When your university’s unofficial motto is "where fun comes to die," your upperclassmen might be forgiven for fleeing campus housing in droves. But as the University of Chicago discovered roughly a decade ago, such a dispersal ultimately harms both the campus culture and students’ ability to learn from each other. So, taking a page from Marissa Mayer’s HR manual at Yahoo, the university has commissioned Studio Gang Architects—and its MacArthur-certified "genius" principal and 2011 Fast Company Master of Design, Jeanne Gang—to build a $148 million residence hall designed to lure them back with the promise of pampering and 24/7 collaboration. It’s Hogwarts-meets-the-Googleplex.
The University of Chicago is famous for its Gothic architecture and infamous for its academic intensity. A cornerstone of student life is the house system, which subdivides residence halls into Dunbar’s Number-friendly "houses" of 75 to 100 students, each of which is comprised of an equal mix of first- through fourth-year students, plus a handful of live-in faculty. The resulting tribes have as much tradition (and rivalry) as Slytherin and Gryffindor. Today, barely half of all undergraduates live in houses, and of those, 80% are first- and second-year students, threatening to upset the equilibrium of the system. But the number of upperclassmen returning to campus is slowly increasing, and surveys indicate more would like to return, albeit on their own terms.
Hence Gang’s design for Campus North (as the new complex is colloquially known), which will house 800 students in eight houses, each with its self-contained "house hub," a three-story lounge linked by cascading staircases practically begging residents to linger. "Everyone passes through the house hub," says Gang, "so we literally thought of it as a house. Beyond three floors, you start to lose cohesion. So we’ve added a variety of spaces that all kinds of students can use for collaboration. Sometimes that’s chatting with one person—an upperclassman giving advice to a first-year—and sometimes that’s group study, or even group projects. It’s this entrepreneurial notion of collaboration—that great ideas come from being together."
To lure third- and fourth-years back into the fold, Gang’s layouts include private apartments comparable in quality to her market housing—including her signature Aqua Tower—in addition to more traditional singles and doubles. Public amenities open to all residents include a penthouse "reading room," courtyards, and a pair of "community commons" lounges, while the dining hall extends the Hogwarts theme with long tables devoted to each house.
Signaling another shift in the traditional notion of university campuses as worlds onto themselves, Campus North is meant to double as a "portal" to the surrounding neighborhood of Hyde Park. "I think the goal is how to take this insular, Gothic-style campus and make it more urban and connected," Gang says. The solution was the "diagonal," a boulevard running through the complex to the university’s Smart Art Museum and Henry Crown Field House.
Although known for its Gothic buildings, the university has in recent years commissioned a number of contemporary architects in addition to Gang, including Rafael Viñoly, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Helmut Jahn, whose Joe and Rika Mansueto Libarary is named after Mansueto Ventures’ (and Fast Company) owner.