Is it a university building or an unethical experiment in social psychology? Why not both?

Is it a university building or an unethical experiment in social psychology? Why not both?

Visiting the art college and the Informatics school reminds me how uncreative most academic buildings and arrangements are. Many bear a striking resemblance to Dunder Mifflin, a monastery made of MDF, or the offices of a well established but slightly shady law company specialising in lengthy divorce battles. Students are often skilled in working the space to find places to work and gather. Talking to them about how they use the space is a revelation.

Looking closer, university estates provide an archeology of educational theory and a record of the changed purpose of the university in society. This is why some of the buildings appear to be designed by a rogue group of social psychologists testing the effect of de-spatialisation on the human mind. Floors that are undifferentiated expect by a small patch of differently faded carper. Naming conventions produced by a random number generator. Several university buildings I have visited decided to letter rather than number their floors. Even better, one chose not to letter them alphabetically. There appeared to be a missing floor. These strange choices are often the result of elements of building design that no longer apply to its current use. Floors were named after departments or teams that no longer inhabit them. Two separate buildings were joined at different levels and in an unsuccessful attempt to make things less confusing two different numbering systems were used.

Myths emerge around the building, of secret passageways and hidden rooms. Some of these are true. One building had a set of rooms that had been forgotten about for decades and were uncovered when someone shifted a filing cabinet from its 30 year perch. In another students had gained the impression that they were not permitted to go about the first floor. This was partly based on reality. The building had been designed to encourage them to remain in the lower floors where most student services were located. It tells of who the building is for. Wouldn’t it be better to design it so that students and staff mingle? It’s preferable to monastic silence and self isolation. Are we a community of scholars or an education industry?

Many more aspects of design and location tell you about the relationship between the university and society. Is it on a campus or distributed? What are the buildings made of? Which departments would you expect to find in stone buildings compared to brick or concrete ones? Where is the administrative centre, relative to the literal centre? What is the public face? These aspects tell us what the past, present and future direction are. Sometimes the news is good, sometimes not. There are many who would abolish the university as a site altogether and have us study and work in no-place. Even no-place matters though, and universities remain sites apart for a reason. Sometimes they are places of violent struggle and resistance, for a reason. They should not be tame.

 

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