tables-reinforces the intent. But, like many living rooms, it is a formal space, public rather than private, where people linger and meet, but not a place to hang out. 

Flanking the Grand Hall are semi-public spaces, destinations for both visitors and members of the college community: the campus store, the event room, the admissions office, career services and a theater. Informal student spaces, including the coffee house and dining hall, bookend these semi-public spaces. While accessible from the Grand Hall through corridors that pierce the semi-public spaces, the informal spaces are physically and programmatically quite remote. Based on the college’s market study, KSS designed these spaces specifically for students while preserving the Grand Hall as a place for all members of the college community. Direct access from the exterior allows students to enter their informal spaces on both ends of the building without circulating through the semi-public spaces, increasing their sense of ownership. The careful grading of programmatic elements from public to student centered resolves the conflicting demands of the program in the New Campus Center. 

Case Study II: Lawrence University

The Campus Center at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., presented similar programmatic conflicts, but on a more physically constrained site on a riverside bluff. To accommodate the program, the building had to be four stories tall, with the benefit of giving more program elements views of the neighboring river. As in Stockton’s campus center, the design arranges program elements such that the most public elements are adjacent to the entrance with student-centered elements in more remote, but still easily accessible, locations. 

The site slopes down significantly such that the entrance level falls at the equivalent of the third floor. The public nature of the building is signaled by the indoor/outdoor cafe projecting into a plaza adjacent to the entry, welcoming the university community inside. The other public functions-the campus store, an information desk and the great room or the campus living room-are disposed on the entry level, one after the other, on a wide interior pedestrian pathway using the street as the model of organization. Students descending one level down on a grand staircase will find the cinema, a convenience store catering to their needs, and the mailroom. The grand staircase continues to the bottom level, where a student dining hall has immediate exterior access to the river. 


Can campus centers balance the formal needs of institutional representation with the informal needs of student recreation? The answer is a qualified yes. With thoughtful, imaginative design, architects can distribute campus center programs to create a gradation of public, semi-public, and student-centered spaces. Though site constraints and configurations will influence the design complexity, the success of the solution corresponds with the talents and awareness of the designers.


Michael Shatken contributed to this article.