What Can Universities Do With Their Fancy New Event Centers?

In normal times, the Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago hosted speeches from Vice President Joe Biden, the Chicago Humanities Festival and candidate forums for the city’s mayoral election. With event space capacity for 3,000 people, the building, designed by HOK and completed in 2008, is the largest such venue on campus. But when the Covid-19 pandemic began, the school had to rapidly grapple with if and how its largest event spaces could be used. So in the fall of 2020, instead of welcoming conferences and symposia, the UIC Forum was converted into an ad hoc health facility; its vast main hall and meeting rooms have been repurposed to dole out socially distanced Covid-19 tests and flu shots for students and employees.

Grand university convening spaces are part of a nascent higher-ed trend — large, expensive facilities unattached to any specific academic discipline, often designed by high-profile, globe-trotting architects provided with generous budgets. Thanks to a kind of venue-building arms race between schools, these kinds of spaces have proliferated on campuses nationwide in the last 10 or 20 years.

Just across town from the UIC Forum, for example, stands the University of Chicago’s new David Rubenstein Forum by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, perhaps the purest example of this genre. It’s a $100 million, 166-foot tall glass and zinc tower, shaped like a wobbly stack of Jenga blocks, with venues for 600 and 285 people. Currently, its ballroom-sized main room has been adapted to host socially distanced law classes.

At Harvard, the former Holyoke Center, which once contained the university’s administrative office spaces, was converted to the Smith Campus Center in 2018 by U.K.-based Hopkins Architects, with the addition of a glass atrium, green walls and the now-obligatory terraced stair seating, the kind that explains in no uncertain terms that you’re supposed to have fun hanging out there.

Julie Crites, director of Common Spaces at Harvard, calls the Smith Center “part library, part food hall, part special event venue and part social gathering space available to the Harvard community and visitors to campus.” Now there’s a lot less going on. As of late October, only a few food venues were open for take-out, and the large lounge areas have been reorganized per social distancing dictates.

Then there’s The Forum, the public centerpiece of Columbia University’s expanding Manhattanville campus. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Renzo Piano, the LEED-certified building is a “boutique academic conference and community center,” says executive director Mary McGee. With a free Wi-Fi-enabled lobby café and a roster of public events and performances, the building is meant to help bridge the town-gown divide and connect Columbia to the wider Harlem neighborhood. (The Manhattanville campus is subject to a hard-fought Community Benefits Agreement.) Just before Covid-19 arrived, New Yorkers packed its auditorium to see Jay-Z speak as part of the school’s African-American and African Diaspora Studies Department lecture series. For now, the building is mostly closed, thought it did host poll worker training.

The gap between what these spaces were meant for and what they can be used for now is glaring; Like the marquee corporate headquarters of many a tech company — laden with open-plan offices and amenity-laden hangout zones — these are spaces conspicuously conceived for a pre-pandemic world. If it seemed a bit self-aggrandizing to erect such showpieces before Covid-19, it comes off a fair bit worse with the lecture halls empty. (Harvard and Columbia declined to disclose budgets for their buildings.) So the question becomes, now that they’re built, can they be used to meet the crisis of the moment, and how might buildings like this change in the future?

A crowded indoor lecture hall might seem like the worst place to be right now. But these buildings do have a few things going for them. First, they’re much more flexible than specialized university buildings, like wet labs. “These spaces can re-invent themselves,” says UIC campus architect David Taeyaerts. “They’re meant to be flexible and [to] modify or adapt based on what the demand is.”

Second, their large venues can give people space to spread apart from each other, beyond the range of ballistic droplets transmitting the virus. And they’re often equipped with new, high-quality ventilation systems and can use these roomy proportions to suck out floating virus particles. 

“If you can manage the occupant density and you have the benefits of that large volume and those enhanced air systems that are expecting to manage the heat gains and fresh air requirements of bigger crowds, those might be some of the places you could start using sooner,” says Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, an architecture professor at the University of Oregon and director of the school’s Institute for Health in the Built Environment. 

Some of their extravagant-looking design features — like the glass walls in the Rubenstein Forum’s lecture halls — even have potential health benefits. “There are many studies [that have] found that light can shorten the life of the COVID-19 virus, so more UV light is better for an indoor environment,” says Josephine Lau, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska that specializes on air quality and ventilation.

Van Den Wymelenberg also sees the pandemic giving universities an opportunity to re-orient these facilities away from purely institutional needs: They can be “repurposed [so] that [they] can support a broader community,” he says.

Supporting the surrounding neighborhood has always been key to The Forum’s intentions at Columbia, says McGee. The building has hosted after-school tutoring for kids, census education programming and clothing drives. But the form and materials selected for Ivy League events centers often fail keep a broad definition of community in mind, even outside any sort of acute health crisis, says Lilian Asperin, a partner at WRNS Studio in San Francisco, which works on many higher education projects.

“It’s very showcase,” says Asperin, who’s also a member of the Society for College and University Planning. The high-end finishes and monumental proportions that make these buildings attractive venues for ascot-adorned panel discussions aren’t necessarily welcoming for the people who need universities the most. “I don’t know how that feels to first-generation [students] who maybe came from a low-income background. How do we think through the lived experiences of everyone?”

She nods in the direction of the 10-story David Rubenstein Forum. “When you think of what a traditional campus looks like, you do have an ivory tower,” she says.  

That disconnect was something she experienced first-hand. As a Latinx and Asian-Pacific Islander that grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, the buildings that greeted her at the University of California-Berkeley (which her firm has since designed for) were intimidating. She was put off both by the dour Brutalism of Wurster Hall, home of the architecture school, and the grand Beaux-Arts main library; the endless stacks, she recalls, seemed to scream “there’s so much you don’t know!” The formality of the spaces left Asperin feeling unseen, insignificant and “overwhelmed.”

Later, she felt a similar resistance when she was a given studio assignments at school to design a convention center: It seemed bizarre to design a space where thousands of travelers from across the nation would fly to get to, and discuss obscure topics in windowless air-conditioned room for days at a time. “That’s not where I came from,” she says. “I didn’t understand who the people were. You want me to put 400 people in a basement?”

Of course, this is largely what this crop of new university buildings are — convention centers. And as such, their campus roles are distinct from standard academic facilities. For any student, there’s an extra degree of separation between a building they might go to class in and see as their portal into a discipline, and a free-floating event center frequented by people that already have their names on buildings and conference rooms. What’s their connection to the thought-leader gabfests hosted there, and how do these spaces help those with the least resources? That depends on how much universities are willing to extend the cultural and intellectual capital these buildings attract, and the dollars that follow.

And certainly, such buildings have constituencies beyond students. “Building a new building is a way to say, ‘Look, we’re that next increment better than our next competitor, and you should support us,’” says Roger Goldstein, a principal at Goody Clancy, an architecture firm that focuses on higher education.

Building high-profile university structures is a donor-driven process, often relying on alumni largesse, undertaken in the hopes that the final product will be able to channel even more money. These sorts of new buildings are “a way to renew the university among its alumni base,” says Goldstein.

And once built, they’re expected to earn their keep. Such buildings are often conceived of as “self-supporting entities,” says UIC’s Taeyaerts. Event centers charge fees for groups outside the university, and for schools and colleges within, and that money is kicked up to the school’s overarching administration. This process is handled differently at different schools (Columbia charges the same rate for external and internal groups, and UIC only looks to break even on service and maintenance costs charged to internal groups) but it creates an incentive to keep building spaces for convening.

With that feedback loop interrupted by the pandemic, what emerges after this crisis could look and function quite differently, with design changes as well as mechanical fixes.

Asperin expects to see more features like hybrid indoor-outdoor terraces, as well as smaller buildings with more natural ventilation and access to natural light. Expect less ground-up construction and more adaptive reuse as the need for space lessens. “The 500-seat lecture hall is dead,” she says.

For technical solutions, Van Den Wymelenberg anticipates surveillance of airborne pathogens: HVAC systems that can sample air to determine virus levels. Lau has been studying “upper room ultraviolet germicidal irradiance” — a technique involving ceiling-mounted UV lights that can zap the Covid-19 virus and other bugs. 

These devices cost a thousand dollars or so to cover an area of a few hundred square-feet — not an impossible luxury for a place like the University of Chicago. But as Covid-19 has crushed college enrollment and siphoned away other charitable gifts, many colleges are struggling to keep their doors open. “Some of these organizations don’t have a dime to spare, and they really can’t invest in capital improvements,” says Van Den Wymelenberg.

For schools that couldn’t afford to hire Renzo Piano even before the pandemic, Van Den Wymelenberg has been working on a series of “HVAC hacks” with the nonprofit Last Mile. For about $60, he suggests taping two air filters to a box fan — a budget intervention that will likely supplant the boutique conference center as higher education’s confidence barometer. Graceless but (hopefully) effective, we may soon see how these devices look in places like the wood-paneled conference rooms of the David Rubenstein Forum. 

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