written by:
July 16, 2009

There's nothing like a little design therapy to relieve the sting of summer's end and first-day-of-school butterflies. Here Marc Kristal presents an online-exclusive about dormitory design that will give students good reasons to relish the return of the school year.

kieren timberlake west campus cornell


There's nothing like a little design therapy to relieve the sting of summer's end and first-day-of-school butterflies. Here Marc Kristal presents an online-exclusive about dormitory design that will give students good reasons to relish the return of the school year.

When I was in eighth grade, back in the 1960s, my parents decided that our small-town high school wasn’t up to snuff, and had me apply to boarding school. Against all odds, I was accepted at a storied institution that had graduated a few Kennedys, and Mom and Dad (already mentally marrying me off to a particular member of that tribe) took me to visit the campus. Everyone’s dreams were shattered when I saw the freshman dorm. The chilly, cavernous space was divided by a seven-foot-high wall running the building’s full length, behind which lay several dozen tiny cubicles, their doorways covered by shower curtains. I took one look and walked out. (Another Jewish boy got Caroline.)

If I’d known I’d be writing this story, I would have stayed. The structure—which promoted egalitarianism, unpretentiousness, and a Spartan ethic—demonstrated that a dorm can powerfully support a school’s philosophy and objectives, a recognition that’s strongly influencing residence hall architecture. If the 1990s and early 2000s saw most universities competing to capture students with amenity-filled extensions of suburban life, today, according to Kurt Holmes, dean of students at The College of Wooster in Ohio, residence halls “are seen as more of a 24/7 opportunity.”  Increasingly, observes architect Stephen Kieran, who with partner James Timberlake heads KierenTimberlake Associates, has worked on dozens of campuses, the emphasis is on “living/learning environments. There’s an acknowledgement by college leadership that you’re losing an opportunity by not broadening the concept of ‘residential’ to include ‘educational.’” Whether a dorm features an academic component or not, the objective, Holmes says, “is to use residence halls to pull students into public interactions—to create community, not just an apartment building.”

KieranTimberlake Associates (KTA) did this on a grand scale at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where the firm set five new residential colleges for upperclass men and women on the university’s twenty-acre West Campus. In addition to sheltering some 1,800 students, the houses, as they’re called, include faculty and graduate student apartments, and a range of interrelated public spaces designed to facilitate social and intellectual exchange: common and seminar rooms, conference spaces and libraries, and capacious, glass-walled dining pavilions—topped with green roofs—that run perpendicular to the taller, masonry-clad residence halls.

alice cook house kieren timberlake cornell
The communal/intellectual mix has proven successful in multiple ways. “Typically there’s a dearth of space where faculty members feel comfortable having an informal discussion, and the buildings make opportunities for that,” observes Jean Reese, who served as Cornell’s project manager. “The dining halls have been especially helpful at getting faculty and students mingling in non-threatening ways.” While the common spaces are partly programmed—“a number of writing seminars are taught within the houses,” says Reese—their simple availability encourages study and community. “You can use the seminar rooms to work with a group,” says Brad Walker, a junior living in Alice H. Cook House (above), one of the first to be completed. “The common room is a lot brighter—almost like you’re outside. The library’s really quiet. And depending on how you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you can go to the right spot.” Socially, “I was a transfer student, and being in the building helped me get through that adjustment period,” recalls senior Emily Gardner. “Everyone was connected—it was nice.”


KTA’s West Campus master plan also unites individual and collective communities. The new houses augment a grouping of much-loved 1920s dorms called “the Gothics,” and share green space with them, so that, Gardner explains, “there’s a spatial relationship, even though they don’t physically connect.” Kieran Timberlake established pedestrian axes that crisscross the West Campus and, by passing through the residence halls via open archways, forge connections between all five houses, their shared central green, and the greater campus. And the firm angled the buildings to take advantage of panoramic east/west views, providing not only an abundance of natural light—“even when it’s dark and grey, which is often up here,” Gardner says —but visual connection to the surrounding countryside.

Beneficial as it is for upperclass students, however, the West Campus residential model—several bedrooms grouped with a living room and bath into a “suite space”—is less desirable for freshman. “The advantage of the suite is that it creates a private enclave where you and your close friends can live, and it’s what colleges almost always build nowadays,” says architect David Lewis. “But for first-year students, where the need is to meet as many people as possible, it’s not as appropriate.”

A better choice is the much-maligned (for its institutional associations) double-loaded corridor—a hallway with rooms on both sides— which amounts to an indoor version of an urban street. “Students leave their doors open so they get walk-in traffic, they can look out, see who’s there—they’re able to create social networks,” Kieran explains. Thus, when The College of Wooster engaged Lewis and partners Paul Lewis and Marc Tsurumaki to design a new dorm for first-year students, they found themselves arguing in favor of a typology, says Lewis, “that had practically been relegated to the junk heap.”

bornhuetter hall wooster dorm cantilever
Bornhuetter Hall, as the outcome is called (above), benefited from Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis’ extensive research into the form. After “analyzing every dorm on campus,”  Lewis says, the architects determined that 25 to 30 students was the most effective corridor size for avoiding both institutionalization and isolation. As the college had specified 185 beds in a structure not exceeding four stories—which would result in a less-than-optimal 40-something per floor—LTL “cracked the building in the middle,” creating two wings joined by an outdoor entry courtyard.


In Bornhuetter’s public spaces, the architecture promotes social interaction at various scales. As each wing’s lounge spaces overlook the entry court, they encourage residents to check each other out, as well as the comings and goings outside. Cozy nooks within the lounges cantilever out over the courtyard (above), enabling students to work in solitude while retaining a connection to the larger rooms and the out-of-doors. The courtyard itself, partially enclosed by angled glass fins, functions as an exterior room offering views outward to the campus and adjacent park, and upward to the lounges and nooks. The result is a rich interplay of semi-private and public zones of different sizes, relationships, and degrees of visual and spatial communication—a honeycomb of opportunity for students seeking ways into communal life. Indeed, Holmes suggests, Bornhuetter has actually helped diminish post-freshman-year transfers “by giving them a good start.”

tietgen dorm denmark
Interestingly, the need to generate community persists even when, as was the case with the Tietgenkollegiet in Copenhagen, there’s no university from which to extract a residential model. The dorm, which houses Danish and international students from schools across the city, was developed by the Nordea Denmark Foundation, a philanthropic organization seeking to create, according to its website, “the future form of student housing”—a challenge that was complicated by the site, in a somewhat sterile part of Ørestad, an up-and coming district thus far lacking in Copenhagen’s lively street life.


The solution, developed by the Copenhagen firm Lundgaard & Tranberg, amounts to a village in miniature: a circular structure (above), surrounding an inner courtyard, that’s at once extrovert and introvert. The 360 bedroom-and-bath units are sited on the exterior, explains project architect Nicolai Richter-Friis, “so you have the city view, and solitude, and you can do your homework and think about stuff.” Communal spaces, including kitchens (each of which serves twelve rooms), common rooms and terraces, face the courtyard, so that —as with Bornhuetter Hall, but on a grander scale—students can look out on the vibrant  life shared by all the residents, a theatre-in-the-round experience that changes as one circles the building. Whereas KTA and LTL worked on historic campuses, in proximity to buildings with a style Lewis describes as “Academic Gothic”—and, accordingly, used traditional materials and motifs to develop dorms than remain contemporary yet contextual—Lundgaard & Tranberg had no such constraints. Inspired, says Richter-Friis, by Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, the architects constructed a façade of glass-oak-and-copper alloy that individualizes the living units—and literalizes the edgy iconoclasm of youth—by varying their depths, resulting in what Richter-Friis characterizes as a saw-blade effect. “It reflects that young people, starting their lives, want to flash a bit,” the architect says. “It  has more ‘ouch,’ you know?” The exuberant messiness continues on the inner ring, with one- and two-story masses thrusting toward the communal green space, each displaying its own splash of activity. “It looks like total chaos,” says Richter-Friis with satisfaction, and chaos is just what Ørestad needs. Observes Solveig Nielsen, project manager at Copenhagen’s Danish Architecture Center, “This round building connects the more square ones around it in a special way, and makes a space that’s full of intensity.”

diving board dorm apartment paris
Even when the residence hall model gives way to simple housing for students, the need for a collective persists, as architect Nasrine Seraji discovered when she designed a nine-story, 164-unit building in Paris’ 15th arrondissement featuring “micro-apartments” available, she says, “to anyone who is studying.” As a longtime academic, “the notion of the dorm was familiar to me, yet I realized students in the U.S. and Europe deal with their lives differently.”  American dorm rooms, Seraji observed, were by and large undifferentiated boxes that repeated ad infinitum, “and I saw it as boring for a European student. In the U.S., you’re a freshman, you live one place, you’re a junior, you’re someplace else. In Europe, you could be in one room for years.”


In response, Seraji “decided to see how many different types of rooms you could have, for each of these 164 people with 164 different ways of looking at the world.”  Working within Paris’ code regulations to maximize interior buildable space, the architect devised sixteen different apartment types, each featuring a kitchen and bath. The north façade, with its distinctive “diving board” balconies (above), further differentiates the residences by adding to their habitable space (as they’re included in the square-footage calculations on which rents are based, their lengths are varied). “When I talked to students to see how they felt, they said, ‘We discovered our rooms are not the same,’” Seraji recalls. “And the first thing they ask each other is, ‘How much are you paying?’ So it creates already a discussion within the community.”

carrier johnson pitzer dorm
Of course, issues impacting architecture in general have affected dorm design, perhaps none more than sustainability. Regarding the LEED accreditation KTA’s Cornell project received, says Kieran, “If you have a residence hall that engages responsibly in terms of its environmental agenda, it’s hugely appealing to students,” and super-green dorms like the firm Carrier Johnson’s three LEED-NC Gold-rated ones for Pitzer College in Claremont, California, (above) have begun to proliferare. But creating community remains job one. Seraji would surely disagree with Kieran’s belief that “anyone can make a room.” But his observation that “the social accumulations of a dorm are what matters”  deserves an A-plus.

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