There are new buildings at my university. Well, there always seem to be new buildings. It’s said that building new buildings is one of the ways vice chancellors like to make their stamp on the place, changing its landscape for posterity.
And yet, for all the apparent hive of architectural activity going on, I wonder how much thought is given to the intended atmosphere of these buildings? It’s my belief that buildings have their own anthropology: the design and feel of a building says something about the designer’s view on who human beings are. In this case, it’s a specific idea about students and academic staff — those people who form the nucleus of the institution we call the university.
My usual work environment (when I’m not working at home) looks like this:
It’s a converted factory building from the late nineteenth century, like much of the city centre architecture in Leicester. How do you re-purpose a building whose original design was meant for industrial work — for alienating work done by workers exploited for their labour?
Or, take one of the newer buildings:
Unlike the other building, this one was specifically designed for university existence: it houses law and business, among other faculties. Yet to my mind, this building is reminiscent of business parks, for capitalistic enterprises geared towards efficiency and profit. The trees growing in the courtyard are confusing. On the one hand, they gesture at an attempt to honour the environment — to bring people close to nature. On the other hand, however, they are symbols of elite metropolitan life. The tree is uprooted from its natural habitat and positioned strategically to signal to others that the business is sustainable and in line with broader principles of metropolitan civilisation.
In other words, the person is entirely absent in such architectural design, and its absence is made the more poignant by the fact that the building is supposed to support a purportedly humanistic venture — higher education.
But what do I mean by personalist architecture? What I mean by this term is simply architecture which is designed for individual human beings, which considers their happiness as an end in itself. This means extracting the person from the name of ‘student’, which has become commodified and even fetishized.
A personalist university architecture builds structures in which actual human beings can thrive — can live in an integral way.
When designing her own educational buildings in India, the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael (1867-1952) considered the relationship between the building and the surrounding environment, as well as the children who would inhabit the building: while in church one Sunday, she recalled how her
eyes wandered across through the open church door to our wall, which was then going up. And the earth spoke softly, ‘I am not white, Let the wall grow up out of me, be part of me.’ And it was so also with the buildings that the wall enclosed. They were washed with a reddish earth which is sold in our South Indian country […] Years later, when I read of the charm of the Cotswold cottages, I understood that the voice of the earth had not misled me that day. We have never regretted that we are, as a colony, not white, delightful as white-wash is in our villages at home, but something that seems to grow out of the soil and ‘belong’.
Carmichael’s experience gestures towards a personalist way of conceiving architecture — as something that somehow ‘belongs’ and which grows out of the environment. Her buildings are unique, although of course they draw on local materials and traditions while also striking out on their own and being a fresh vision of human dwelling.
I have often thought that the old buildings at Oxford and Cambridge universities are more personalist than more contemporary university buildings.
There is a maturity about such buildings which suggest that they were built or converted for human use, particularly for the education of people. Of course, even Oxford and Cambridge drew on contemporary designs and broader aesthetic principles, some of which are arguably anti-personalist; but I think relatively speaking, they are closer to personalism than some contemporary buildings.
Compare the above with a contemporary university library:
Admittedly this is the interior, but the building seems somehow flimsy, plastic, as if built for future economic producers than for the flourishing of human personalities. This computer room reminds me of a call centre.
One might object that all this is merely detail — that it doesn’t really matter what the buildings of a university are like. However, this would seem to go against the grain of current attempts to build new buildings. Yet the question must be asked: what are the beliefs about human beings which lie behind a particular design proposal? How does such and such a building either enhance or diminish the dignity of human beings?
The more students and academic staff are treated as ends in themselves, as developing personalities, then the more the buildings will change to reflect this shift in perspective, and vice versa.