THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS – Biennale Architettura 2018_ National Pavilion of Greece

“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 monumental, but also generous, and almost casual. 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. 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. 20th century universities are filled with informal learning spaces often associated with circulation, and today there is a particular fascination with designing staircases, or stepped seating spaces, as the main architectural feature of an academic commons.

Architects throughout history have experimented with different spatial strategies for creating “free-spaces” in academic institutions – unprogrammed spaces for impromptu conversations, casual gossip, pop-up lectures, networking, and informal teaching. However, these in-between spaces are often difficult to see amidst all of the other programmes in a university building.

“The School of Athens” exhibition at the Greek Pavilion considers these academic common spaces as architectural specimens; objectively identified, classified, and made legible for analysis, comparison, and debate. 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 capable of supporting a multitude of different programs. The academic commons is the connective tissue of the university, often having some overlap with the main circulation spaces, but they are not necessarily equivalent. 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.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases  physical models of fifty-six different academic common spaces from across history and around the world, both realized and unrealized. By no means canonical, complete, or definitive, this selection is simply meant to provide a diverse and representative sample of projects that are compelling. With more time and resources, this study could productively expand to include hundreds of projects.

While the exhibition includes only a few unrealized spaces, it was important to include ones that have had influence on the design of other built university spaces. Raphael’s The School of Athens is obviously a fictional space, but that image — with its openness, casualness, symmetry, occupiable steps, and arched hall — has continued to resonate. Certainly it was one of Boullee’s references for his unrealized proposal for the National Library of France, a grand arched hall with terraced steps and reading desks. And both of these examples had at least an indirect influence on projects as diverse as Dominique Perrault’s EWHA University, Aires Mateus’ Architecture Faculty in Tournai, and DS+R’s Vagelos Center in NYC.

One important lineage of projects within the exhibition are the Greek schools that are being featured – from the ancient Plato’s Academy and Theater of Dionysus (although not a university per se, it functioned as an important institution of higher learning), to the Neo-Classical Averof Building at the NTUA designed by Kautantzoglou in the late 19th century, and then into the late 20th century with the Music Conservatory of Athens by Despotopolous and the Theology and Philosophy Schools at the Kapodistrian Campus by Kalivitis and Leonardos. Its interesting to compare this evolution of typologies that spans across radically different social and cultural contexts. In each of these projects there is a generosity of space, a deliberate lack of efficiency – for example in the oversized width of the corridors at the Philosophy School, the many courtyards of the Theology School, the oversized entry steps and beautifully proportioned courtyard of the Averoff building, and the unprogrammed stoa that wraps the Conservatory. This excess, or extra space – that is more than what is strictly needed to teach – is a gift to the students, teachers, and public. It is a space that is full of opportunity, open and flexible enough to be used in multiple ways. In addition to the Greek projects, there are many other important projects represented, including the Architectural Association, with its labyrinthine domestic interiors; the “infinite corridor” that strings together multiple departments at MIT in Boston; and the central stair at the Bauhaus in Dessau, that functioned as a kind of vertical living room at the heart of the school

Through the research conducted for the exhibition we discovered that two main typological archetypes of academic space,  the courtyard found in Plato’s Academy and the amphitheatre found in the ancient Theatre of Dionysus, permeate almost every single project we looked at. These two forms have remained surprisingly persistent no matter when or where the project is. In many of the projects from the 20th and 21st centuries, these two archetypes have been hybridized, exaggerated, blended, stretched, or multiplied, but they remain the primary DNA of the academic commons nonetheless. We have started to think of all of the academic commons as falling into the following types: courtyard, amphitheater, corridor, horizontal network, and vertical network. Most of the 56 projects occupy multiple categories simultaneously. Only a few are “pure” versions of each. The more contemporary the project is, the more hybridized its typological pedigree tends to be.

Another takeaway from the research is that while every school exhibited has significant portions of its site or interior given over to informal spaces of learning, very few of these academic commons relate in meaningful ways to the public space of the city or campus that surround them. Most schools are very inward focused, perhaps a lingering trait of the cloistered medieval universities, but also an unfortunate repercussion of the pragmatics of contemporary campus security. Often the architects of the more current examples explicitly made connecting the project to the city a central design ambition and feature, but very few of these projects perform in the intended way, and most have security gates, barriers, or locked doors that thwart any physical exchange between town and gown. Notable exceptions are Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center in Cambridge which incorporates a public ramp that promenades through the heart of the building, and the Nantes School of Architecture by Lacaton & Vassal, which maintains a generous extension of the street through the building and up onto a large public rooftop.

The fifty-six models on display are all treated equally, mounted on the end of vertical steel bars, elevated to waist height for easy viewing from all angles, and organized in a grid that fills the pavilion equally in all directions. The physical models are complemented by data, drawing, and image pamphlets that allow for further project comparison. An online database of all fixty-six digital models can be accessed for further interrogation and play (

The pavilion is its own kind of learning “freespace.” By self-conciously adopting the architectural trope (or architectural cliché?) of the amphitheater, the space is constructed as a stepped landscape that enables individual study, small group informal conversation, and large group lectures and debates. The field of 3d printed models is displayed across this landscape, inviting visitors to move throughout the pavilion, and animate the models – almost as additional participants – during large lectures or events.

A pavilion that examines the common spaces that students and teachers occupy should be researched and produced by students and teachers. The project is an international collaboration between students and faculty at the National Τechnical University of Athens and the Architectural Association in London. Through a series of workshops held in Athens and London throughout the spring of 2018 we collectively selected the projects, identified the academic commons in each, “designed” the extracted specimen digitally, and fabricated the physical models.

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 interesting and successful spaces that are “free” – democratic, unprogrammed, and common.


Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser, May 2018 and November 2019

1 – Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511, Fresco, 500cm x 770cm. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.



1              IIT McCormick Tribune Campus Center; OMA; Chicago, USA; 2003.

2              The New School University Center; SOM; New York City, USA; 2012.

3              University of Cape Town (UCT), Upper Campus; J.M. Solomon; Cape Town Upper Campus, South Africa; 1829.

4              S.R. Crown Hall, College of Architecture at IIT; Mies van der Rohe; Chicago, USA; 1956.

5              University Campus UTEC Lima; Grafton Architects; Lima, Peru; 2015.

6              Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, London School of Economics; O’Donnell + Tuomey; London, United Kingdom; 2014.

7              Palazzo della Sapienza, University of Rome; Guidetto Guidetti, Giacomo della Porta,  Francesco Borromini; Rome, Italy; 1303-1660.

8              MIT “Infinite Corridor”; William Welles Bosworth; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; 1913.

9              Helsinki University of Technology, School of Architecture; Alvar Aalto; Helsinki, Finland; 1949.

10           Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University; Le Corbusier; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; 1964.

11           Emerson College Los Angeles Center; Morphosis; Los Angeles, California, USA; 2014.

12           Lab City, Ecole Centrale Paris; OMA; Plateau de Saclay, Gif-sur-Yvette, France ; 2017.

13           The School of Athens Venice; Neiheiser Argyros; Venice, Italy; 2018.

14           41  Cooper Square, Cooper Union; Morphosis; New York City, New York, USA; 2009.

15           École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts ; Felix Duban; Paris, France ; 1839.

16           The Reid Building, Glasgow School of Art; Steven Hall; Glasgow, United Kingdom;2014.

17           EPFL Rolex Learning Center; SANAA; Lausanne, Switzerland; 2010.

18           METU School of Architecture; Altug and Behruz Cinici; Ankara, Turkey; 1963.

19           Campus Universitaire de Jussieu; Edouard Albert ; Paris, France; 1963-1971.

20           Gund Hall, Harvard Graduate School of Design; John Andrews; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; 1972.

21           Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, Columbia University Medical Center; Diller Scofdio and Refro; New York City, New York, USA; 2017.

22           French National Library; Etienne-Louis Boullee; Paris, France; 1785.

23           Center Pierre-Mendes-France Tolbiac; ANPAR – Michel Andrault & Pierre Parat; Paris, France ; 1973.

24           Theology Department, Kapodistrian University of Athens; Lazaros Kalivitis and Georgios Leonardos; Athens, Greece; 1976.

25           Universidad de Piura (UDEP); Barclay & Crousse; Piura, Peru; 2018.

26           Imperial College Business School; Foster+Partners; London, United Kingdom; 2004.

27           Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus; Unknown; Athens, Greece; 479-338 BC.

28           Bocconi University; Grafton; Milan, Italy; 2008.

29           Moscow School of Management Skolkovo; Adjaye Associates; Moscow, Russia; 2010.

30           University of Brasilia; Oscar Niemeyer; Brasilia, Brasil; 1962.

31           The School of Athens; Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino); Vatican City; 1510-1511.

32           Plato’s Academy; Unknown; Athens, Greece; 387 BC.

33           Architectural Association; Unknown; London, United Kingdom; 1775-1783, 1917.

34           Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad; Louis Kahn; Vastrapur, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1974.

35           Free University Berlin; Georgis Candilis, Shadrach Woods, Alexis Josic, Manfred Schiedhelm; Berlin, Germany; 1963.

36           Corpus Christi College University of Cambridge; Unknown, William Wilkins; Cambridge, United Kingdom; 1352, 1827.

37           Architecture and Urbanism College, University of São Paulo; João Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi; Sao Paulo, Brasil; 1961.

38           Averof Building, National Technical University of Athens; Lyssandros Kautantzoglou; Athens, Greece;        1878.

39           Innovation Center UC; Alejandro Aravena, Elemental; Santiago, Chile; 2014.

40           Bauhaus Dessau; Walter Gropius; Dessau, Germany; 1926.

41           Music Conservatory of Athens; Ioannis Despotopoulos; Athens, Greece; 1969.

42           Yale Art & Architecture Building; Paul Rudolph; New Haven, USA; 1963.

43           Simon Fraser University; Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey; Burnaby, BC, Canada; 1965.

44           Central Saint Martins; Stanton Williams; London, United Kingdom; 2011.

45           Future University Hakodate; Riken Yamamoto; Hakodate, Japan; 2000.

46           Architecture Faculty in Tournai; Aires Mateus; Tournai, Belgium; 2017.

47           The Great Court, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle; Walter Netsch, SOM; Chicago, Illinois, USA; 1965.

48           Nantes School of Architecture; Lacaton & Vassal; Nantes, France; 2009.

49           Educatorium, Utrecht University; OMA; Utrecht, Netherlands; 1997.

50           CENTRO University; Ten Arquitectos; Mexico City, Mexico; 2015.

51           Blavatnik School of Management; Herzog & de Meuron; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2016.

52           Philosophy Department, Kapodistrian University of Athens; Lazaros Kalivitis and Georgios Leonardos; Athens, Greece; 1984.

53           Barnard College Diana Center; Weiss / Manfredi; New York City, New York, USA; 2010.

54           Ewha Womans University; Dominique Perrault; Seoul, South Korea; 2008.

55           CEPT University Balkrishna Doshi; Ahmedabad, India; 1962.

56           School of Architecture, Marne-la-Vallée; Bernard Tschumi; Paris, France; 1999.