Gardening against learning: how campus design kills conversation

Since the 19th century, universities in the English-speaking world have been designed without a street or piazza in mind. The idea was for each building to sit on its own grounds, irrespective of how little land was available, in imitation of a palace or monastery surrounded by fields and garden. The university was to be a world apart – a cerebral haven – without the throng of a city but rather an otherworldly calm.gardening-against-learning-how-campus-design-kills-conversation

This withdrawal from a surrounding community was facilitated during the expansion of universities in the second half of the 20th century. Land in the outer suburbs was cheap. The tradition of university as park was honoured and crowned with its logical extension: car parks, which discreetly surround the campus behind visual barriers of shrub.

What’s wrong with lots of green?

While there’s nothing wrong with nature as such, the pressure on open spaces to become “green” is difficult to manage and to reconcile with the throng of conversational bodies. Each corner of our campuses seems determined to become a garden, to the point that the contemporary campus is mostly a set of discrete buildings surrounded by garden and connected by paths.

The tragedy of this trend, which has enjoyed unquestioned growth for a century, is that the resulting spaces have no power to symbolise a community coming together for conversation. Internationally, the progressive gardenisation of academic space has denied the presence of a concourse or piazza and has weakened the relationship between architecture and surrounding space. Examples can be found on any campus near you, where visual and pedestrian access to buildings is restricted, and so, too, is the amount of space suitable for walking on. It is almost as if a building is so disgraceful that it has to be hidden; and people potentially milling around have to be moved along. Even when spaces were originally designed in sympathy with human assembly, they are often reinterpreted with gardens to lessen the likelihood.

Because contemporary campus design discourages human assembly, it discourages conversation, which is the soul of socialised learning. We can learn anywhere: in a lounge-room chair, in the local library or on the kitchen table. If there’s any point in having a physical campus it is to socialise one’s developing knowledge, which is learning through conversation. Outdoor space can be a powerful symbol of gathering for such purposes, but the opportunity is largely passed up in favour of gardening.

Campus design should reflect universities’ aims

The trend in contemporary education is to unburden classes of content, which could be transmitted online, and to open up the university experience to more conversation, where students develop and practise their learning with peers and tutors. While the academic trend is toward conversation, campus design turns its back on conversation.

The qualities that symbolise community and facilitate conversation have been cultivated in towns for hundreds of years. They are, above all, the concourse and the courtyard, two features that are either unrecognised by architects or annihilated by landscape architects. Some, although few, universities have courtyards but the way that they’ve been interpreted kills their purpose. They’ve been gardenised into social passivity.

Central to this unsociable layout is a major aesthetic institution, long hallowed in English-speaking countries, the lawn or campus green. Irrespective of size, lawns fail to express a sense of community and seldom facilitate the congress of people. The aesthetic usually takes precedence over its possible use as an area of congregation. Often little strings and fences, elevated beds and changes of level and other features are contrived to keep people off the grass.

The truly community-friendly vegetation is the tree. Compatible with foot traffic and pavement, sight lines, gatherings and processional space, the welcome shady tree also has genuinely eco-friendly properties, because it simultaneously produces oxygen and archives carbon. However, trees are seldom exploited for their urbanistic sympathies but are planted scenographically as a simulacrum of nature, as if part of the bush or park rather than pavement.

As the university campus increasingly shuns urbanism, the consequence is a downgrading of outdoor verbal exchange, because people move busily along paths rather than hang out in courtyards.

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