Wednesday, 3 August 2011

University as City

In his article originally appearing in the Architectural Review in January 1974 but also reproduced in the Henry Moore Institute publication The New Monumentality (2009), Lance Wright refers to how the campus development at the University of Leeds in the 1960s was oriented around "university-as-ideal-city". (2009: 33) The development, led by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (CPB), was considered at the time to be both an attempt to create a kind of university-as-city in its own right, but also to integrate the university itself into the city of which it belonged. Even more so today, campus universities are relatively self-contained inasmuch as they house all the facilities and amenities required for students not to just study but also to live and socialise: supermarkets, eateries, cash-machines, bars and clubs, and a variety of shops from travel agents to opticians. Because the ideology behind the massive sixties development plan for the campus orients it within a city-based model, it serves us to consider some of the relevant texts that take a postmodern aesthetic and subjective perspective on the city as an object of study.

David Pinder's Visions of the City (2005) takes a primarily Situationist look at the city and discusses détournement, the dérive and their cartography in depth. Preferring the Situationists' approach to the Surrealists' he states: "The dérive placed more emphasis on a conscious analytic subject, investigating and contesting terrain." (2005: 3) Pinder believes that the maps produced by Debord, and the performative acts behind them, go towards altering conceptions of the city and the lived experience therein. (2005: 159)

Jonathan Raban also discusses the individual's response to living in the city in Soft City (1974). He begins by explaining that the city, your own city, has a language that speaks to you and that your recognise: "the language you've always known, the language from which being you, being me, are inseparable." (1998: 3) Raban's poetic prose on the city - describing a flexible space that can be bent to our will - views the city as malleable, encouraging fluid identities in its citizens. In not seeing the city as being full of 'evils' that can create an alienating effect, Raban prefers to show us aspects that we can use and mold for our individual purposes:
For at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. (ibid.)

Raban's text echoes elements of Roland Barthes comments on the city: "The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it." (2004: 168)

Another interesting and relevant aspect of Raban's text looks at ideas around the concept of reason that have historically been attached to texts on the city, in particular because of the dichotomies around urban/rural and refined/uncivilised. (1998: 153) In postmodernity this idea of reason could be transferred to a view on the rationalist approach attached to capitalism, especially the rhetoric in circulation concerning it. Not just the idea that countries that are capital-generating are considered to be more civilised than those that are not, but, also, the expressions that are promulgated, dismissing any alternative model of living than the consumerist one.

Texts on the city also lend themselves to being used for analysing campus space because the posthistoric university has many qualities that are comparable to city living. The university puts consumers and products into circulation, enabling an analysis from the perspective of networks and flows. Space is designed, from a rational standpoint, to control the flows of people, machines and materials in a way that encourages the efficient running of university space while also supporting the ideology behind it. This means that the campus can be analysed from the perspective of how capital might use and acquire that space, for example, through capital accumulation. Also, the university, like the city, has an appearance in the form of which it appears, its referent. The university, in manifest form, is a representation, supported by a particular discourse, which means it can be deconstructed linguistically.

Barthes, Roland. 2004. 'Semiology and Urbanism', Rethinking Architecture, ed. by Neil Leach (London: Routledge). pp. 166-172.
Pinder, David. 2005. Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twnetieth-Century Urbanism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd).
Raban, Jonathan. 1998. Soft City (London: The Harvill Press).
Wright, Lance. 2009. ‘University of Leeds: Criticism’, The New Monumentality (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute) pp. 32-34.

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