Thoroughly modern monasteries

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They're new, big and shiny - but do they do the job? In the past decade there has been a worldwide boom in the construction of business school buildings. But do bigger, better buildings automatically mean bigger, better teaching and learning experiences?

Expensive and heavy on running costs, these buildings perform several different functions: they provide more space; they meet new "lifestyle needs"; they offer the latest technology; and, of course, they are impressive.

But while there may be a "my business school's bigger than yours" syndrome among some ambitious faculty and deans, it is, predominantly, concern for students that drives construction.

According to Ted Snyder, dean of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, which opened its new building last autumn: "There was an element of having to match the competition, but mainly it was concern for the students.

"With 900 students there were only 350 places for them [in the old school] to sit and relax when they weren't in class."

The same story was true at Imperial College's business school in London, which moved into a new £27m building last March. The old school was based in two adjoining buildings across the road from the main campus and had no dedicated teaching space.

Danica Purg, dean and director of IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia, one of the first business schools in central and eastern Europe, argues that faculty, too, need the support of a modern building.

"We had 14 years when we had good programmes, but problems with the building - we couldn't grow," she says. "We had excellent professors coming from around the world but didn't have the technology - even simple things like break-out rooms - to support them."

Another factor driving the need for new buildings is the changing nature of business education, especially for MBA students.

When Chicago moved to its $125m new building, it vacated five separate locations built more than a century ago. "MBA students may not have exactly a 24/7 mentality but they are going that way. We just couldn't facilitate that," says Prof Snyder.

Certainly, modern MBA programmes mean that students can be on campus for eight to 10 hours a day and, besides classrooms, need facilities for eating and relaxation, as well as chances to meet faculty and other students. What all this demands, of course, is space and cost. The new business schools are big, lavish and well equipped.

Chicago's new school, for example, is a seven-storey building with 12 classrooms, two seminar rooms, 31 group study rooms and 42 interview rooms for recruiters and prospective students. It houses 1,100 full-time MBA students, 110 PhDs, 200 staff and 167 faculty offices.

There is good reason for this lavishness: it has to last.

When Imperial received a £27m gift from alumnus Gary Tanaka in 2000, it spent it on new business school premises, renaming the school the Tanaka Business School in the process.

David Begg, dean of Tanaka, points out that while business schools usually have little money, when they receive a large endowment or start a fundraising campaign they suddenly realise they can meet a lot of latent demand.

"And when you do it - because you can't do it every two years - you have to do it big to last for a couple of decades. It's like buying a new car," he adds.

At Cass business school in London, Clive Holtham, professor of information management, has studied the impact of how physical space affects output. He was heavily involved in the school's development of its £36m new building in the City and says many new business school buildings owe a lot to one of the most potent design concepts for knowledge workers - the medieval monastery.

In modern terms this often translates into transparency - usually taken literally with huge expanses of glass - and serendipity, achieved through mixing faculty from different disciplines and encouraging chance meetings between them and with students through oversized corridors and staircases, often with seating areas.

Iain Cowell was a full-time MBA student at City University whose studies bridged the move from City's old site in the Barbican complex (converted residential accommodation) to the new Cass building in 2002.

"The move was like breaking out of a prison cell," he says. "The new building gave us open areas, break-out space and tiered classrooms." In the old classrooms, he says, students found it easy to "hide", but in the new building, they are unable to.

Prof Snyder believes that new buildings significantly improve the learning experience. He says that while "the teacher in me" would like to believe that environment is not important, his experience of teaching students at Chicago's slick downtown Gleacher Center, compared with the old campus facilities, shows the difference.

Chicago spent about $300,000 (£160,000) mocking up classrooms for its new building to make sure they were exactly right.

New buildings also reflect both a school's philosophy and its image of itself.

At Tanaka, according to Prof Begg, the new building coincided with a radical repositioning of the business school, leveraging the Imperial brand, through emphasising high technology.

When IEDC was designing its building in Bled (soon to be expanded by about 30 per cent) the emphasis was on it being not just a school but also a business meeting place - so there had to be lots of places for people to meet. The building was designed around an open atrium leading on to other rooms, reflecting its philosophy of not only being a regional leader but also open to the world.

But, she adds: "It's not just a place for teaching and meeting but also for reflecting - hence all the paintings and sculptures." IEDC is currently home to more than 200 paintings and sculptures.

New buildings can also be a powerful recruiting tool for students and faculty. Mr Cowell, for example, says he was attracted to Cass because he saw it as a school "that was going somewhere because it was investing in a new building".

Prof Begg agrees that it is much easier to "pitch" to prospective students in modern surroundings. "The new space reinforces the story," he says.

But there is general agreement that a new building, however impressive, can only do so much for a business school.

Prof Purg says that "excellent teachers need excellent infrastructure". But she adds: "I would still rather have a good professor with a piece of chalk in his hand than all the technology."

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