In spite of the increasing emphasis on distance learning within business education, many of the world’s leading business schools continue to expand their bricks-and-mortar campuses. The ambition of projects is illustrated not only by the scale of the investments - physically and financially - but also by the daring designs that have been embraced.

“The shift to online sales hasn’t stopped department stores building more attractive shop fronts,” says Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business. “Having an iconic building is part of the sales process when [schools] are competing for top students.”

As construction of the Phoenix school’s new $60m McCord Hall nears completion, Prof Mittelstaedt, who is retiring as dean this spring, reflects that business schools continue to compete on the basis of their physical facilities. “People make a judgement about a school’s quality according to how it looks,” he says.

The global ambitions of Fudan University School of Management, a leading Chinese school, are manifested in designs for its extensive new Shanghai campus. “I wanted our building to represent both western and oriental culture, so everyone can find some cultural familiarity in its design,” says Lu Xiongwen, the school’s dean.

Scheduled for completion in 2015, the project grew out of Fudan’s plan to enrol more students and has a budget of almost $200m. “We are confident that as the Chinese economy continues to grow, so will demand for MBA degrees,” says Prof Lu. “We need the capacity to accommodate a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs.”

In the heart of New York, the foundations are being laid for Columbia Business School’s Manhattanville campus, an ambitious relocation seven blocks from its current home. Manhattanville will double the school’s physical size according to dean Glenn Hubbard. The project, scheduled for completion by the end of the decade, is intended to increase space for additional professors and to redesign the learning environment. “There are very few spaces in New York to start such a grand project from scratch,” says Prof Hubbard.

Despite the striking design of Columbia’s proposed buildings, the dean insists that the priority is to create a functional space that encourages more collaboration within the school community. “The project is not simply a matter of creating a more handsome version of our current building, as most business school projects are,” he adds.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Manhattanville project is its funding. According to Prof Hubbard, the $600m budget is to be financed entirely by fundraising. “The school isn’t borrowing a nickel,” he says, noting that more than two-thirds of the target has already been raised. One gift, donated by alumnus Henry Kravis in 2010, was worth $100m alone.

The dean of London Business School, Sir Andrew Likierman, is aiming to raise £50m of the total £60m cost of its forthcoming expansion. In November 2012, the school signed a long-term lease for Old Marylebone Town Hall - a large public building very close to its existing Regents Park campus - with the view to converting it to a modern learning space by 2017.

The decision to renovate an existing structure, rather than building from scratch, was informed as much by preservation of the school’s identity as by the lack of suitable sites in an expensive quarter of London. “This landmark [building] fits our image of substance in beautiful buildings,” says Prof Likierman. “People can come from around the world and be proud to study here…we’re very privileged.”

The planned renovation by LBS follows the recent conversion of the historic Hills Brothers Coffee building by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in San Francisco, where the school has its west coast campus on one floor of the building. Opened in January 2012, the site was selected for its location at the heart of the South of Market (SoMa) district, home to several world-leading technology start-ups including Twitter and Dropbox.

In addition to the strategic location, the school’s choice was driven in large part by desire for a landmark building, reflects Douglas Collom, vice dean of Wharton San Francisco. “We found an elegant building with killer views across the bay, in some of the best real estate in the city,” he says. Notwithstanding its charms, Prof Collom however highlights a potential limitation of urban renovations: lack of space for expansion. “We’re victims of our own success…we should have taken the seventh floor [of the building] when we had the chance.”

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