"It's about vision, not space."

Spring 2007 Interaction

L.A. Cicero


The genius of Leland Stanford's plan for his new university was its expandability. The structure of the Main Quad, with its east-west axis, lent itself to coherent growth that could elaborate upon the original vision while respecting it.

But the university lost its architectural way soon after its founders died. So did many other great universities in the 20th century; Harvard, for instance, was once described as "a loose confederation of departments held together by allegiance to the central heating plant."

At Stanford, buildings went up where they shouldn't. There were disputes over modern versus traditional architecture. There was no flow. There was little if any consultation with faculty or other users.

"There are areas with no 'there there,' no anchors," campus architect David Lenox said, gesturing at a campus map.

His predecessor, David Neuman, also was concerned at how the school had gone astray.

"A disorderly campus affects everyone, if only subliminally," he told Stanford Today in 1996. "Without order, you've lost the physical opportunity for chance encounters and the collegial atmosphere that encourages collaboration and creativity. You've lost the sense of the university as a whole moving in a coherent way."

When Gerhard Casper became the university's president in 1992, he said recently, he also was worried. So he took a more active role in campus architecture and began presiding over open competitions for new buildings.

"SEQ is more accepted now, but at first it was controversial," he said, referring to the Packard, Sequoia, Moore and Hewlett buildings in the Science and Engineering Quad, which went up on his watch.

"The landscape architect worked with the architect to create an infinitely lighter, more Mediterranean quad," he said. "The new buildings picked up on the themes of the Main Quad even though they, Hewlett and Packard, are point and counterpoint. Some people said, what is this atrium doing there? And the Paul Allen Center is the very opposite of the Gates building; it picks up on traditional themes but in very different ways."

The SEQ1 buildings were departmental. Today, as Stanford embraces multidisciplinary approaches to research and teaching, campus architects' tasks include not only ensuring that buildings make aesthetic sense but that they properly house and encourage new types of scientific and intellectual journeys. Flexible classrooms and break spaces, central workshops, open office space, movable equipment and furniture, opportunities for spontaneous meetings or huddles – these are all elements of the new university.

Innovation can be expensive or inexpensive, obvious or cumbersome. "It's about vision, not space," said Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain, director of the university's Department of Capital Planning.

The Stanford Challenge fundraising campaign includes new or redesigned buildings in the schools of medicine, engineering, law and business, as well as new dorms, an "Arts Path" and an expansion of the social science complex including Hoover, SIEPR and Encina. All the projects share common issues: space, parking, mission, linkages, sustainability, flexibility for an unknown future, architectural intelligibility.

What's different now is that the process for working out these challenges includes faculty and staff to a far greater degree than before. Now, not only are the buildings better; the excitement is shared.

"I've made three lab moves since I've been at Stanford, and each time I was told, you're moving there," said Channing Robertson, senior associate dean at the School of Engineering. "The change has come because of more enlightened planners, and also because of resistance from faculty."

Dyer-Chamberlain calls what she does "space therapy."

"We sit with departments to figure out how all the components translate into what they'll need in the new building," she said. "We ask people, what works where you are now, what doesn't? We talk about access, proximity, interaction, social engineering.

"Often people say everything should be exactly the same in the new building. It's really hard to envision anything different. So we say, what do you love about your current space? What don't you like? And then they say, well, now that you mention it, there's no space for ... So where should that be? we ask. Closer? Farther? We try to get them to think differently about their space."

Visibility today is more important than it was. Running into people is important. The ability to simultaneously participate in more than one scientific undertaking and to convey that simultaneity to visitors entering the building is important. Being able to work both alone and with colleagues is important. Above all, flexibility is important.

"There's no reason to bolt down lab equipment; we don't do that in our own homes," Robertson said. "Technology changes so rapidly, we can't possibly project science 50 years down the line."

This issue of Interaction takes a look at how the schools of medicine and engineering are balancing technology, function, aesthetics and finances, among other things, to create spaces for teaching and research that will adapt themselves to the requirements of future decades. If these walls ever talk, they'll have a lot to say.