The new student union at George Mason University here initially
feels a lot like an upscale shopping mall.
Windows around the perimeter of the three-story ceiling spill
light onto the spacious esplanade below. Every amenity is
available, from a wide choice of food options to computers with
Internet access to a convenience store. The 30,000-square-foot
building also boasts a 310-seat theater, a bistro, a bank and
credit union, and a computer store.
But the offerings go well beyond entertainment. A number of
students chat and study at metal cafe tables in the center of a
colorful food court. Others lounge in stuffed chairs in an open
library space. Computer labs and meeting rooms dot the structure.
Like many other colleges and universities across the country,
GMU had a specific goal in mind in building its jewel-studded,
$30-million social center: improving community life.
At a time when everything from the Internet to racial divides
have isolated undergraduates, many colleges see better student
unions as an effective tool to strengthen ties within a disparate
student body. And as competition for students has tightened over
the last decade, "real-life" services on campus can be a strong
drawing point for applicants.
Many institutions are striving for this normalcy, says Tom
Birdsey, an Albany architect with EYP Architects, which specializes
in campus work.
"I hear about projects all the time that are intended to make
residential life more like real life," he says. "That's why we are
seeing things that look more like malls. There's a tremendous trend
to get services closer to students and give them what they expect."
Each school zeroes in on its demographics and social needs,
usually including students in the design process, Mr. Birdsey says.
"What we've found to be most successful is to think hard about what
the kids like, and it does vary from school to school."
The town green
This doesn't always mean a large building. Colgate University in
Hamilton, N.Y., for example, is supplementing a student center with
specialized buildings to create a town-green effect, he says.
At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, the need was for a
real social center, something that didn't emphasize studies.
"We tracked why admitted students went elsewhere, and we
consistently scored low on non-academic facilities and quality of
life outside of the classroom," says Pat Keating, chief financial
officer for the university. "We really wanted a community center, a
place to go and interact and be seen. …