We were recently invited to make a presentation at Caledonian University to a number of estates directors for Scottish Universities. One of the themes we explored in our discussion was the idea of 'gateways'.
Universities now more than ever have to operate in the international market-place. Looking at it in the abstract, although we should not underestimate the extent to which historically universities had always disseminated images of themselves in painting and print there now are many more doorways into our institutions. Nowadays, that first doorway is usually found on the internet. For many, this is followed by entry into the country and subsequently to the city. Only then is the physical campus entered.
What general principles can we draw out? The first is that there is a blurring between boundaries, in both the digital and the physical experience. While universities used to prefer a distinctive and detached position, now there is a tendency to seek to blend the city and institutional experience. More specifically, where once the university was seen as a quasi-private landscape reflecting the historical hierarchical order, now we seek to break these barriers of access down in an effort to support public permeability The digital opening up of access is reflected in the physical world.
And the analogy with the digital world does not stop there. As we pass through various search portals we have become used to the portal helping us find or see what is on the other side. In the physical world we find it frustrating when physical barriers get in our way. In that respect the city is the ideal physical world portal, a rich variety of immediate possibilities. So whilst we can construct a sequence of search digitally so too can we imagine a sequence of search opportunities when we engage with and move through the physical fabric of our institutions – a layering of gateways where at every point in the experience, entrances open up new possibilities.
However, the instantaneous connections from one portal to another within the digital world differ from those in the physical world. Here we need to connect these various gateways, creating routes between them which are not instantaneous but preambles to the experiences to follow. Whilst the gateway has to be clear and insightful the route itself has to be pleasant and supportive.
Where in the past the route was a corridor, an empty tunnel, now we seek to create transparency to the activities on that route, even encouraging activities to occupy it in ways they didn’t before. This provides further lateral gateways into new opportunities. Our physical experience of space become like our digital browsing, and the lesson for universities is to take advantage of the potential of that browsing as people move through the institution, in much the same way as the shop windows of the city encourage people to enter.