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“The School of Athens”1 is an ambition; a utopian vision of a free, open, informal, and common space for learning. It is an in-between space. Neither inside nor outside, not quite a room, but also not simply a space for circulation. It is monumental, but also generous, and almost casual. It is not a classroom, and yet we see scholars and students debating, teaching, and studying. Although we typically think of learning taking place in the classroom, educators and architects have recognized for thousands of years that learning also takes place in the space between; in the hallways, on the stairs, at the café, in the quad. Socrates taught in the Agora. Plato founded his Academy in the olive grove outside of Athens and often taught while walking. Medieval colleges were organized around a communal courtyard. 20th century universities are filled with informal learning spaces often associated with circulation, and today there is a particular fascination with designing staircases, or stepped seating spaces, as the main architectural feature of an academic commons.

Architects throughout history have experimented with different spatial strategies for creating “free-spaces” in academic institutions – unprogrammed spaces for impromptu conversations, casual gossip, pop-up lectures, networking, and informal teaching. However, these in-between spaces are often difficult to see amidst all of the other programmes in a university building.

“The School of Athens” exhibition at the Greek Pavilion considers these academic common spaces as architectural specimens; objectively identified, classified, and made legible for analysis, comparison, and debate. Specifically, the exhibition showcases physical models of fifty-six different academic common spaces from across history and around the world, both realized and unrealized. By no means canonical, complete, or definitive, this selection is simply meant to provide a diverse and representative sample of projects that are compelling. With more time and resources, this study could productively expand to include hundreds of projects. The fifty-six models on display are all treated equally, mounted on the end of vertical steel bars, elevated to waist height for easy viewing from all angles, and organized in a grid that fills the pavilion equally in all directions. The physical models are complemented by data, drawing, and image pamphlets that allow for further project comparison. An online database of all fixty-six digital models can be accessed for further interrogation and play.

The pavilion is its own kind of learning “freespace.” By self-conciously adopting the architectural trope (or architectural cliché?) of the amphitheater, the space is constructed as a stepped landscape that enables individual study, small group informal conversation, and large group lectures and debates. The field of 3d printed models is displayed across this landscape, inviting visitors to move throughout the pavilion, and animate the models – almost as additional participants – during large lectures or events.

A pavilion that examines the common spaces that students and teachers occupy should be researched and produced by students and teachers. The project is an international collaboration between students and faculty at the National Τechnical University of Athens and the Architectural Association in London. Through a series of workshops held in Athens and London throughout the spring of 2018 we collectively selected the projects, identified the academic commons in each, “designed” the extracted specimen digitally, and fabricated the physical models.

There’s no absolute definition of the academic commons. It remains subjective, slippery, and open for debate. However, its clear that the academic commons is paradoxically the space within the university that is either un-programmed, or that is capable of supporting a multitude of different programs. The academic commons is the connective tissue of the university, often having some overlap with the main circulation spaces, but they are not necessarily equivalent. To borrow Hannah Arendt’s term, the academic commons is the “space of appearance” within the university, the institutional equivalent of the public space in the city, or of the living room in the house. It is the space to see and be seen.

We believe that the architecture of academic institutions is in need of continual critique and update, and that the common spaces within the university are particularly vital to the university’s continued relevance and vibrancy. Researching, revealing, and evaluating the architecture of the academic commons that surround us is a critical first step towards being able to reinvent the academic commons of the future. There is therefore an urgent need to both look back, and to scan across the current landscape of university architecture, to extract interesting and successful spaces that are “free” – democratic, unprogrammed, and common.

Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser, May 2018

1 – Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511, Fresco, 500cm x 770cm. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.