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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.102 Santiago ago. 2019 


Learning to learn: Review of “The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture”

Alfredo Thiermann1 

1 Doctoral fellow, ETH Zurich, Suiza.


During the sixties and seventies, there were speculations about the cultural changes that mass media could bring about. Nevertheless, only a handful examples exist in which they were actually implemented. This exhibition recalls one of the few that managed to do so: the Open University’s A305 course. Accurately - as the review argues - the exhibition invites us to speculate again on how to make architecture available to broader audiences.

Keywords: speculation; idea; history; critique; research.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 1 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture exhibits a pioneering case study: A305, History of Architecture and Design, 1890-1939. Curator Joaquim Moreno presents this third-year undergraduate arts course, offered by the Open University via television and radio broadcasts from the BBc between 1975 and 1982, as a radical example of sharing knowledge through the intricate relationship of mass media and mass culture.

Source: © Tiago Casanova

Figure 2 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

Displayed in the Garagem Sul - located in the Cultural Centre of Belém (CCB) designed by Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado - the exhibition implies anything but a frontal relationship with a specific object. It is rather an experience based on movement and distraction, on looking at many things simultaneously, whether voluntary or not. This was the way chosen to present and represent a radical experiment that made thousands of people tune in every week to learn about architecture.

Visitors are invited to reenact what it felt like to sit in the comfort of their homes and receive, through television, education about modern architecture. A pale blue curtain meanders between the concrete columns of the Garagem creating an instant homely feeling, as if the domestic space of Britain in the seventies has been broadcasted to Lisbon for the exhibition. In parallel, the visitor is invited to look at the back of the house, to see, hear, and read about the efforts that manufacturing that very experience demanded. In this multi-dimensionality one may take the position of a student in front of the television to learn about the London Underground as a large piece of modern architecture; then, just by going around the curtain, one takes the position of the producer or legislators and, suddenly, by being confronted with the works produced by the students, one takes the place of the instructor.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 3 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

In its seven years of existence, the A305 course produced twenty-four television episodes and thirty-two radio programs. Thousands of students were enrolled, including manufacturing workers (3 %), clerical and office staff (10 %), housewives (15 %), and teachers and educators (23 %). By mail, all of them would receive printed support material organized in booklets for each episode. As recalled by Tim Benton - the course founder and team leader - students also received a “plan-reading guide,” and a box containing different objects and materials to explore, following prescribed exercises. At the end of the term, they were asked to submit a final paper or exercise by mail. By cataloging, organizing, and presenting all the material this exhibition thematizes the idea of - and invites to reflect upon - how relevant it is to learn how to learn.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 4 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

Through new and diverse pedagogical strategies, influenced by the very nature of electronic media technologies, architecture itself began to be transformed. One of the most fascinating moments the show uncovers is the course unit dedicated to expressionism. As part of this unit, episode seven is dedicated to the Einstein Tower by Erich Mendelsohn (completed in 1922). Located in Potsdam in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the building was inaccessible to western television, and thus demanded a particular imagination from the producers. In the opening sequence, a rotating plaster model of the tower is presented while we hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat”. Using totally unconventional angles to film the continuously rotating maquette, and making quick cuts to images of the war and fragments of Mendelsohn’s sketches, the episode depicts how the BBC studios were temporarily transformed into a media-construction site. By piecing together seemingly unrelated fragments, the episode constructs a space in which ideas of entertainment and education, high culture and popular culture are mixed and combined around Mendelsohn’s tower, making the very object appealing to a larger audience.

Source: © Augusto Brazio

Figure 5 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

Through this exercise of presenting and representing the multi-dimensionality of this multi-media enterprise, another scale of action

is introduced. For in the era of electronic media technologies, material infrastructures do not disappear. An accessible and colorful graphic design by Berlin-based studio Something Fantastic unpacks the territorial organization that this educational endeavor demanded. A spread network of localized instructors is depicted next to the nation-wide post network designed to deliver material to students and instructors. Next to that, another map of the UK depicts the coverage areas of radio and television signals emitted by the BBC, displaying how this new media-geography blurred the limits between rural and urban. All the booklets, video cassettes, Polaroid cameras, microphones, built facilities, and maps are presented as a form of architecture in itself, as the material evidence of this large infrastructure. Here is when the exhibition acknowledges its limitations while highlighting its strengths: the most interesting object depicted in the show is, by far, the exhibition itself.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 6 Einstein Tower «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

By linking mass media with mass education, the pure language of modern architecture gets ‘polluted’. The depiction of Mendelsohn’s Tower was different from what experts knew, becoming an approachable and entertaining novelty to anyone outside architectural academia. In the same way, people at their homes literally entered the Villa Savoye. The camera moves following the ramp and the protagonist Tim Benton walks up the stairs before asking to an audience that has already received a poster with the building’s floor plans: “What sort of a house is this like to live in?” In episode three, Sandra Millikin introduces the female body when moving through the Hill House designed by Mackintosh in 1903. “You feel you can sit all day here and let the sun pour over you,” we hear her in a voice-over as she sits on a bench and the camera pans to focus on the built-in bookshelves. Highlighting moments like this, the exhibition halts the male voice and opens up space to other values and forms of reception.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 7 Ville Savoye «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

Instead of peripheral transformations of just the medium, these examples could be read as a deep re-coding of the very language of modern architecture. To use the classic Marshall McLuhan jargon - widely present throughout the exhibition’s texts and catalog - the show makes us wonder how much of a medium and how much of a message was modern architecture? Architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has demonstrated that printed mass-media was a key ‘construction site’ for modern architecture, perhaps as relevant as buildings. Following that trajectory, Joaquim Moreno - former student of Colomina - aims to expand that question beyond the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy,’ by looking at how modern architecture was communicated through electronic media technologies.

Source: © Alfredo Thiermann

Figure 8 Hill House «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

In terms of content, the A305 course worked very close to the canon of modern architecture. But, through the inevitable transformations proposed by mass media, the course went beyond such canon, proposing a multi-sensorial, multi-channel, and multi-media construction of the idea of modern space. If the canonical ‘modern space’ - present in and constructed through the books of Pevsner and Giedion - was primarily a visual construction, by understanding the audiovisual ethos of mass media and addressing a different and much diverse audience, the A305 course was forced to construct a different idea of modern space. For example, in the twentieth transmitted through radio, and teaching about “The Labor-Saving Home”, a very young Adrian Forty will tell a dispersed classroom that “(his) job is to show you the kind of household that the 1920s housewife could escape to with electricity.” He asked students to look at their booklets and interpret, in those drawings, how electric appliances were replacing servants in middle-class homes. Cases like this illustrate how the everyday medium of radio intersected the everyday domestic space, depicting a symbiosis between medium and message. Yet, if the exhibition presents the space constructed by the course A305 - which built upon the canon of modern architecture, but went beyond it - what kind of space was that? How different is it from the previously constructed canons of ‘modern space’?

Source: © Augusto Brazio

Figure 9 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

Addressing this question from multiple angles and proposing no synthetic answer, the exhibition presents an idea of space that operates simultaneously on multiple channels. As it redefines boundaries, including disciplinary ones, this space certainly becomes more pluralistic and democratic, allowing other voices to be heard. In this sense, the exhibition beautifully and precisely reconstructs a radical example of an unusual collaboration between architecture, mass culture, and mass media. In so doing so, it creates a medium through which to rethink architecture in a twofold way. First, it demonstrates how architecture could be mobilized to articulate and communicate art and aesthetic practices to broader audiences, proposing it as the missing link between high culture and mass culture. But, on the other hand, it meaningfully illustrates how, received ideas about modern architecture needed to be transformed and negotiated in order to serve this purpose, constructing an alternative version of modern space.

Source: © Tiago Casanova

Figure 10 «The University is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture». Curated by Joaquim Moreno. 

At a time when higher education is facing a crisis of access and quality, the exhibition raises questions about who produces knowledge and who is responsible for mass education today. And while we witness the rise of populist discourses and the simplistic and easy answers they provide to difficult questions, the exhibition leaves its students - meaning us - with a clear homework: to think how we can make our specific knowledge meaningful and relevant to everyone.


Alfredo Thiermann Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2012. Master of Architecture, Princeton University, Usa, 2016. Doctoral fellow, ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Through design practice and theoretical research, he explores the intersection between architecture and different media. He has taught and lectured at Harvard University, Princeton University, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Universidad San Sebastián. His written and built work has been published in various magazines and has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago, among other institutions.

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