Social Studies

Much of the extraordinary energy of the early Modern Movement in architecture focused on the notion that the built environment could have a profound impact on the everyday lives of ordinary people. Architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Alvar Aalto were not designing museums and prestigious corporate headquarters in the 1920s and ’30s, but were focused instead on schools, healthcare facilities, housing and urban design, and on their potential for creating social benefit.

Over the decades that followed, sociologists and psychologists would join architects in studying and projecting environments that could support and promote desirable lifestyles and social structures. In the late 1940s, three young psychologists, Leon Festinger, Sidney Schachter, and Kurt Back conducted a landmark investigation into the impact of architectural design on married students living in campus housing at MIT. They observed the way that both physical distance and functional distance (taking into account common daily patterns of activity) had an effect on patterns of acquaintance, friendship formation, and even social attitudes.

At the very same time, Alvar Aalto was designing his landmark dormitory, Baker House, virtually adjacent to the housing where the three young psychologists had done their study. Aalto had written in 1940, “The present phase of modern architecture is doubtless a new one, with the special aim of solving problems in the humanitarian and psychological fields.” In his early design for Baker House, Aalto focused on the same concerns that were at the core of Festinger, Schachter, and Back’s research — how student rooms would be organized, whether students would share a room or live in singles, how shared amenities like bathrooms and living rooms might be clustered together, and how all of these things would affect student socialization.

Twenty-five years after Baker House was built, I was hired to do a study of student housing at MIT and was astounded at the almost universally positive response of residents at the time to the very supportive social environment of Aalto’s dormitory. Twenty-five years after that, I was recalled to MIT to give a paper in a symposium celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the building. I was surrounded by former residents, student life staff, and university administrators who were lauding the transformative effect of the building on the lives of five decades of MIT students. It was phenomenal to hear so many non-architects acknowledging the building’s potency in improving friendship formation and a positive academic atmosphere for residents over its long history.

Fueled by the clear potential that Baker House had demonstrated in making a positive difference in the lives of students at MIT, I joined with Dr. Sam Wilson, a colleague in the anthropology department at The University of Texas at Austin; David Sharratt, a graduate student in architecture; and Richie Gill, who was doing his thesis in Plan II (honors liberal arts), to conduct a small study of student housing at UT and its impact on student success. We were all interested in how design of on-campus housing might enhance or detract from a student’s ability to adjust to his or her first year of college and perform well at UT.

We discovered that all UT students were assigned a projected GPA during the admissions process, a practice that sought to measure each student’s potential for success at the university. We thought that, if we took the difference between the projected GPA and a student’s actual freshman GPA and found the average differences for the various residence halls, we could get a focused picture as to what effect the characteristics of the various housing environments might have had on student performance.

The variation of this comparison from one residence hall to another was dramatic. The chart below illustrates the range of differences between housing environments where students did substantially better than their predicted GPA, and housing environments where students did substantially worse than their predicted GPA. Since all housing environments have very similar support systems in terms of programs, resident assistants, etc., we could focus on what, in the design of the physical environment, might have made a difference.

Over a period of a few months, we asked several hundred undergraduate students to write short essays responding to a range of prompts that asked them to evaluate what in their physical environment might contribute to their adjustment to college in their freshman year and to their academic performance. The comments in these essays were keyed to each of the 14 residence halls to try to correlate student comments with GPA outcomes. A number of design characteristics were clearly contributing, in the students’ estimation, to their success, just as a number of other features were deemed detrimental. 

In the lowest performing dorm, for example, a student commented, “Communal spaces are hidden away in the basement, so there is very little traffic in that area, decreasing interaction.” A student in the highest performing residence hall, by contrast, observed of his dorm, “Right as you walk in the door, there is a sense of community from seeing people playing ping pong or gathered around a table studying.”

Students keyed their success in college substantially to feeling like they belonged and were accepted in a group, and they linked that closely to a few salient characteristics of their environment. Their top priorities were whether their residence hall encouraged interaction (60%); had quality common facilities that were well located (59%); and had hallways, circulation, and bathroom arrangements that supported a sense of community (34%).

At about the same time as we were doing the UT study, I was involved, through my architectural firm, in the design of a new student housing project in West Campus at UT. Applying some of the lessons that had come from the study of the 14 on-campus residence halls, 2400 Nueces was planned with enhanced friendship formation in mind and promotion of a nurturing academic environment as a strong priority.

Like Baker House, 2400 Nueces was designed with a wide variety of unit types and many different options for community and privacy. Like the best performers in the UT study, common spaces were clustered and positioned to promote informal encounters and casual socialization. The mix of units and the arrangement of shared amenities were both very different from the many other student housing projects sprouting in West Campus at the time.

After a year of operation, we conducted a post-occupancy evaluation of 2400 Nueces, asking many of the same kinds of questions we had asked in the earlier UT study. The results were startling. Of the respondents, 44% reported that their friendships were better at 2400 Nueces than in student environments where they had lived before. When asked about changes in their GPA, 26% reported that their grades had improved in their year at 2400 Nueces.

Though social science research has continued to unearth evidence of the importance of the physical environment in the psychological and sociological health of our cultures, this has not been an area of widespread discussion in architecture in recent decades. Why? As we have resuscitated an interest in the forms of the Early Modern movement, we have not been so committed to the social aspirations that generated many of those forms. Architecture plays a fundamental role in the success of people in terms of their health, their sense of community, their work productivity, their family life and their overall happiness. We, as architects, should talk explicitly about our role in all these regards, and we should gather evidence of our contributions to help the general public place more value on what we do.

Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, is a principal with Page and a faculty member in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin.