The Campus Starts Here

Last year, four students of the master’s programme Regional and Urban Strategy (Stratégies territoriales et urbaines) of Sciences Po’s Urban School undertook a case study dedicated to the new site that will integrate Sciences Po’s Paris campus in 2022. By inquiring into the nature of the actions required to create a campus environment, the group shed light on the urban potential (and not only the architectural potential), that such a construction project could entail.

A classic Parisian “place”, dominated by the impressive facade of a 17th century church. Nothing seems to invite passers-by to rest or to linger; between the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the rue du Bac, the place Saint-Thomas d’Aquin seems primarily designed to regulate the flow of vehicles. Soon, however, it shall become the grand entrance to the brand new section of Sciences Po’s Parisian campus. What would be the best course of action to ensure the transformation of this brick-and-mortar site into one that is home to student life and that becomes an emblematic structure in the future Sciences Po campus?

From a real estate development to an urban project

The limited potential for real estate development around the place Saint-Thomas d’Aquin was one of the many issues and themes the team of students (composed of Charles Hindi, Julie Pidoux, Côme Rébillard and Souhail El Fatih) was faced with during several months. At the start of the last academic year (2018-19), their professors tasked them with a case study that involved the creation of a strategic plan - what the urban planners refer to as a “master plan” - that would shape the future Sciences Po campus. The challenge is one of size: “A campus is an urban ensemble that is composed of both the material and the immaterial,” explains Charles Hindi. “For the moment, Sciences Po’s buildings are scattered throughout the neighbourhood, sometimes barely recognisable, making up an ensemble that is vaguely contoured without an obvious spatial coherence. The site of 1 Saint-Thomas d'Aquin needs to be considered not just as a whole, but also as a real urban project.”

Blending the campus into the city

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current situation, the group of students conducted a precise diagnostic of the Parisian campus. They also visited three other university campuses, that of Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Paris Diderot University, as well as a prominent co-working and learning space for Parisian start-ups: Station F. Each of these establishments possess their own specific and different urban contexts in relation to Sciences Po, but they face the same challenges. Contrary to a functionalist approach that would reduce campuses to closed learning areas, it is now a matter of designing campuses that are integrated into the city and characterised by a multitude of uses. Places where students can "study, teach, socialise, entertain, wander, consume," explained the four students of the Urban School; “but where they can also feel part of a major university.”

Three strategies

In order for Sciences Po to reach its goal, the planners-in-training suggested three strategic orientations: 

  • The first consists of asserting the identity of the institution in the neighbourhood, for example through a homogenisation of the emblems and signage displayed on the various buildings, the installation of site maps accessible to passers-by or by opening the ground floors to the street.
  • The focus is then placed on the dynamics that can structure simultaneously campus life and the relationships it has to the outside world. To create a campus, there is a need to dedicate certain spaces to uses beyond the act of learning. This is why the creators of this “master plan” advocate for the installation of facilities aimed at helping students relax, eat well and pursue cultural interests. It is equally important to conceive an ensemble that is integrated with the urban fabric: this refers to creating a more ‘porous’ campus environment by hosting people from outside the Sciences Po community, or the promotion of eco-friendly means of transport (cycling, walking, etc.) to access the different sites.
  • Lastly, the group evokes the shift in approach that is required to successfully reach such results. Sciences Po is not only responsible for managing a fragmented real estate project, but it must also position itself as a true real estate developer that works in synergy with other urban operators. To this end, according to Charles Hindi, “It is crucial to put in place an ‘agile’ urbanism that is capable of adapting itself seamlessly to constraints.”

In a neighbourhood characterised by strict zoning laws, a strong land-use pressure and greatly diverse stakeholders, nothing can be taken for granted when implementing the steps outlined. But they are necessary to defend an ambitious project; as the young team of urban planners underlines in the introduction of their study, Incipit campus: “the campus starts here”.

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