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robertogreco : disbelief   3

THE THINKBELT: THE UNIVERSITY THAT NEVER WAS | Discover Society
"In this commentary, I revisit an article from New Society which evokes a moment in the development of British higher education in the post-war period but also, I argue, could still illuminate thinking on debates about the roles and responsibilities of universities within their wider social settings. The Potteries Thinkbelt piece, published in 1966, proposes an unbuilt project that today serves as a parable of what higher education did not become, of a path not taken. To contemporary eyes, aspects of the Thinkbelt proposal may seem fantastical; yet, if we can enable what Coleridge named ‘that willing suspension of disbelief’, it could offer us lessons about the relationship between universities and the cities or regions that host them.

The author of the Thinkbelt was Cedric Price, an architect with relatively few realized projects but who, through his teaching roles, writings and published drawings, has nonetheless exerted a deep influence on how leading members of a generation of architects think about architecture, and how their buildings sit within their wider social settings. In the Thinkbelt, Price outlined an ambitious project for a centre of higher education amongst the coal fields of Staffordshire. These pits originally served ceramics factories throughout the region but, by the early 1960s, had fallen into disuse – de-industrialisation came early to the Potteries. The landscape Price wished to regenerate spanned approximately 100 square miles, was triangular in shape, and stretched from Pitts Hill in the North, Madeley at its Western point and Meir to the East, with Stoke and Newcastle-Under-Lyme located at its heart.

The Thinkbelt would connect to outside rail, road and air networks via transfer areas at the points of the triangle. Industrial units at these points offered campus sites that could be reconfigured according to differing uses – so, in addition to public learning spaces, these units would also offer accommodation for visiting students and staff. The transfer sites would be connected together by continuously running railbuses using the disused railway network that previously had connected the pits with the potteries; Price was interested in enhancing the efficacy of the already there. Furthermore, the railbuses themselves could be reconfigured as learning spaces so that teaching might be carried out en route, with fold-out deck units offering more space for larger lectures and talks.

Price envisaged the Thinkbelt as offering education for 20,000 students, following mostly applied curricula in engineering and science subjects. Indeed, the Thinkbelt was an industrial undertaking in large part; its remit included working with regional industries as research and design centres, as well as offering re-training in new industries for local residents whose work in the pits and potteries had disappeared. The Thinkbelt was designed for 20,000 students, but with provision for 40,000 residential units that were flexible in form and adaptable to possible relocation and aggregation; Price wished to see student housing combined with local council tenancies. The four different forms of residential units were crudely named as sprawl, capsule, crate and battery housing, using terminology specifically intended to irritate professional designers.

The Thinkbelt rejected previous and contemporaneous ideas about appropriate university architecture, with Price’s aesthetic citing industrial forms such as the container, rather than what he perceived to be the pretensions of twentieth century university buildings. Typically, he viewed contemporaneous campus designs as aspiring to the medieval form of the castle (ivory towers included), making defensive spaces removed from the rest of their towns. Price made a virtue of his avoidance of the design principles that characterised the university movement in both pre-war and post-war periods. ‘While students’, he wrote in 1970, ‘are at present one of the most mobile social groups of technologically advanced societies the nature of their own particular production plants – schools, colleges and universities, is static, intro-spective, parochial, inflexible and not very useful’ (1).

If Price cared little for university architecture, he cared even less for the principles of university education, taking care to avoid the use of the word in his scheme. Certainly his scheme for such a large cohort of students by contemporaneous standards worked against the exclusivity typical of the sector at that time; his preference for science and engineering spoke to the idea that education should be seen as serving wider societal uses, rather than purely for the fulfilment of individuals from elite social groupings. The Thinkbelt sought to correct an imbalance in the esteem paid to ‘applied’ rather than ‘pure’ knowledge, through an architecture which was functional, flexible and impermanent rather than ornamental, fixed in purpose and inert.

The Thinkbelt was to be a site of learning premised on patterns of mobility, at individual, collective and even infrastructural scales. This mobility, embedded within the physical buildings themselves, spoke to a wider understanding of the word in debates about meritocracy and the opening out of higher education to a part of the population hitherto under-represented. Price’s project was far-sighted in its emphasis on flexibility within the curriculum, planning for access through life-long and part-time learning and hence alive to the needs of student groups that, as Paul Stanistreet has suggested, are often overlooked in contemporary debates. Certainly the Thinkbelt anticipates debates about whom and what higher education is for, pre-dating current arguments about the value of a university degree in terms of the ‘employability’ agenda for the individual learner and the value of an educated workforce for national industries. Price’s analysis of the social value of higher education more generally is incisive; towards the conclusion of the New Society piece he makes the case for student loans to become salaries, arguing that where ‘people are doing a job society wants them to do, they must be paid for it’.

Moreover, the Thinkbelt prompts consideration of the disjuncture that can arise between the places where we work and where we live. The combination of student residences with local council tenancies sought to integrate the student experience with that of the wider population, disrupting preconceived ideas about the housing of students on campus accommodation away from residents of the towns and cities that give universities their names. Indeed, the Thinkbelt was written in the shadow of early tensions, noted in the article itself, between managers and students at Keele, and the University’s apparent disregard for the surrounding region. In this magazine, Mary Stuart has questioned how alive universities are to their civic missions – the Thinkbelt, for all its hypothetical aspects, gives us a benchmark for thinking through such issues. Are our universities supplementary to the cities and regions that give them their names and that sustain them economically? How do academics and students engage with each other? And how do we interact with our neighbouring populations?

The Thinkbelt is an experiment in conceiving of a different type of learning environment; think about the dynamics of a lecture in a moving rail carriage, and how it might bring staff and students into contact in a way that we can all too easily avoid in the stratified spaces we build into our campus lives. The Thinkbelt is premised on a different social and political settlement for higher education to that which we labour under today; in its own time, it did not attract the attention of policy makers, falling as it did by the margins of planning for the University of the Air – later to become the Open University. Yet its focus on place remains of interest. In returning to the Thinkbelt here, my argument is not that Price’s proposal offers us answers to our debates about the public role of universities today – there are too many questions around the complexities of academic freedom, architectural design and political context to claim that. Nonetheless, as Samantha Hardingham reflects, ‘if there is a use for presenting this material again, here and now, it may be to ask whether we are looking at something we already know, or looking for something we still cannot see yet’ (2).

Whether Price’s proposal can offer clues about a future we cannot yet see is interesting for a number of reasons, not least in raising the question of why we find it difficult to imagine our futures in quite the same ways, with quite the same optimism as he did. At the beginning of this commentary, I suggested that adopting a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ might be useful in approaching the Thinkbelt; for Coleridge, the suspension of disbelief is necessary to enable what he understood as ‘poetic faith’. Poetry and faith – it strikes me that these are qualities too often missing from thinking about higher education, and its planning; by these I mean a belief in the potential of universities to actively shape socially just economies and societies (rather than accelerating the reproduction of inequalities, as Stephen McKay and Karen Rowlingson argue), and the lyrical licence to imagine how they might do this."
darylmartin  2014  thinkbelt  cedricprice  universities  colleges  highered  highereducation  architecture  education  rail  transportation  unschooling  deschooling  cities  urban  urbanism  disbelief  transcontextualism 
june 2019 by robertogreco
Alexandra Lange: Letter to LACMA
"Letter to LACMA

I’ve only been to LACMA one time. But this is what I did when I was there.

1. Took a photo (not a selfie) of Chris Burden’s Urban Light.
2. Signed up to see the James Turrell on an iPad at an outdoor kiosk.
3. Listened to the jazz band on the plaza.
4. Rode the escalator up and the elevator down inside what will soon be the old Broad.
5. Walked up and down the stairs and through Tony Smith’s Smoke.
6. Rapped on the enamel panels of the Art of Americas Wing.
7. Saw some art.

That motley list of movements and buildings and sights is, it seems to me, the essence of what LACMA is right now, a museum in many parts, a sum of choices, without hierarchy. A place where you can go in and you can go out at will, not when the architecture tells you to.

That’s an experience rare in large urban museums today, where the impulse always seems to be to agglomerate more real estate, connected indoors, around a central atrium or a central staircase. To go out you have to retrace your steps through long sequences of galleries, or pass to and fro past the store, café, coatcheck. There are many layers of architecture between you and the outside, however many slot-like windows the architect has inserted to tell you where you are. There’s a relentlessness to the arrangement that says, You should see it all, rather than, at LACMA, Why don’t you just pop in for a minute?

In fact, the only large museum I’ve been to that has a similar feeling, and was designed all at the same time, is Pedro Ramirez Vasquez’s Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. There, you can also go in and out easily, as each gallery has doors to its own garden as well as a central courtyard. A gap between two galleries becomes an outdoor display space, a level change leads to a shady café. You can skip stops, criss-cross, go up and down, sit by the fountain, and you always know where you are. The courtyard of the Anthropology Museum is shaded by a giant parasol, akin to OMA’s 2001 LACMA plan, which used a transparent roof to unite the parts without tearing so many of them down. [Ed. note: I realized last night I’ve had the details of this plan wrong in my mind for years, having reframed it as a greenhouse of the past and future.)

When I first read Peter Zumthor’s remarks about his plan for LACMA, it seemed like he got this. Liking small museums rather than large museums, creating a series of separate themed entrances to the collection, and pulling back the building to make room for outdoor activities, were all interpretations of the same motley path I followed. I thought the museum could create a tear-off ticket that would let you pay once and experience the museum over days or weeks, one leg at a time. But then I saw the blob or, I later decided to call it, the blot. It was still a giant totalizing figure, even though it looked different from the more mannerly toplit boxes elsewhere – even on other parts of the LACMA site. The fragmentary nature that seems part of LACMA’s DNA – it is #4 on the most Instagrammed museums list, even without a recognizable front door – seemed to disappear into the blackness. Would the LACMA selfie now include the museum as a dark cloud overhead?

Any architectural design has to win fans through suspension of disbelief. The model, the rendering, something has to make you believe that the architect can deliver the experience he or she has in mind. Zumthor’s LACMA hasn’t cleared that bar for me yet. We haven’t been given enough detail about how the parts would work together to knit together a possible experience, or even a good answer to the question: Why is this the best way to accomplish the museum’s goals? When it was a blot I wanted him to take the liquid metaphor further: A liquid should insinuate itself between solids (like the existing buildings) or soak in to the base layer, creating a new landscape. This did neither.

Nothing in his Zumthor’s previous museum work was similar enough to create a mental collage of how the blot might be to visit. The new version, released this week, comes a little closer to reality. What Zumthor seems to have done is embed galleries closer to his previous, petite museums in the inky form, eliminating many of the legs (too bad), and breaking it down into trapezoids as if to find a scale closer to his comfort zone. I’m worried about the circulation (once you go up, how to you get down, or outside?) and the underneath (is it like the underside of a highway?).

The ease of movement between inside and outside is gone once you raise it up on stilts to get over Wilshire Boulevard. And for an architect whose Swiss projects are embedded in the landscape, it seems strange to impose these flat black pancake floors around the galleries. Peter Zumthor is a critics’ darling because his buildings feel like special places and trust me, we’ve been to too many generic art spaces. What kind of place will this be?"
lacma  2015  alexandralange  museums  experience  peterzumthor  art  artmuseums  architecture  design  autonomy  hierarchy  control  choice  freedom  disbelief  architectire  fragmentation  losangeles 
march 2015 by robertogreco
bint battuta: "Disbelief in yourself is indispensable." Yevgeny Yevtushenko
"While you’re alive it’s shameful to worm your way into the Calendar of Saints.
Disbelief in yourself is more saintly.



It is indispensable to be sleeplessly delirious,
to fail, to leap into emptiness.
Probably, only in despair is it possible
to speak all the truth to this age.

It is indispensable, after throwing out dirty drafts,
to explode yourself and crawl before ridicule,
to reassemble your shattered hands
from fingers that rolled under the dresser.



And if from out of the dirt, you have become a prince, but without principles,
unprince yourself and consider
how much less dirt there was before,
when you were in the real, pure dirt.
Our self-esteem is such baseness…
The Creator raises to the heights
only those who, even with tiny movements,
tremble with the fear of uncertainty.



Blessed is the madcap artist,
who smashes his sculpture with relish –
hungry and cold – but free
from degrading belief in himself."
significance  self-esteem  creativity  creation  writing  self-worship  self-worth  uncertainty  principles  cv  glvo  art  humility  disbelief  poetry  yevgenyyevtushenko 
march 2012 by robertogreco

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