A recent article from The Atlantic Cities discusses the cloudy future of the American campus in an era in which Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other distance or distributed learning tools are becoming more and more pervasive. It made me wonder when, if ever, the design disciplines centered on buildings will have to confront this technological upheaval. I am already hearing from business professionals that they are no longer expanding their offices, even though their businesses are growing. They are in some cases even downsizing. “I just don’t need a bank of accountants beavering away in cubicles anymore,” one told me.
Might this mean the death of the conventional office building, the campus, and other types central to how the architectural profession defines itself?
Anthony Flint's article for The Atlantic Cities makes it clear that the campus will not disappear completely. Instead, as Perkins+Will associate principal David Damon, AIA, tells Flint, the campus will become a “meet-up spot.” Certain facilities, such as labs or model shops, might still need to be there, but both classes and dorms can be dispersed. The emphasis that almost all American colleges have put on building mixed-use student facility centers, gyms, and other magnets—combined with developers building purpose-built apartment buildings for students—presages this development.
Similarly, the office spaces of Silicon Valley are becoming meet-up spots larded with places to eat, play, and exercise. Employees live far away from these tech campuses; dispersed, they travel to and from work via luxury buses. Many of those quasi-office spaces, moreover, are in renovated buildings, which many employees today think have more charm, flexibility, quirks, and cachet than cookie-cutter office floors.
This does not necessarily mean that we will see smaller or fewer buildings in the future. We may just see more space for each person, at least for a while. Single-family homes continue to grow larger (after the tiniest dip during the recession) despite the decrease in family size, the miniaturization of every technology from television sets to air conditioners, and the relocation of more and more social bonds to the web.
In the end, however, I doubt whether this trend upward in size and uses is economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable. Bean counters like the ones who run the companies here in Cincinnati see only the need for less space. Universities are looking at increasingly dire economic mileposts. Moreover, people want to live near where they work. They also want places outside the office to be entertained, get information, and socialize.
So it seems logical to me that campuses and office buildings will become social centers in the broadest sense of that term. Housing will become less a rambling accumulation of different functions, and more a storage place for humans and their possessions who find their needs met in other places. You can even see a similar trend in hospitals: With new technology, fewer people are spending less time in beds, technology is becoming minimized, and care is becoming specialized. Outpatient clinics are proliferating across the suburban and urban landscape. Only the institutional logic of consolidation is still feeding mega-hospital growth, but I doubt that will survive the necessary rationalization of care.
Architects will have to make do with fewer bread-and-butter commissions for office buildings, dorms, classrooms, and hospitals. They will have to design more restaurants, social centers, specialized accommodations, meeting rooms, and recreational facilities. They will have to reuse more. They will have to use fewer resources and create buildings that are open to both physical and virtual interaction. All told, that is not a bad future for a profession that has produced too many mindless boxes for too long.
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.