These days, work can be something you do while sprawling on cushions in yellow-painted saucers. You can also do it with your mates, and they can come from all over the world. That was what I saw when I recently had the chance to visit The Hub, the University of Coventry’s new heart. Hard by Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, which just celebrated its 50th birthday. The Hub is a two-story pancake of a building, almost 100,000 square feet of cafeterias, pubs, health clinics, interfaith chapels, offices, discos, event spaces and, more than anything else, many different ways for students to engage in that particular combination of hanging, socializing, and studying that is the new mode of academic life.
Such student centers are now common in the United States. In my hometown of Cincinnati, Morphosis designed a Recreation Center for the University of Cincinnati, completed in 2004, that includes a cafeteria area, and it is itself hard by the Gwathmey/Siegel Tangeman Student Center, which contains even more spaces to eat, socialize, and, by default, study.
That is the interesting part to me about current students and their habits: They see studying more and more as something you do not in a library or at home, but with your friends, in an informal setting. This is not just a generational quirk: Educational theory these days emphasizes collective and contextual learning over the solitary and rote kind. As students bring these attitudes into the workforce after graduation, the open office environment, built around chance encounters and team meetings, is more familiar and attractive to them than either Dilbert-land cubicles or the Holy Grail of the corner office.
Designed by the London firm Hawkins/Brown, who took me there as part of a recent tour of its work, the Hub is, truth be told, not much to look at from the outside. That is partially the result of its site, as the building was shoehorned in among a High (what we would call Main) street shopping strip, other university buildings, and the Cathedral. It is, however, also a conscious choice by the architects and their clients to create a structure that is not monumental and imposing, but as open, fluid, and without even a clear center as possible. Anything that reeks of exclusion, separation, or hierarchy is to be avoided when you are trying to seduce students into using these sorts of environments. The façade consists of strips of colored glass, transparent and opaque in turns, which break the mass down. The few office and enclosed spaces are at the edges, and have little to distinguish them beyond functionality.
What makes the Hub work for the new kind of work (and it is especially ironic that Coventry was—and to a certain extent is—the hub of England’s car-making industry) are the expanses of open space of various heights and at various levels that snake around the building, outfitted with pieces of furniture that are in themselves like small buildings. Round carousels are places where you can lounge on cushions in groups. “Dog kennels” are more enclosed semi-rooms for group learning. Little aediculae bring the overall scale down from that of the 1,000-person capacity to an intimate one for just you or a few friends.
When I was there, students were using the space. They were staring into their computers, texting, listening to music—and all the while taking notes, pointing things out to each other, and even drilling each other. Boundaries between activities seemed as fluid as between spaces. What was even more encouraging to me was to see students who appeared to be of different races (this is one of the most ethnically diverse universities in England) mixing just as easily.
This is by no means an ideal setting or place. The budget of less than $200 per square foot shows in the raw quality one of the spaces and surfaces, and the University of Coventry is no star in the university universe. But the Hub, and the new kind of spaces that defy traditional types and constraints, does something more important than any of that: It works.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.