Space to think

Many academics view the loss of their 'solitary cells' as a threat to their autonomy, while managers promote places of 'communal engagement' that foster intellectual interaction. Matthew Reisz looks at the tensions arising in the redevelopment of the UK's ivory towers

May 13, 2010

Space touches on just about all the tension points within universities. Offices and working environments are crucial measures of status, but they also have a much more tangible impact on quality of life. If individual academics feel uncomfortable about the partnerships their university enters into, they can ignore them most of the time. In so far as buildings express corporate values, they are inescapable.


So who gets the most floor space and the most comfortable chairs? Do the sciences and the arts and humanities get equal treatment - and has the scientific model of a "good working space" sometimes been applied to disciplines where it is far less relevant? Do the departments that bring in the most funding get rewarded with extra cubic feet to stretch out in?

The great divisions within the sector - between "old" and "new" universities, rich and poor universities, public and private universities, the British and American academies - are also played out in terms of space.

Some of this can be seen in the comments of Bernard Wasserstein, Harriet & Ulrich E. Meyer professor in modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago, who has also worked at Glasgow and Oxford universities, as well as a number of other American institutions. "One great difference between Britain (and much of Europe) and America", he argues, "is in the relative openness of academic spaces.

"The American university campus is, in general, a much more welcoming space than the British. The closing-off of most Oxbridge colleges to all but paying visitors, a product partly of security concerns, but more of genuflection before the gods of the enterprise culture and the heritage industry, is an instance of this.

"Another example is the different attitudes to visitors to be found in the great national libraries. The British Library, like the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris, erects various barriers, both physical and bureaucratic, to the visitor. By contrast, the Library of Congress remains gloriously open to all, not just certified scholars."

The same applies in the virtual realm, where most US university libraries don't operate closed networks with user passwords, but allow instant internet access to all.

"The difference is subtle but important," Wasserstein suggests. "In America, openness is the default; in Europe, it is a privilege, not a right."

In institutions that can afford it, however, such openness is the "flip side" rather than the "antithesis of privacy". Wasserstein claims that he has been "fortunate during most of (his) career in enjoying exceptionally spacious and often outstandingly beautiful office space in British and American universities, affording the privacy, peace and quiet, and book and document storage space, that were essential conditions for efficient scholarly productivity. Even as a graduate student at Nuffield College, Oxford in the early 1970s, I was allocated rooms that today would be the envy of many senior professors."

Yet in many British universities, Wasserstein suggests, "the rot set in early. I recall that my father, a professor, head of department and dean at the University of Leicester in the 1960s, was housed in a rectangular box, converted from what had been a padded cell in the former county asylum. He didn't complain: it was the norm.

"Today, many British universities squeeze academic staff into ever-smaller utility spaces barely conducive to any form of contemplative thought ... When I greet foreign visitors in my rooms high in the Harper Library Tower in the University of Chicago, I feel embarrassed, almost ashamed, not just at the majesty of the view, but also at the luxury of space and the enormous length of bookshelving that a private university, unbound by levelling-down norms, can afford to provide for its faculty."

Wasserstein's model of "efficient scholarly productivity" remains both a reality, however threatened, and a haunting ideal.

One familiar and much imitated model is the traditional Oxbridge college, which tends to feel like an inward-looking (as well as a literally gated) community. A Fellow of one Cambridge college notes that "there is a lot of financial pressure for departments to move much of the emphasis to collaborative, externally funded research projects, and that in turn, in some cases, involves building appropriate new collaborative research space.

"But colleges aren't under that same kind of pressure, since they don't normally depend on funding from the research councils and their equivalents," he adds.

Moves towards open-plan offices and away from solitary research "would scarcely be practicable in a small but multidisciplinary community". Although he disputes the notion that colleges such as his are "intrinsically inward-looking", they clearly offer environments that seem an unimaginable luxury compared with much of the sector.

Jeremy Till, dean of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, acknowledges that "there will always be good reasons for people working in their solitary cell - the last refuge of the medieval scholar - but sticking to that as the sole model is outdated. The indications seem to show that when people are taken out of their offices, more interactions take place and they become more productive."

Rachel Hurdley, a postdoctoral Fellow in Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences, has carried out research into "the power of corridors".

"Passions do run high when moves are made to open-plan offices," she says, "and not just in universities. This is because the move is not seen as (apparently) intended to encourage communication and collaboration, but as the removal of privacy and autonomy.

"For academics, there are worries about the confidentiality of research projects, including issues such as the secure storage of documents and the privacy of phone interviews. Also, much of academic life centres around writing and reading, which can be difficult in a busy office - though even in conventional cubicular offices, the frequency of people popping their heads round the door means that some prefer to do the real work at home, coming in to show their faces, attend meetings and teach.

"If academics want to know the unintended consequences of open-plan offices, look to the research staff (who usually have to share large offices), especially the utter disruption of the loud phone call or visitor. It's all very well to try to work with each other's work patterns and styles, but it is very difficult to negotiate in practice - however many 'break-out' spaces there are for lengthy conversations."

When Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam university professor of history at Princeton University, launched his recent attack on British higher education, "The disgrace of the universities", in The New York Review of Books, he used strikingly spatial terms.

Speaking as "an 'occasional student' at University College London in the early 1970s and a regular visitor to the Warburg Institute, Oxford and Cambridge after that", he recalls how he, "like many American humanists, envied colleagues who taught in British universities. We had offices with linoleum; they had rooms with carpets. We worked at desks; they sat with their students on comfy chairs and gave them glasses of sherry.

"Universities become great by investing for the long term," adds Grafton. Where the UK has gone wrong is by "turning the university into The Office".

This is presumably a not very flattering reference to what is usually known as "managerialism". And it is here that space clashes with some of the deepest and most intractable questions about the purpose of universities.

Such questions have come to the fore precisely because we have just lived through a golden age (presumably coming to an end) of architectural innovation within British higher education. Since academics are working and sometimes living in different kinds of space, they naturally have strong views about this - often in tension with the perspective of their employing institutions.

What is not in question is the sheer scale of the architectural revolution we have witnessed. There are great examples everywhere, from the University of Lincoln to the London School of Economics, but here we can focus briefly on just two.

One is the University of Nottingham's Jubilee Campus. "From the outset," says the vice-chancellor, David Greenaway, who was serving as pro vice-chancellor for infrastructure and the environment during the design and construction process, "we had an ambition to drive the university back into the city and, in the process, help regenerate an ailing part of Nottingham. It was tremendously exciting to (quite literally) start with a blank sheet of paper and some derelict factories.

"Working with the Hopkins Architects Partnership, we created green spaces and water features that echoed University Park, alongside modern energy-efficient buildings that offered a striking visual contrast to the adjacent hard industrial landscape.

"I think the Jubilee Campus says something powerful to our students and staff (as well as the many visitors it attracts) about our values and commitment to sustainability. It also provides enjoyable working and living spaces. I am very proud of it."

Philip Ogden, senior vice-principal at Queen Mary, University of London, faced other challenges on an inner-city site.

"The symbolism of impressive new buildings makes universities much more visible, attractive and open places for widening participation," he says. "Space matters a lot in influencing people's behaviour, although there is no single model."

Ogden gives the example of the Blizard Building, opened in 2005, which was specifically designed "to change the ways researchers worked, by bringing small groups of medical researchers together in one big open-plan environment for 300 people, although with individual, more private spaces on a raised ground floor and more discrete seminar rooms in the centre.

"People had not thought about how they worked before, so it led to an intellectual engagement in what could be. It is both architecturally innovative and allows people to work in more flexible ways and to reform into different teams as new research grants come in."

Many such new and redeveloped buildings are very exciting and, of course, a vast improvement on what went before. So where is the problem?

Till is sceptical about claims that architecture can enable universities to integrate with the cities around them.

"The general public don't really wander into universities as great learning spaces," he argues. "They don't feel part of the living city - there are always gates and some kind of barrier. Universities are very significant to their cities in terms of employment, but not spatially.

"How can we help students to see their universities as more than just a coffee bar they pass through on the way to a lecture or the library? If there's no sense of other spaces where they can interact, you lose an important aspect of what a university is. It's much easier on a campus and very hard in London - why should anyone use a student bar when there are so many other choices?"

Yet the real point is that changes to people's space are rarely, if ever, completely uncontested. This is partly because change always makes people uncomfortable, but it also goes deeper than that. Something of what is at stake emerges from the material issued by Nottingham: new spaces are always likely to mean - and are often intended to encourage - different styles of working.

In many of the new buildings, we read, "adaptability of use was a key requirement of the brief and all internal spaces have been designed to offer the maximum flexibility ... simple, efficient floor plates allow entire floors to be swiftly reconfigured to a cellular or an open-plan layout and then back again, according to the university's particular needs".

Both "flexibility" and "efficiency" may be desirable and generally welcomed. But there is also something about those words that can ring alarm bells for some academics by evoking the spectre of "managerialism".

Whether or not the David Brents and Jamie Targetts have taken over the academy, space is one of those issues where the view from above often looks quite different from the one from below, and many worry that corporate goals and corporate jargon sound much better in theory than practice.

One person's "rational use of space" is perceived by someone else as a more or less conscious plan to discourage or even eliminate traditional book-lined studies, solitary scholarship and office-based research. Talk about buildings needing to make "that vital first impression" can sound inspiring or like a bad cosmetics advertisement, a victory for marketing style over solid academic substance. And cynics can get tired of being told that they are lucky to be working in places that are "thrusting", "dynamic", "cutting edge" and "world class".

Take the case of the University of Liverpool. Guy Denton, managing director of Whitelaw Turkington, a landscape-architecture and urban-design practice, describes how it "worked closely with the university" on its campus-enhancement project "to identify how its core values and traditions, such as the advancement of learning and 'enablement of life', could be best manifested through the creation of a new high-quality academic environment".

"The proposals reinforced the university's image as a high-quality learning environment, as well as creating a subtle yet distinct identity within the city," he adds. "Overall, it has significantly improved the environmental quality of the campus for working, learning and relaxation. The success of the scheme can be measured in the improved vibrancy and enhanced sense of ownership adopted by the students and staff."

The story is taken up by Steve Dickson, Liverpool's director of facilities management, who sees a move towards more open-plan accommodation and "probably towards working from home, although we have to go forward on this in a planned way, so offices are not used just one day a week".

"We want to make space more productive in terms of output from research and teaching," he says. "We want networking space, rather than relying on chance meetings in corridors. And we're also keen to encourage the involvement of external partners.

"Widening participation is part of our strategic plan, from an estates point of view as well as others, whether we are talking about music venues or the exchange of knowledge. It's about putting something back. We aim to have an open campus, which is at the heart of the city and a destination. The environment has to lend itself to that."

Asked about whether he had encountered resistance to some of these plans from academics, Dickson says he is "pushing at a half-open door. There can be some initial reluctance, but we can work through it in an iterative process. Lack of communication engenders suspicion, but we engage. It's very much project-driven, with much input from internal clients. With close participation, we can meet the goals of an efficient design alongside academic goals."

Yet a half-open door, from another perspective, is always half closed. One Liverpool academic fears that such developments are "part of the inexorable process moving us away from being independent, autonomous academics, with our own space and something approaching control over our own lives, to being something much closer to regular employees.

"It's a huge luxury having our own rooms to use (or not) as we see fit. That is very costly for an institution. Gradually, inexorably, it will be phased out. Much more work will be done at home (see box, page 38); research, too, will be done at home, using online resources. But for those whose home circumstances don't make it easy to maintain a good working space, that represents a deterioration in working conditions. Worse for students, too, who inevitably would see less of their tutors.

"Cheaper transport, relatively speaking, has accelerated this process. Lots of people now commute long distances to their academic jobs because they can afford to, and can keep in touch electronically when they are not in the office. This means that their rooms stand empty for long stretches in the week. All the more tempting for the institution to remove them ... In that way, we have contributed to the process ourselves."

Others report similar anxieties about changing spaces. Mary Evans, visiting Fellow at the LSE's Gender Institute, remembers moving into a new building at the University of Kent where "all of the offices had internal glass walls and so everyone was visible the whole time". The only result was "much sticking up of posters, old newspapers and so on to blot out the public view. I was totally sympathetic to this ... I really didn't care about the size of the office (which was by previous standards tiny), but I did mind about this erosion of privacy."

Whatever the merits of glass partitions, there is little point in introducing them if their main rationale is immediately sabotaged by staff.

Another of Evans' concerns is "the increasing policing of entry to buildings, something I first saw in the new social sciences building at the University of Manchester, where you could not get past the gate without a pass. I was told by a colleague there that this was greatly disliked by students, who felt barred from staff, and that this had quite important consequences for a sense of access and so on."

Taken together, these two factors changed Evans' working habits - "after decades of writing and working at work, I changed to working at home. At least I had a door that I could shut."

While this is obviously a good solution for some, commuting times, domestic circumstances and the sheer cost of accommodation - many academics based in cities such as London cannot afford a separate study at home - make it quite unsuitable for others. Yet Evans is far from the only academic who feels that she has been pushed in this direction.

Another issue is perceived nannying. An academic at the University of Birmingham is irritated by the way that "recent refurbishment of offices has led to automatic light monitors being installed, which means that academics can no longer decide when to switch off and on the main light (very bright strip lighting). Apparently, health and safety know exactly what kind of lighting level is good for us, while we presumably don't."

The same academic also complains about a lack of consultation and an environment where "the science model is applied to all. Any objection that needs differ is put down to fustiness or conservatism.

"Shared space is invaluable for morale, quality of the workspace and academic exchange," she points out, "but all this has gone. We no longer have a staff kitchen or common room dedicated to academic staff and postgraduate students. Our staff canteen has been closed with no mention of a replacement. To ease room pressures, the PhD study has now been upgraded but also expanded in the sense that master's and PhD students can use it. This means that the arrangement has become less personalised and more akin to hot-desking - perhaps an indication of how things are going generally."

Although the move away from "spaces that contribute to informal communal engagement" can be justified in practical terms, she believes it also has wider significance, "reflecting a greater emphasis on atomisation and top-down management".

Furthermore, attempts to "sustain the research culture" by organising conferences or inviting visiting speakers are made far more difficult by "having to pay for rooms", porters and often technicians after 5pm. Although academic hosts give their time for free, and speakers generally expect just a meal and the cost of their fares, when it comes to university space, "we are treated as customers by our own institutions - and charged accordingly".

Such changes to working environments, suggests Cardiff's Hurdley, cause even more irritation when they are imposed from above, leading to "suspicions of increased surveillance and resentment about lack of consultation". But perhaps most important of all is what she calls the "relations between space and organisational culture - it's useless to introduce an architecture of openness while the organisation remains 'closed' (or is perceived as closed and undemocratic by workers)".

Right across British higher education in recent years, we have seen a range of powerful new buildings and imaginative refurbishment of existing accommodation. Much of the architecture is arresting, urgently modern and environmentally friendly. Some of it is stunning and destined to become iconic. All this is to be celebrated. What is less clear is whether it can always live up to its declared aims (or hype), notably in "influencing people's behaviour", and what kind of resistance this is likely to encounter. When it comes to changing people's working spaces, they are always going to respond in highly individual and often unpredictable ways.


A fusty old academic; a dusty study lined with well-thumbed books; piles of papers, essays and journals everywhere - on the desk, the coffee table and the old leather settee.

The dust motes floating as the sunlight streams through the small distorted panes. Across the river, the clang of an old bell marks the quarter hour and the imminent arrival of an undergrad due for a tutorial; "promising student, fine mind, could get a first; a little early for sherry; must ring down for some tea, biscuits, perhaps".

It could be the stuff of lush and reassuring Sunday evening TV murder mysteries, but the caricature works because, in the back of one's mind, academia should be like that; it should be far removed from the hurly-burly of takeovers, bonuses, sales pitches and deals, territorial squabbles and the cut and thrust of everyday life. The academic's study should be a sanctuary of learning for learning's sake, where students and academics can meet to share knowledge. Academia isn't just a job, it's a place; its sleepy, shabby exterior is matched by a rich inner life of the ruthless pursuit of the truth, one chain of thought taking hours, days, weeks.

The reality, however, just wouldn't make good TV - and not just because of the unreliability of the murder rate. For a start, there's simply no room for a TV crew in my six by six foot portion (including two shelves and half a cupboard) of our communal office, and even if there were, the disturbance to the 11 other academics would be unpardonable. Each of them is silently and grimly wrestling with five impossible deadlines and recalcitrant IT systems. The atmosphere is, well, non-existent - everyone is working on their own, very different, problems. The silence is punctuated only by the odd gritted-teeth expletive as another document disappears or the connection with the server is lost.

And the telephones. Twelve occupants means 12 desk phones and 12 more mobiles. The unanswered phone rings longest and loudest. If anyone is out teaching or at a meeting, there will be a steady stream of phone calls and students looking for them. Whoever is most approachable will have to explain their absence and listen to the problem to see who else may be able to deal with it.

At peak times, the interruptions come every three to five minutes. Many colleagues wear earphones; communication across the room is by email. If something requires discussion, nipping out to the landing for a quick meeting is de rigueur.

There is something isolating about forced togetherness. In lifts, trains and buses, people don't communicate, they strive to avoid it. The great 1960s dream of tower-block "cities in the sky" was about as successful as Stalin's agricultural policies. People form communities when they are able to choose to do so, not when they have "communal engagement" forced upon them.

And where, in all this, is that crucial relationship between enquiring mind and mentor? Where is the core activity of the pursuit of knowledge supposed to take place? If the office is just the office, where is academia? Some other place, some other time. Academics' days are increasingly taken up with "housekeeping" tasks, with the result that knowledge, scholarship and personalisation of the learning experience are driven to "accidental spaces". Tutorials happen while standing outside because of the fire alarm, or on the bus or the train home, via email and Facebook. Most of my one-to-one contact takes place when I'm 50 miles away, at home after dinner. At crucial times, I've juggled several students in ongoing online conversations at midnight and from the cc'd messages I get, so have my colleagues.

The advantages of shared-office policies are illusory. Productivity (in academic terms) goes down. The depersonalised experience, for staff and students alike, is not something we should promote. Furthermore, if we all (staff and students) charged properly for our home facilities, the economic advantage would be diminished.

I can't help feeling there's a deeper message in all this. Inexorably, the place that is academia is disappearing. Perhaps, like monasteries, the time has passed.

Peter Lennox is senior lecturer in spatial perception in artificial environments and director of the Signal Processing and Applications Group, University of Derby.







When people visit the British Library, they find that the main humanities reading room - Humanities One - is one of the busiest.


"When I show people around, I always take them to Humanities One to show them what a classic reading room is like," says Gill Webber, the library's head of communications.

"It's full of people sitting quietly at tables with a book or manuscript and a pencil. But when you come out into the cafe area, you emerge into a very different type of space. It's not just people sitting having a coffee: it's a space where people are working, too, using wi-fi or sharing ideas with other researchers.

"Although there will always be a place for the work that goes on in Humanities One - we have to be clear about that - it's also very apparent that over the years the number of people choosing to work in the space where they can collaborate and access resources using technology has grown steadily."

This small example offers some insight into the changing styles of research, and the evolving demands of the people doing it.

Now, the British Library is aiming to lead the world in testing and developing tools that could mould the future of the research library.

It is not doing it alone: its partners include technology companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, and institutions such as Brown University in the US. Input will also be sought from other leading libraries, such as the New York Public Library and Columbia University's library, with content provided by the BBC, The National Archives, King's College London and University College London.

For nine months from October 2010, the British Library will feature a host of what it believes could become the key research tools of the future in an exhibition that will evolve as researchers tell them what works and what else they want.

As well as showcasing and road-testing technology, the exhibition will include seminars and debates, a researcher-in-residence and teaching guides to help researchers get to grips with the possibilities.

Clive Izard, head of creative services at the institution, says: "The great thing about the British Library is that we can have an exhibition with input from companies such as Microsoft, but, because we're the British Library, we present a balanced view."

The technology will be exhibited in a space that will also allow researchers to road-test physical apparatus, such as the furniture and screens they may use while employing the new tools.

"Those are things that have to be tested, because we need to know what the optimum size for a screen is - you don't want too much in front of you at any one time because you simply wouldn't be able to take it all in," Mr Izard says.

He is also clear that, while the future of research may be technologically driven, this does not mean that libraries are being made redundant.

"Google provides access to content; it doesn't provide the expertise that goes alongside it - that's what we, the British Library, provide," he says.

The exhibition, Growing Knowledge, the Evolution of Research, will run for nine months from 14 October 2010 to 16 July 2011, and is being held in partnership with Times Higher Education.

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