The independent news organization of Duke University

Building beyond buildings

The philosophy behind Duke's latest wave of construction


From the center of the newly-named Abele Quadrangle, the telltale signs of change on campus are slowly receding. The West Union crane, an eyesore-turned-social media darling, was quietly dismantled several weeks ago. The scaffolding of Rubenstein and Perkins Libraries are gone as well. Manicured lawns have emerged from what was once woodchips and mud. Within the next 18 months, the neo-Gothic quad will return to looking more or less as its chief designer and namesake intended. What Julian Abele might not have expected, however, is the assemblage of glass-and-steel buildings several hundred yards away, hidden away behind iconic Duke stone.  The centerpiece of this new campus is the monolithic windowed face of the new West Union, which rises up over pedestrians on the newly reopened plaza bridge.

Part One: The West Union

The opening of the West Union marks the end of one of the most ambitious periods of campus growth in Duke’s history.  The $95 million project will serve as a dining and social hub, featuring 13 different restaurants, a variety of adaptive social gathering spaces and the top-floor Faculty Commons. Construction began in 2013, but the project had been in the pipeline for several decades. 

“[Renovating] the West Union has been something that people have thought about long before I got here,” said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, who arrived at Duke in 1989. The 85-year old building had served as the social center of campus from the start, and played an important role facilitating Duke’ residential experience. 

“The University is built and organized with a compactness that ought to make it natural for students and teachers to think and work more from a common point of view,” noted President William Preston Few in 1931. “[And] the West Union is the social center for students and teachers alike.”

Yet the Union, like many of Duke’s classic buildings, failed to keep pace with the school’s rapid growth. The undergraduate population grew, becoming more mobile, diverse and distributed across campus. By the time President Richard Brodhead arrived in 2004, it was clear the building needed to modernize. The elegant neo-Gothic façade was just that—the U-shaped inside had been altered from Abele’s original design, leaving an interior that was somewhat unusable and underutilized. Clogged with administrative offices, it was not the social locus that Few envisioned. 

“After a fair amount of preliminary assessment, it became apparent that if you were going to do anything with West Union, you had to go whole hog,” Nowicki said.

Recognizing how integral social and residential spaces are to the undergraduate experience drove the design and implementation of the new West Union. A building originally designed to house administrative offices will now introduce a series of adaptable, modular spaces for student use.

A project of this scale would be a major undertaking at any university. Yet the West Union is only the cornerstone of $500 million worth of construction and restoration underway at Duke, covering 60 different projects midway through 2015. The magnitude of this transformation rivals the creation of West Campus itself—James B. Duke’s gift of $19 million in 1924 equals about half of the sum total being spent today, around $263 million, when adjusted for inflation. 

These funds have gone toward a variety of projects, from residence halls to classrooms to parking. But a clear focus has emerged, especially in the area surrounding West Union, in enhancing the buildings that play host to student life. 

“For the last 15 years or so, [we’ve] been trying to create a set of environmental opportunity for students to enjoy a robust in-class and out-of-class life,” Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said. “[And] around 18 months from now, we will have a fully completed, downtown West Campus. The sum total of that repositions Duke to provide a very robust, and hopefully satisfying, on-campus experience.” 

The West Union, Penn Pavilion and Health and Wellness Center form the trio of new buildings that Moneta and other administrators, trustees and campus planners hope will become the epicenter of campus social life. But the planning and construction processes have not been without setbacks.  

Aside from the graduating class of seniors, few students on campus are able to recall when this part of West Campus—including the Bryan Center, West Union, Flowers Building and Page Auditorium—served as anything but an obstacle to avoid when walking to class. Delays have plagued the process as well. The Board of Trustees rejected an initial design before renovations began, prompting a redesign and delayed construction. The project will be delivered more than a year behind schedule, the completion date pushed from an optimistic mid-2015 to the beginning of the 2016 school year.

There is a tangible mix of anxiety and resignation among the senior class, who’ve realized that they will miss the windfall benefits of these projects. Senior class donations have plummeted in recent years, falling from a high of 69 percent of the graduating class in 2009 to a mere 32 percent in 2015, according to the DukeForward campaign. There is nothing to suggest that the trend will reverse with gift-giving in this year’s graduating class, which has been impacted most by this construction. It is surprising that an administration that invests so heavily in student life is so oblivious to how disruptive these investments in the undergraduate experience are. 

“Seniors feel like they are swindled,” senior Tyler Fredricks wrote in a March Chronicle op-ed, “and construction is a big reason why.”

Part Two: Abbreviated Investments

Like any institution, universities are market-driven. The invisible hand dictates students’ ability to pay, donors’ ability to give and administrators’ ability to invest.

In recent years, Duke’s willingness to invest on campus has been supported by a strong stock market, healthy philanthropy and a growing alumni donor base. Yet it was the Great Recession and its chilling effect on Duke’s finances, a momentary pause before a flurry of building, which best explains the scale and scope of today’s projects.

“The downturn wasn’t just the fact that everyone’s market value went down,” Nowicki said. “It was really resetting of expectations of what one could get out of market value in the first place.”

The dramatic change that the market abruptly corrected was detailed in the University’s strategic and master plans. Commissioned in 1997, the Duke University Campus Master Plan 2000 provided a more cohesive vision for the school in the upcoming century. Its goals called for a different kind of expansion, one that adhered to the school’s original design principles: Duke should be a university in the forest; Duke should be a collection of memorable places; Duke should be a walkable campus, easy to circulate.   

“[President Brodhead] and I and [Executive Vice President Tallman] Trask always agreed we didn’t build buildings to build buildings—we built buildings to enable the scholar goals of the university”, former Provost Peter Lange told the Chronicle last year. 

Fundraising efforts and new construction up until 10 years ago largely adhere to Lange’s point.  Additions to the original West Campus enhanced Duke’s academic facilities, and new buildings sprawled beyond Science Drive, the traditional western boundary of campus. Duke added nearly 1.32 million square feet of academic facilities on Science Drive between 1966 and 2006, including Gross Hall, the Sanford School of Public Policy, Rubenstein Hall, the Levine Science and Research Center (LSRC) and the French Family Science Center. The return on investment in academic facilities likely helped Duke’s rise from an elite Southern school to a global one. But it also left residential and social facilities largely untouched on West Campus. In addition to containing the sprawl, Duke also faced a unique problem: the age of its historic buildings. Much of West Campus was built concurrently, leaving the university with a handful of approximately 80-year old buildings in need of renovation.   

The University prepared a strategic plan and capital campaign to execute the ambitious goals laid out in 2000. “Making a Difference”, launched in 2006, aimed to raise $1.3 billion for a variety of signature Duke initiatives, including DukeEngage and a major overhaul of campus along the axis of Campus Drive. Funds would finally be used to reinvest West Campus facilities and redevelop Central Campus all together, transforming Duke’s residential life as much as the past half-century has transformed its academic life.

 In her 1962 book, “The Death and Life of American Cities,” Jane Jacobs articulates the idea that vibrant urban spaces are often found in neighborhoods with cramped and constrained housing. Similar thinking dominated the planning process for what campus should be throughout the early 2000s. 

In a 2008 memo to President Brodhead, Dean Nowicki emphasized Jacobs’ “street scene” as a vision for integrating campus life at Duke. Several spaces on campus, including the Bryan Center Plaza, von der Heyden pavilion and the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, already illustrated this idea of valuable, spontaneous interaction. Like the East Village of New York City, public space at Duke could be a natural extension of private life. Buoyed by philanthropic donations and a strong stock market, administrators and university planners took aim at re-imagining what the 82-year-old campus could be.  According to the memo, the new vision for campus would include five distinct neighborhoods, or districts, each with a different thematic focus: West Union, Gothic, New Edens, Gardens, and Arts. New residential spaces would respond to shifting interests and identities within the student body. Newly renovated dining venues would provide forums for connection and conversation. The plans recognized the very real potential for administrations, trustees, planners and architects to influence campus culture through physical spaces, and, in a couple of bold strokes, to reshape the undergraduate experience at Duke. 

The Board of Trustees approved $350 million for the first stage of New Campus in the summer of 2008. That figure would have been about half of the $700-800 million needed for a project of this scale, Trask estimated in 2014.

By September, the US stock market had begun on its downward spiral. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, prominent investment banks both led by Duke alumni, failed. In the aftermath of a national housing bubble, Duke was forced to re-evaluate its bullish plans for a residential expansion of its own. Many administrators and trustees correctly anticipated the chilling effect of the crash of Duke’s finances, and the school’s ability to pay for costly physical construction was severely limited. The Charlotte-based Duke Endowment, the University’s independent benefactor, saw its assets drop 24 percent in value. Contributions fell by 25 percent to the university’s own endowment, forcing Duke to cancel plans to launch a new fundraising campaign.[7] Financing more construction, especially a dramatic campus overhaul, was off the table, as administrators and trustees were forced to question the scope and scale of future developments. 

“If we can’t do this whole New Campus plan,” Nowicki wondered, “what can we do?”

 The planning focus shifted from the future of Duke back to its roots. With the help of an $80 million gift from the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment in 2011, the largest in the University’s history, the school was able to finance the renovation of three of its landmark spaces: Baldwin Auditorium, Page Auditorium, and of course, the West Union. And while it took nearly four years after the recession began to restart serious fundraising efforts, Duke announced the start of the Duke Forward capital campaign in September of 2012.  Almost 10 years after the beginning of the recession, a buoyant economy has revived both private and donations and philanthropy. New capital campaign Duke Forward is ahead of fundraising schedule, raising almost 90 percent of its target $3.25 billion target as of last year. As Chairman of the Board of Trustees and one of Duke’s largest benefactors, David Rubenstein has led several notable investments on campus, including the new $50-million Arts Center. 

“We began working on things building by building, area by area,” Rubenstein noted following trustee meetings in February. “And at some point it came together that we were reconstructing a large part of campus.”

Kristen Shortley/The Chronicle

Part Three: The future of Duke

The American collegiate ideal revolves around the concept of a residential undergraduate experience. Harvard and Yale emulated the model used by Oxford and Cambridge, replicating an in-residence experience that is meant to be as meaningful as the academic one. President Few, overseeing the construction of West in the late 1920s, viewed the new Duke as an extension of this tradition. Abele’s neo-Gothic design reflects this sentiment, but as Duke grew beyond its original shell, the structural differences between Duke and her predecessors became glaringly apparent. 

“For us,” Moneta argues, “it’s about doing the best we can with the facilities that we have, augmenting it as we have the opportunity to build new residential opportunities”.

 A Southern school much younger than its Ivy League peers, Duke has had to adapt its stance toward facilitating residential life. The mile-long divide between East and West Campus is the clearest example of the University’s structural differences, the result of rampant land speculation in Trinity Heights in the early days. President Few recognized the opportunity to start from scratch on a plot of forested land west of the former Trinity College. This structural decision has forced the University to abandon its idea of a pedestrian campus in favor of the current busing regime. But this gap between East and West provided ample space for the school to grow inward, fueled by access to cheap land at non-urban prices and abundant funding from philanthropy and alumni sources. It has developed a distinctly Southern campus, where students spend most of their time outside in the Spring and Fall.

Duke is not alone in its ambitious pursuit of campus growth. Colleges and universities across the country quickly adapted to the new normal after the recession, Some critics have dubbed this an Edifice Complex—an obsessive pursuit of campus growth, one that raises questions about rising tuition and questions of sustainability. Most construction is paid for with tax-exempt debt financing, Trask explained, repaying the debt with a combination of philanthropic dollars and occasionally operating income. 

In late March, Duke rolled out plans to initiate long-awaited Central Campus redevelopment. Residential apartments are already slated for demolition in upcoming months, forcing HDRL to relocate several Greek and selective living groups to temporary housing. At an estimated $250 million, the development appears to be the next iteration of the New Campus plan. The form is somewhat different, and the timeline is nearly a decade past what the University initially envisioned, but the concept is the same, at least in broad strokes—a Duke that redraws its original lines to be something more cohesive, more engaging, more ambitious.


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