Rafael’s fresco “The School of Athens”1 is an ambition; a utopian vision of a free, open, informal, and common space for learning. It is an in-between space. Neither inside nor outside, not quite a room, but also not simply a space for circulation. It is not a classroom, and yet we see scholars and students debating, teaching, and studying.
Although we typically think of learning taking place in the classroom, educators and architects have recognized for thousands of years that learning also takes place in the space between; in the hallways, on the stairs, at the café, in the quad – the spaces we call the academic commons. Socrates taught in the Agora. Plato founded his Academy in the olive grove outside of Athens and often taught while walking. Medieval colleges were organized around a communal courtyard and 20th century universities are filled with generous circulation corridors that double as informal learning spaces.
The School of Athens exhibition showcases physical models of seventy different academic common spaces from across history and around the world, both realized and unrealized. All models are printed at the same scale – 1:200 – and show only the portion of the university that we have identified as the academic commons, excluding all of the other closed spaces like classrooms and offices. The physical models are complemented by data, drawings, and images of each school, that allow for further project comparison. An online database of all seventy digital models can be accessed for interrogation and play. By no means canonical or complete, this work is an ongoing and evolving research project – an ever expanding spatial atlas of the architecture of the academic commons.
There’s no absolute definition of the academic commons. It remains subjective and open for debate. However, its clear that the academic commons is paradoxically the space within the university that is either un-programmed, or that is uniquely capable of supporting a multitude of different programs. The academic commons is simultaneously the heart and the connective tissue of the university. To borrow Hannah Arendt’s term, the academic commons is the “space of appearance” within the university, the institutional equivalent of the public space in the city,or of the living room in the house. It is the space to see and be seen – an open and free space for exchange.
We believe that the architecture of academic institutions is in need of continual critique and update, and that the common spaces within the university are particularly vital to the university’s continued relevance and vibrancy. Researching, revealing, and evaluating the architecture of the academic commons that surround us is a critical first step towards being able to reinvent the academic commons of the future. There is therefore an urgent need to both look back, and to scan across the current landscape of university architecture, to extract and learn from spaces that are free – democratic, unprogrammed, and common.
– Neiheiser Argyros, February 2020
1 – Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511, Fresco, 500cm x 770cm. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.
Curated by NEIHEISER ARGYROS, The School of Athens at the Benaki Museum continues and expands the research exhibited at the Greek National Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.