Oct 8, 2014 Schools
Central courts at universities come in many forms.
Photo of the quad at Manukau Institute of Technology by Simon Devitt.
My first experience of the quad — that particularly British tradition of organising the buildings of educational institutions around a central quadrangle of grass — was at my New Zealand secondary school. The rule wasn’t explicit, but you quickly learned you did not walk on the grass. In the long track around the perimeter you might, in a hurry, risk cutting the corner, but more than likely you would be spotted by an officious prefect and caned for disrespecting the lawn, or something.
I was reminded of this peculiar tradition during a stay at Cambridge when I watched agog as some don in flowing academic gown strode across King’s College’s grass quad — there they call them courts — parading his status. Again, I could never discern the rules, but it appeared this privilege was available to fellows of the college and their guests, although in other colleges the rules varied and some had specific lawns to be trodden by scholars.
I’ve long been perplexed by this hallowed ground arrangement. Why make empty the central court or quad when surely it should be a place of public hustle and bustle celebrating the vibrancy of the learning environment?
I experienced the latter at Auckland University’s three-sided quad in front of the brutalist student union buildings in the 70s. That teemed each lunchtime with a variety of sights and sounds ranging from ranting student politicians to engineering students chundering their way through a beer mile. I was heartened the other day to see the space — now with a sail overhead that makes it less quad-like — still draws crowds, in this instance political parties courting the student vote.
The new $100 million Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), opened in June, employs its central quad — actually a massive enclosed six-storey trapezium atrium — to celebrate learning. There’s no grass, but its explicitly public ground floor straddling a railway station below is going to be terrific for mass gathering.
One likes to imagine students lining the atrium’s Colosseum-like balconies, seizing its political potential. Warren and Mahoney architect Blair Johnston says situating the tertiary institution above the train station blurred the thresholds of public and educational life — encouraging commuter engagement with the possibility of learning. “It’s about bringing the institution to the people rather than asking people to go to the institution.”
Although having a tertiary institute directly linked by trains is brilliant, Manukau Station is sadly disappointing — largely because, ridiculously, it’s the last stop on the line, but also because it’s rather utilitarian and fails to capture anything of the pleasure of trains. Here was an opportunity to revive the town-planning disaster of Manukau by carrying the line through MIT, into the town centre and beyond, and to provide some drama by emerging from below into the light, or rather the court.
The first impression of the atrium is uplifting — a layered pattern of colour, glass, timber and steel exquisitely combined into a hive of educational activity. The 20,000sq m of the three adjoining MIT buildings that shape the atrium court is cleverly flexible. The striking weave of MIT’s exterior diamond brace columns and the slender tensioned steel columns that hang the floors from trusses above provide open floor plates, making it easy to move walls to adapt spaces for changing education and community needs.
Warren and Mahoney describes the Manukau CBD as “an abundance of poorly defined, ‘baggy’ open spaces with an absence of ‘street-defining’ built form” and hope the campus project will repair the streetscape and links to the CBD. Given the ghastly emporium of ugly buildings and carparks that is Manukau, it’s a pity Auckland Transport and the Auckland Council lacked the vision to allow for the transformative possibility of a train running through it.
But the campus complex already does much to improve the area — especially at the newly landscaped edge opening onto Hayman Park. As for the learning environment, its thoroughly modern and efficient arrays of computer workstations speak the phrase du jour — a new spatial pedagogy. That includes the “flipped classroom”, which makes space to suit student interaction and engagement, rather than the traditional lecturer-orientated format.
Teaching in small groups is also the new normal and six seems to be the pedagogical magic number.
Perhaps most arresting are the “social learning spaces” open from 7am-11pm — essentially arrangements of comfortable couches, funky artwork and other designer furniture where students gather, each with their bring-your-own-device, to collaborate, discuss, debate. A tower of higher learning filled with productive chatter.
Another new student locale also demonstrates how trains are key to resurrecting our city. The first stage of the student accommodation complex on the former Carlaw Park borders the proposed Parnell railway station and the Auckland Domain. Catering to some 80,000 students who study in Auckland’s city centre, the new development comprises two-, three- and four-bedroom self-catered units in six apartment blocks of up to eight storeys arranged around a central courtyard and shared facilities. Rent, in what will be a 668-bed student village, ranges between $380 per week for a two- bedroom family unit to $244 per week (per bed) for a three- or four-bedroom flat.
The key design disaster to avoid in such medium-density accommodation is the “prison-like aesthetic”, says Warren and Mahoney architect Shannon Joe. It’s a task made more difficult by a university edict that such accommodation can’t have balconies and all windows must open only 100mm — apparently to limit the danger of students being students and falling out of their confines.
The ideal location beside the university and its links to both the Domain and Parnell via the new train station are very un-prison-like. So too is the skilfully disrupted conformity of the façades’ monolithic concrete panels by a chequerboard pattern of reddish browns, black, white and concrete textures contrasted with popped-out floor-to-ceiling black glass windows. “By having shadows and depth to the façade, students feel this is more like home,” insists Joe. “They can relate to it because it’s more domesticated rather than institutional.”
He may well be right. When I intruded on one of the student flats, although it felt rather cave-like and the furniture (not designed by Warren and Mahoney) had an uneasy one-size-fits-all aesthetic, the students gathered around their galley-style kitchen seemed happy enough. The revelation, however, was the shared common space. As well as the expected lounge, kitchen, laundry and games room, there was a sizeable shared study area — once again arranged with furniture of collaboration, discussion and debate. Here, as at MIT, architecture and infrastructure combine to show Aucklanders a way forward when it comes to building a liveable city.