Design and metaphor

March 26, 1999

The relationship between built form and academic pursuit has never been stronger, says Jeremy Melvin

There is a certain inevitability about Norman Foster designing a management faculty, Ted Cullinan a divinity school and Richard MacCormac a library for Ruskiniana. Foster's seductive and slick modernism seems to give form to management diagrams, Cullinan's speculations on nature, tradition and the nature of materials share something with divinity, while Ruskin's writings prefigure MacCormac's concerns for metaphor and narrative.

But the designs show infinitely more complex and interesting connections between aesthetics and academic programmes. Between them they show how architecture can serve old and new disciplines in old and new universities.

Despite their differences, Foster's management faculty for the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Cullinan's divinity faculty at Cambridge and MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard's Ruskin Library at Lancaster each shows how architecture can contribute to new and ongoing academic activities.

Cambridge has taught divinity since the university's foundation. It was the subject around which intellectual life was structured. The quadrangle form was a perfect, if architecturally unsophisticated servant of the academic programme. Indeed, most university buildings at Oxford or Cambridge could have been mistaken for divinity schools or religious buildings, probably until the fierce debate over the Oxford Museum in the 1850s made aesthetics explicit.

That debate was itself part of the wider discussion of universities' changing purposes that has continued ever since. Enlightenment thought, industrialism and urbanisation led to the adoption of the circular lecture theatre, where all seats focus on the scientific - and often medical - demonstration, as the logical architectural form for civic universities. In the new universities of the 1960s, the roles were reversed: architecture offered the visions around which new institutions could conduct intellectual activities in new ways. But architectural beliefs of the period were prescriptive, which tended to translate into an unmediated view of the relationship between built form and intellectual knowledge.

David Ford, regius professor of divinity at Cambridge, traces a more subtle connection in a "fruitful alliance between architecture and theology". Both, he argues, should have "an ecological perspective and are inherently long term". Architecture cannot only assist an internal academic programme, it can also make a statement that updates the position of theology within the university.

Ford is delighted to be moving to the Sidgwick site, between James Stirling's history library and the Victorian buildings of Selwyn College, with economics as a neighbour. "Economics is a proper parallel to religion," Ford says. "Mammon is the god of global economic capitalism, but economics should not be neutral about money any more than religious studies should try to be neutral I everyone has got commitments."

Ford identifies three levels of commitment for theological studies: to academic communities, to religious communities and to societies.

Cullinan's design, explains partner Colin Rice, takes this seriously. The new building offers an opportunity to contextualise James Stirling's controversial, 30-year-old history faculty building, and thus to make an architectural statement about divinity in relation to other university disciplines. Ford argues for a notion of "hospitality", both literal and in the sense of entertaining new and unfamiliar ideas.

Entering the building through an eroded segment of a drum-like form could be read as an experience of this hospitality, especially as this erosion helps to define a small piazza between the divinity building and the history faculty's surprisingly low-key entrance. Hospitality extends to history and historians. Meanwhile, a slight kink at the other end of the divinity faculty leads pedestrians around the history building towards the arts faculty and law library.

These points are literal, but architecture can achieve very little unless it starts with a literal dimension. Inside, the building suggests more metaphorical interpretations. The entrance leads to the heart of the circular drum with a full-height vertical shaft marking its centre. From it leads a dark axis culminating in the brighter staircase and garden. When completed next year, patterns of use should substantiate these literal points and their metaphoric allusions. Ford finds "a sense of rightness about the form". Just as the best traditions in theology are "self-critical", so the new building has a "dynamic of deep engagement in the past, an understanding of modernity and a view of what might happen" - all characteristics of his broad and expansive ambitions for theology.

If the Cambridge divinity faculty shows how an ancient subject can re-state its position within an ancient university, Foster's management faculty at Robert Gordon shows how a new subject can help to create an image for a new university. Faculty dean Bill McIntosh had "no preconceptions about the shape", he says, but liked Foster and Partners for their innovation, "which tied up with our self-image and the pictures being drawn". He wanted an "innovative and enterprising environment" to match the "vocational and high-tech ethics of the faculty".

The building also marks the second stage of a conceptual, pedestrian "street" running west to the faculty of design, and which will run east to join up with the other faculties as they move to the Garthdee campus. As this "street" enters the building, it is transformed into a four-storey atrium that, with a shop, cafe and easy routes to lecture rooms and the library, acts as a unifying central space. The universal spine takes on the particularities of the faculty.

Management does not lend itself to the metaphorical interpretations of theology. But such atria are common features in modern office buildings, implying a visual analogy between the academic and theoretical aspects of management and its practical application. Corporations, however, do not generally have large libraries. With 630 study places, the building has plenty of space given that many of the 2,500 students are on part-time and sandwich courses.

McIntosh sees something of "the old notion of reading for a degree" in the prominence accorded to the library: it occupies about half the space in the building. In use since last September, the building marked a step-change in the faculty. "The design has changed the operation," he says, with meeting points and open-plan offices to "encourage interaction and teamwork".

Michael Wheeler, director of the Ruskin programme at Lancaster University,suggests that John Ruskin covered theology, art, literature and even management - "he was such a polymath".

This made his work the ideal focus for the interdisciplinary 19th-century programme that Wheeler wanted to establish on receiving his chair in 1990. About the same time, Alfred North Whitehouse's Ruskin collection at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight needed a new home and, shortly afterwards, the National Lottery made funds available for ambitious building projects.

These fortuitous circumstances belie the thoroughness of the academic endeavour. Wheeler and his colleagues "see Ruskin through the lens of the 19th century", in contrast to those such as Tim Hilton and Robert Hewison, responsible for reviving interest in Ruskin in the 1960s.

The Ruskin Library's architect, Richard MacCormac, had a similar experience. Studying in the "modern movement climate of Cambridge in the 1950s", he says, "I was more aware of William Morris". So both client and architect were engaged, through the project, on a similar intellectual quest - to discover what Ruskin might mean for a new generation.

Buoyed by support from the Education Trust, which owned the collection, and the university, which gave it a prominent site, Wheeler, MacCormac and their colleagues developed the idea of a modern Ruskinian institution. Both allude to relatively literal Ruskinian readings: Wheeler to the causeway across the lagoon, with other Venetian referencesin the suggestions of canalsand the idea of a "treasury" contained in a larger form;MacCormac in its "isolation I standing for Ruskin's isolation in the 19th century".

But the Ruskin Library is far more practical than Ruskinhimself would ever have expected in a building. It conjures a sequence of enticing and usable spaces: a gallery for exhibitions to display some of the 2,000 works of art, a reading room with views that Ruskin would have enjoyed towards Morecombe Bay, meeting rooms and stores. It marks a gateway tothe campus - "a jewel in the crown", Wheeler calls it. So it becomes both a symbol and a servant of the academic achievement and ambition of a university that is still relatively new.

The outcome of each of these three processes has a satisfying rightness. But even more suggestive is the collective result, where three academic institutions have chosen architects for their ability to match design to programme.

Jeremy Melvin is a senior lecturer in architecture at South Bank University.

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