Spatial tensions reveal conflicting ideals

The Postwar University
June 1, 2001

The "new seven" universities - as Stefan Muthesius calls Sussex, Kent, East Anglia, York, Lancaster, Warwick and Keele - were at the forefront of the expansion of higher education in the United Kingdom's postwar period. The "redrawing of the map of learning", as Asa Briggs neatly put it at the time, resulted in a refashioning of architectural visions.

The Postwar University: Utopianist Campus and College provides a historical discourse on the educational, social, political and architectural contexts surrounding this expansion, when progressive thinking aimed to merge the pedagogic philosophies of the institution with the campus layout.

The making of the new universities ran parallel with, and shared some vision with, the New Towns movement. The search for greenfield sites at the edge of existing centres, the new social groupings involved and the semi-autonomous nature of governance mean that the new universities had more in common with Basildon, Harrow and Milton Keynes than the academic institutions in Germany and the United States that the author selects as comparisons.

Muthesius concentrates on the more obvious icons of architectural achievement - Sussex by Basil Spence and East Anglia by Denys Lasdun - and measures the other new university foundations against them. What emerges are some paradoxes and parallels. There is the sense that budgets were a perennial problem, that the full flowering of architectural and academic achievement was limited by bureaucrats in the University Grants Committee. Spence and Lasdun both resigned under the pressure, and York, with its Clasp industrial building system, responded with depressing results.

Although some senior academics appointed as vice-chancellors had experience of the University of California at Berkeley or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the bulk had their roots in Oxbridge. Transplanting the college system into modern academic structures and the egalitarian ethos of the 1960s proved difficult. Much debate in the early years was around the issue of "college" versus "campus" and "schools" as against faculties or departments as the cornerstone of the modern university. So Essex has podiums, residential tower blocks and high-level walkways, rather than quads and college groupings.

Although few UK universities adopted the campus approach, a US cultural transplant, from the outset, many absorbed campus ideals in subsequent expansion. As a consequence, there was a tension between the British collegiate approach and the open, democratic academic philosophy from across the Atlantic.

The campus carries connotations beyond architectural form. It is an area of parkland, a form of arcadia in which higher education in the broadest sense is conducted. Although the college may provide for the social or psychological welfare of the student, the campus offers much more a research infrastructure, sport, open access and escape from home life and the paternalistic college. It also has other associations - political protest, liberal lifestyles and open-ended social structures. In this, the campus sows the seeds of utopianism in the sense that the college entails closed thought and tradition. Most UK campuses have failed to combine these conflicting stands:there is either placeless academia (Reading), sprawl (York) or over-rigidity of initial concept (East Anglia).

In his search for a utopianist reality, Muthesius disregards the importance of landscape. Nearly all new university foundations were on sites of some beauty. The new utopia was a green place far from inner cities, from which the generation of welfare-state students were meant to be drawn. Although the bulk of the book's argument concerns the UK, there is a useful discussion of the parallel expansion of European and American universities.

At times the level of detail obscures the wider historical parallels. Utopia - mentioned in the title - does not adequately re-emerge in the book, yet as a central concept it could have stitched together the complex cultural arguments presented. Muthesius makes the heroes of his book "those institutions in which the strong architectural and the institutional-social factors are most neatly combined". He avoids a central utopian philosophy, preferring to display via different university designs the pluralism of "Utopianist individuality". In this, he treats the concept of utopia with postmodern academic flexibility.

Yet the utopian college and campus of the period are infused with modern, not postmodern sensibility. In using the more recent lens to view ambition with hindsight, Muthesius brings interesting insights. There is a treasure chest of information in the footnotes that presents an encyclopedia of knowledge about one of the high points of British postwar life.

Brian Edwards is professor of architecture, University of Huddersfield.

The Postwar University: Utopianist Campus and College

Author - Stefan Muthesius
ISBN - 0 300 08717 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 340

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