Magazine Feature

Community by Design

Architecture can foster and strengthen a sense of belonging on campus

By Marilyn Cooper

Fall 2023

The concept of belonging is omnipresent in higher education these days. Roughly half of all institutions include language about the value of belonging in their promotional materials, according to a recent US Department of Education report on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University offer professional training on how to create a welcoming environment on campus. Philanthropies such as the Jed Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have made fostering inclusion in higher education a funding priority. In 2022 alone, more than sixty higher education job postings had the word “belonging” in their job title.

A strong connection with peers and campus life, studies show, correlates positively with student retention, academic success, and learning. Students who report a “very strong” sense of belonging in the classroom are 43 percent more likely to pass a course, according to a 2021 study by the University of California San Diego. While efforts to strengthen inclusion and build community often focus on teaching practices, cocurricular activities, and academic policies, physical spaces also have an enormous influence on how welcome, safe, and valued students feel. Architecture and design can create spaces that bring people together for the social and intellectual activities that define life at colleges and universities.

From entire buildings to furniture and artwork, architecture can inspire collaboration, help facilitate interpersonal relationships, and reinforce institutional culture, says Chuck Rudalavage, an architect with the firm Gensler who specializes in campus architecture. When students socialize with each other, they feel like they are part of a larger community. So, rather than plan for landscaping between residence halls, architects might instead add elements that encourage social gatherings, such as a fire pit, a ping-pong table, or tiered seating to create a performance space.

“We try to create spaces that strengthen the overall community and support student needs,” Rudalavage says. “The great axiom of modern architecture is ‘form follows function.’ The design of a space should relate to its intended use and represent a community’s goals and values.”

Thomas Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia (UVA) linked each building to the architecture of ancient Rome. The university’s Rotunda, depicted in an 1826 engraving by Benjamin Tanner, was based on the Pantheon. (Smith Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Along with the skyscraper, the modern college and university campus is one of the United States’ landmark contributions to the world of architecture. An administrator at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) used the word “campus” for the first time in 1774 to describe the large field in front of Nassau Hall, which divides the institution from the town of Princeton. Early US colleges and universities were designed to limit students’ interactions with local communities, keeping them away from the perceived corrupting influences of brothels, gambling houses, and drinking establishments in towns and cities. This cloistered approach reflected a time when almost all students were White, male, and from wealthy backgrounds.

The earliest institutions also usually featured one multipurpose building that included a library, tutorial rooms, a chapel, and, later, student housing. The building was often modeled on an English manor, such as London’s Banqueting House, or a Dutch institutional building, such as the Hague’s Ridderzaal.

In designing the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was the first to conceive of a campus as a self-contained academic village in which separate facilities contained the different components of an institution, such as housing, teaching, and research. As an expression of his commitment to classical education, Jefferson visually linked buildings to those of Roman antiquity—UVA’s Rotunda, for one, is modeled on the Pantheon.

As the number of colleges and universities increased over time and the makeup of student populations changed, different philosophies of campus planning emerged and campus architecture diversified. A major shift in campus design occurred after the passage of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act during the American Civil War. The act called for the creation of colleges and universities that would serve the masses and for the establishment of institutions that would teach practical skills, military tactics, and support agricultural and industrial research. Under the act, each state and territory received thirty-thousand acres (often taken from Indigenous peoples) per member of Congress to establish land-grant universities. By 1891, sixty-nine such institutions had been created.

With the United States rapidly industrializing after the war, these universities worked to meet the need for more engineers and farmers trained in science-based agriculture, a goal requiring sizable amounts of land. The typical land-grant campus was three thousand to six thousand square acres—far larger than any US college or university already in existence. Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed more than twenty land-grant universities, envisioned open and informal campuses integrated with local communities. Rather than the large ornate multipurpose structures then common on campuses, Olmsted created smaller buildings, such as cottages for student housing and greenhouses for agricultural studies.

Campus construction slowed during the Great Depression and World War II, but the 1944 GI Bill, which paid for veterans’ tuition, increased the number of students attending colleges and universities and spurred a campus construction boom. Modernism became the pervasive style on campus. German architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, for example, designed the Illinois Institute of Technology in a minimalist style emphasizing open spaces and glass and steel buildings.

Today, campuses display a range of styles, blending historic buildings with modern ones. Current planning goals focus on inclusion, historic preservation, and environmental sustainability. “Today, the overall look and feel of a campus serves as the calling card for colleges and universities,” says Hansel Bauman, an architect with the firm MIXdesign. “Architecture visually represents an institution’s identity, values, and priorities.”

So, what are some examples of architecture that strengthens students’ connections to one another and to their institution? Here are three innovative models.

Princeton University

Transparent walls and strategic social areas

Choi Dining Hall serves students of both residence halls. (Chris Cooper)

A private residential university in New Jersey, Princeton strives for an inclusive and friendly community for its 5,700 students. “Our physical campus is a living record of the evolving values of our institution,” says Ronald McCoy, the university architect. “We want physical spaces that signal comfort and ease and that help students feel they belong on our campus.”

To that end, each floor of Princeton’s newest residence halls, Yeh College and New College West, include communal spaces next to the elevators and stairwells. The location encourages impromptu gatherings, since students pass the communal areas as they come and go. Historically, such spaces were often at the end of a hallway, and students had to make a conscious decision to go there.

All eight of the university’s residence halls also now have connected semitransparent ground floor rooms—featuring long glass walls framed with white oak—with spaces for socializing and studying. Students passing by outside can see what’s happening inside and choose to join in.

The creation of these different types of social areas reflects the use of “choice architecture,” a behavioral science approach in which a space is designed with the intention of influencing users’ decisions. In another example, the university’s new fitness center, the Class of 1986 Health and Wellness Center, includes communal spaces to encourage students to visit the building not only to exercise but also to socialize, do coursework, and gather for group study sessions. “It’s a success when our designs help create opportunities for what we call ‘serendipitous interactions,’ ” McCoy says. “As our student population becomes more and more diverse, we want to work harder to bring people from different backgrounds together.”

This is why universal (also known as inclusive) design principles—in which spaces are as accessible to as many people as possible—inform the university’s architectural philosophy. “Our intention,” McCoy says, “is to ensure that our physical spaces feel welcoming to all users, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability.”

Gallaudet University

Clear lines of sight and color contrasts

The Living and Learning Residence Hall 6 is completely based on DeafSpace principles. (Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography)

Universal design principles also guide the architectural choices of Gallaudet, the only liberal arts institution for the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States. “Historically, Deaf students have been marginalized on many campuses,” says Hansel Bauman, formerly the university’s executive director of campus design and construction. “At Gallaudet, we’ve designed buildings and spaces that facilitate a sense of belonging by addressing how Deaf people perceive and interact with their built environment.”

This person-centered architecture is called DeafSpace, which emphasizes modifying the built environment to support the visually centered ways Deaf people conduct the activities of daily living. Although many of Gallaudet’s 1,560 students speak English, American Sign Language (ASL) is the dominant mode of communication on the campus, located in Washington, DC. Signers must have a wide field of visibility and clear lines of sight—small physical details can make a big difference in achieving both.

Gallaudet’s buildings have wide entryways to give signers more room to gesture. Automatic doors prevent signers from having to stop partway through a sentence to grab a handle. Many classrooms and common rooms feature horseshoe-shaped benches that allow individuals to easily see one another. Diffuse, natural lighting limits shadows that can disrupt students’ views of hand movements. The color of each room—blue is a common selection—offers strong contrasts between skin tones and the surrounding background to provide clarity of the movements of sign language. Spaces are also designed to reduce reverberations and other sources of background noise, since echoes cause problems for students who use hearing aids or cochlear implants.

The Living and Learning Residence Hall 6 is the first residence hall in the world completely based on DeafSpace principles. Each floor has a kitchen and living room designed for visual communication. A low island countertop in each kitchen allows for face-to-face communication so students can socialize as they prepare meals. In addition, automatic sliding glass doors in the building allow signers to engage in conversation as they enter or depart. Ramps also make it easy for students to sign as they walk—because stairs require more focus to navigate, they can distract from signing. On the ground floor, a large slanted room is split into four terraces. The open design allows someone on the top terrace to sign to someone at the bottom of the room. Similarly, students can position themselves in theater-style seating and view an instructor using ASL below them.

The university also recently renovated the STEM laboratories in the Hall Memorial Building to better meet the needs of Deaf users. Benches and ventilation hoods no longer obstruct sight lines in the labs, and visual warning signals, such as strobe fire alarms, have boosted safety. “We were careful to consult with students during each step of both these projects,” Bauman says. “Giving students a greater voice helps them see that this is their community—their views and needs matter.”

North Hennepin Community College (NHCC)

A sanctuary ‘where students can feel comfortable in their own skin.’

The Gerry Heurth Diversity and Equity Center, which serves as a safe space for students of color and the LGBTQ+ community. (North Hennepin Community College)

For NHCC in Minnesota, architecture offers a creative way to help its diverse student population of 7,500 feel welcome on campus. “Students from historically marginalized backgrounds are more likely to arrive on campus wondering if they truly belong here,” says Rassheedah Watts, NHCC’s associate vice president for equity and inclusion. “They need safe spaces where they feel part of a community. We’re using our physical spaces to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.”

The Gerry Heurth Diversity Center is one such place on campus. While the center is open to the entire community, students of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community primarily use it. A secluded room within the center serves as the LGBTQ+ Sanctuary. To provide a confidential gathering space, unlike other areas in the center, the sanctuary has a door. “We know some students are not publicly out,” Watts says. “We want them to feel secure in the sanctuary.”

Students can also hang out or study in a fireside game room at the top of the building. “The center is a place where students can feel comfortable in their own skin,” Watts says. “They can go there if they need to cry, hold each other, or break bread with friends.”

In 2022, the American Association of Colleges and Universities partnered with NHCC to develop its Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center. TRHTs are dedicated to educating future leaders to break down systemic racism and dismantle belief in a hierarchy of human value. Installations of murals by artists of color, Watts says, visually confirm this commitment at NHCC, which, located in a suburb of Minneapolis, was at the epicenter of the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. “Many of our students experienced serious racial trauma. These murals proudly proclaim our desire for racial healing,” Watts says, adding that “as a Black woman, it’s an amazing experience when I visit a campus and see visual markers that quickly let me know this is a place that values and welcomes people like me.”

An epidemic of loneliness is afflicting today’s college students, warn experts at the National Institutes of Health. Sixty-three percent of current college students report feeling lonely and isolated, according to the American College Health Association. These students are also significantly more likely to drop out and not complete their degrees. While campus architecture alone can’t solve the problem, it offers powerful ways to create community on campus and help students connect with one another. “By creating a more supportive campus environment,” Rudalavage says, “equitable and inclusive spaces enable students from all backgrounds to thrive and fulfill their potential.”

Lead photo: Addy Hall in Princeton University’s residential New College West (Christopher Payne/Esto)


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is the associate editor of Liberal Education.