Integrating Learning and Life Through Architecture

Written by Shawn Funk

The University Hall (Uhall) opened its doors to students in 1971. The building was commissioned by Arthur Erickson, one of Canada’s premier architects of the 20th century.

The design encapsulates many of the stylistic features of modern architecture, such as ribbon windows, horizontal rectangular form, open space, breezeway, and of course the use of vast amounts of concrete and steel in its construction (PHMC, 2024).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Uhall is its location nestled into the coulee. Erickson comments in his 1969 development plan that the “[b]uildings must grow out of the ground . . . never sit blatantly on top of the ground” (Erickson, p.15, 1969). By burying the University Hall in the coulee, Erickson achieved “an uninterrupted roofline, a strong horizontal, which by its very flatness contrasts with, and enhances the richness of contour of the coulee” (Erickson, p. 28, 1969). The inspiration for the uninterrupted roofline was heavily influenced by the design of the High-Level Bridge that lays flat against the horizon when looking from the top of a coulee.  

Modernist architects emphasized functionality in their form. Erickson is no different; he was very aware of the underlying order that architectural design imposes on the human subject. Therefore, he hoped to create a building that encouraged social interaction through its design features, integrating spaces for learning and living. Erickson states that the “fragmentation of University life so common in North America, could be overcome by a design which integrated functions usually separated and isolated from one another ” (Erickson, p.7, 1969). In essence, Erickson wanted to integrate life and learning, promoting a holistic approach to education. To do this, he initially proposed that the University should be “built as a village,” with interconnected buildings and common areas for dining, recreation, and study where opportunities for “cross-fertilization” between disciplines can occur (Erickson, p. 7, p. 21, 1969).  This expansion of the learning environment beyond the classroom indicates Erickson’s recognition that classrooms are not always the best learning environment.   

A survey of the 6th floor of the University Hall illustrates the vital design concept that Erickson emphasized in his original plan: space must be “organized in such a way that individuals are encouraged to interact, but not compelled to do so” (Erickson, p. 8, 1969). He accomplishes this by allowing ample light to enter the hall through a line of nearly uninterrupted windows, accommodating comfortably lit areas with benches, chairs, ledges, balconies, and tables across the entire length of the hall. These social areas are punctuated by stunning views of the coulees and the High-Level Bridge. The design of the Uhall also encouraged multi-disciplinary interaction. Erickson states that “the multi-disciplinary approach ought to be one of the features of the program planning” (Erickson, p. 8, 1969), creating opportunities for interaction with students and professors from other disciplines. He realizes this ideal by unifying the disciplines through a single shared hallway 912 ft long! Erickson’s integrated design approach encouraged the free exchange of ideas with the objective of rounding out the education students received in the classroom.  

Since the first building phase, many of Erickson’s original design concepts have been left on the table. Successive stages of development have seen the disciplines become more fragmented as more buildings are built to accommodate a growing student body. Some critics have noted how many of the new buildings (all except the sunken gymnasium) violate Erickson’s vision of a campus sunken into the coulee and are instead built on the top of the coulee (Ditmars, 2014). Further, as the campus grows, the buildings continue to spread out, making it harder for students to socialize between classes in fear of being late for their next one. Interestingly, Erickson’s original plan included a second Uhall built beside the existing building to accommodate new disciplines and a growing student population (Erickson, 1969). What a sight that would have been! While some of Erickson’s design concepts never made it past the planning stage or were forgotten during later building phases, the liberal spirit of the University of Lethbridge that he envisioned, however, remains.

References

Ditmars, H. (2014, Feb 13). Lethbridge University: The spaceship-like Prairie School comes of age. Architectural Review. https://www.architectural-review.com/buildings/lethbridge-university-the-spaceship-like-prairie-school-comes-of-age

Erickson, A. (1969). UofL-em_development_plan_1969.PDF. The University of Lethbridge. https://www.ulethbridge.ca/files/uofl-emdevelopmentplan1969pdf

PHMC. (2024). PHMC international style 1930 – 1950. PHMC > Pennsylvania Architectural Field Guide. https://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/architecture/styles/international.html

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