We're at a watershed moment in American cultural life. Libraries, books and colleges are losing ground to iPads, Twitter feeds and online courses. Great newspaper empires are being reduced to rubble at the feet of Gen-Y bloggers.
And nowhere is this shift more evident than in our colleges and universities, with the rise of online education. Why would parents want to spend $50,000 a year to ship their kids off to a four-year college in some city to talk to a professor and read a book when they can get a degree from an online university for a fraction of the cost and never leave the house?
One answer can be found in the basic human need for real relationships. We're compelled to seek out physical spaces that nurture and enliven us, places where we can connect with other people.
Parents are at risk, too. Because when that student finishes his degree online, having spent four years in a twilight state, he might take a series of Skype meetings with far-flung potential employers, secure a desk job and decide to stay home indefinitely. Granted, the ivy-covered edifice of higher education is eroding and in need of an extreme makeover. That's why we now need to engineer environments and curricula that are less prescriptive and more interactive, less sequestered and more transparent, less monistic and more plural. Architects, engineers and contractors should take notice and start making a stronger case for bricks and mortar in an increasingly virtual world.
When the bottom fell out of the economy in '08, a lot of design firms learned quickly that in order to survive, they needed to embrace new ways of working and new clientele. They could no longer afford to specialize in one building type or one approach. The most competitive firms are now looking at spaces in new ways. They're trying to find plurality and mixed uses within them. That's because owners are demanding that their buildings be less like a book and more like a tablet computer—capable of doing many things.
When we work with higher-education clients, particularly in town-and-gown projects like ONE Greenville in South Carolina—an urban-infill development housing Clemson's new Graduate School of Business—the first question is: How can we create conditions for students to interact with the real world and vice-versa? We want them to have chance encounters, to bump into attorneys and investment bankers and hoteliers and restaurateurs on a daily basis, not just online but on a sunny rooftop at lunch. It's the intersection of civic, commercial and cultural life—the green roof as academic quad.
The opportunities for mentorship, for memory making, for real friendship—in short, for being human—are all predicated on the built environment and those can't (yet) be duplicated with a computer monitor. This is not a Luddite's lament. We recognize that it's wildly important to fold the best of the virtual world into building out the physical one. That means creating quickly convertible spaces that scale seamlessly from individuals to small groups to online communities—enhancing the interaction with technology.
So why is the built environment about to matter more than ever? According to the United Nations, the planet is on track to add a billion more people by 2020. The question is: Where are these humans going to live and work, learn and play?
Well, somewhere. And if foresight is 20/20, that somewhere will have to be built on something more substantial than pixels and terabytes.
Louis Bieker is an architect and principal at Denver’s 4240 Architecture Inc. E-mail: LBieker@4240arch.com