Fact Check

Riot Proof College Halls

Are college buildings architecturally designed to make quelling a riot easier?

Published May 5, 2000

Claim:   Certain dining halls, libraries, dorms, and quads have been specifically designed to make it easier for police to quell riots that might break out there.



[Collected on the Internet, 1993]

I attended the University at Buffalo. The dorms on their North campus are fairly odd, 'blocky' constructions. Anyhow, the urban legend at UB is that the buildings were designed to prevent large numbers of people gathering at any one spot (excepting the cafeterias). The legend goes on to say that the dorms were built just after a period of unrest at UB which included sit ins and police in riot gear.

I also have heard that a) Founders Plaza, the closest thing to a real quad here, is located so that the police can quickly stage and move in to suppress any protest getting out of hand without being seen doing so (quite possible), and b) there is a button in the security headquarters (well off to the periphery of campus) that, when pressed, instantly locks all doors along the walkway, preventing free flow between buildings.


Origins:   The mid- to late-1960s were a time of student unrest, with protests (both peaceful and violent) almost the norm on a number of college campuses.


Even the most peaceful of demonstrations held the potential to flash out of control, a state of affairs which supplied the plausibility for this bit of lore: If riots were possible, then in the future why not design campus buildings in such a way as to assist police in bringing riots to swift and safe conclusions?

The overly-institutional look of key buildings on any number of campuses has contributed to the belief they were designed with some hidden function in mind. Numerous colleges are also honeycombed with underground tunnels, which adds to their mystique. Although these tunnels do facilitate the movement of equipment between buildings, exciting theories that they were really put there to hide troop movements or spirit faculty away in case of an insurrection are much more titillating.

A related bit of lore one often hears is that a particularly ugly dorm was designed by the same people who put up the local prison, using a slightly modified version of those jailhouse plans:

[Collected on the Internet, 1993]

Close to 20 years ago, a student giving tours to parents at the Univ. of Arizona announced that the dorm in which she lived had been designed by the architect of the state prison, but that the room occupancy had since been doubled to four, resulting in less floor space per student than was required for prisoners.

As various wags have pointed out, everything built during the 1970s resembles a medium-security prison. The blocky, functional style was in.

Prisons are far more expensive to build than dorms, but this legend is believed due to the impersonal look of so many on-campus housing units. The painted cinderblock walls are evocative of a prison atmosphere, so the legend about reused jailhouse blueprints falls upon highly receptive ears.

Barbara "jailhouse rocked" Mikkelson

Last updated:   23 June 2011