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05.25.2012
Review> Only Connect
The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago by Sharon Haar.
Courtesy University of Minnesota Press

The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago
Sharon Haar
University of Minnesota Press
$50.00; $27.50 paperback

It is the right time to read architect and historian Sharon Haar’s book on the rich, fraught relationship of universities and the cities they live in. We are in one of the great eras of university expansion. Whether it is the new Yale in Singapore, New York University in its own backyard, or the burgeoning institutions in China, the university is as close to the heart of our current cultural and economic aspirations as it has ever been and the buildings are there to prove it. As financial analysts put it about the economy, a correction is possible—the ranks of dissatisfied, underemployed university graduates are legion across continents. Yet short of a new, harsher recession, the build program will go on, the better for select universities to stand out in a crowded field.

And that crowded field is urban, because whether they still have a big green lawn or not, the majority of new and expanding campuses are in cities, and to Haar, it is time to demonstrate that the “urban campus” is a rich opportunity, not the poor relation of the bucolic tradition of colleges in the country. She sees value in this—believing that the university and the city have the capacity to be profoundly and productively connected, but that while the physical form matters, it has to be understood as a larger history of place. Today’s debates on the future of campuses in American cities—take New York University (NYU) in Greenwich Village, for example, where community opposition has been bitter—are informed by history, yet they often lack a framework for understanding the full complexity of what cities and universities have to offer each other. How much does it matter if a campus is “porous” or not? How can we align the priorities of the university—research, teaching, and service, in that order—with the values of a city? These questions have a history, and we’d do well not to repeat it.

Haar grounds her work in the close study of her subtitle, “Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago,” but also frames it in terms of larger American patterns. An architect by training, she analyzes the evolution of a very specific site, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a paradigmatic 1960s urban campus (first built as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle Campus). She reviews both the evolution of the formal character of that design by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) Walter Netsch, who came to the commission fresh off his triumph at the United States Air Force Academy, and the tense backstory of the release of the original master plan and the political protests that ensued. Her core research begins with the program and form of the turn-of-the-century Hull-House Social Settlement, most of which was knocked down or relocated to make way for the new university. She then moves on to the recent era when SOM’s distinctive skywalks and rooftop forum, were, in their turn, demolished as outmoded relics.

Her deep “section” of the campus’ blocks, super and normal, is a compelling approach to uncovering the complexities of how we occupy cities, in which one generation has college-educated women living side by side with an impoverished immigrant community in Hull-House as an exercise in urban reform and social work. Two generations later a new generation aims squarely at providing another idealistic, if imperfect, reform, by expanding university education to a broad swath of the city’s population.

Haar includes a welcome review of thinking about campus design, from Paul Venable Turner’s estimable Campus: An American Planning Tradition (1987) to Thomas Bender’s inspiring notion of a dynamic give-and-take between university and city (in the same vein as his enthusiasm for the public intellectual as described in New York Intellect [1988]). Haar’s thesis is that the urban campus should not model itself as an enclave, but should be “imbricated” with the city, with forms and programs overlapping. Beyond UIC, she draws attention to the range of new campus types in Chicago, from downtown’s compact and vertical “Loop U” of recycled office buildings and new construction to OMA’s elevated-train-line-wrapping McCormick Tribune Campus Center (2003) at Illinois Institute of Technology.

In writing about Chicago as a living museum of university design, the burden of the task Haar has set for herself is sometimes evident. You can’t, she argues, fully understand Chicago’s campuses unless you understand, for example, how Chicago’s universities developed the very concept and practice of urban ecology. Haar is not just writing about campuses, but about the whole way that universities engage the city. She writes, “Higher education is not in the United States, commonly understood as an urban spatial practice.” She aims to change that understanding, through her own approach to theory and fieldwork, and it is not a task for the meek of purpose.

Neither is building a new urban campus. Most city administrations actively support university expansion, seeing it as critical to their municipality’s prestige and competiveness. Neighbors, however, often protest, finding little common purpose with the institution in their midst in terms of scale and activities, programmatic differences detailed by Jane Jacobs with a vision still potent 50 years after it was articulated. Campuses are also, in some communities, challenging due to a fundamental socioeconomic asymmetry. University education is vastly more democratic than before, but it is not universal.

There are opportunities for a common mission, however, and Haar’s volume contributes mightily to our knowledge of what has been and might be. She ends the book with a chapter on the implications of the largely still unbuilt proposals by Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. While she holds off on directly critiquing those proposals (quoting adamant critics such as Columbia’s Mark C. Taylor instead), she proposes unequivocally that “this is the moment to reconceive the campus not as a discrete community set apart from others but as an urbanity capable of engaging both new forms of cities and city living brought about in physical and virtual space.” But, she avers, this is a case for what should be, not necessarily what will be. In looking at urban campuses in the United States and abroad, it is clear that universities, and the administration, staff, faculty, and student body that occupy them, are still powerfully drawn to the symbolism of the enclave, and to the formation of the “discrete community” that goes with it. It is time for further research, and no doubt Haar is already on it. For the future of the campus, knowledge is a two-way street. Don’t expect it to be an easy drive.

Ray Gastil

Ray Gastil is the Chair in Design innovation at Penn State’s Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.