‘Couldn’t We Do That Again?’: What Architectural Education Can Still Learn from the Open University

An exhibition at Garagem Sul, Lisbon, captures the contemporary relevance of course A305

‘I was having a lot of fun doing very nerdy things,’ explains Joaquim Moreno, introducing his exhibition ‘The University Is Now On Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture’. The show, which recently arrived at Garagem Sul, the architecture gallery (and former parking garage) in Lisbon’s Centro Cultural de Belém following its opening run at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal last year, centres around A305, an architecture course taught by the Open University (OU) to the British public between 1975 and 1982. 

The exhibition is a triumphant exploration of mass media and architectural education with a much broader application than its initial premise would suggest. For those unfamiliar with the institution, the OU was set up in 1969 by Jennie Lee – one half of a socialist power-couple with National Health Service founder, Nye Bevan – alongside others. According to Lee: ‘Enrolment as a student of the University should be open to everyone on payment of a registration fee, irrespective of educational qualifications, and no formal entrance requirement should be imposed.’ ‘This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed,’ explained Geoffrey Crowther, first Chancellor of the OU in 1969. ‘We have no courts – or spaces enclosed by buildings. Hardly even shall we have a campus,’ he continued, hinting at the OU’s main pedagogical innovation. Centred around distance learning, the OU enabled students to work in their own homes and neighbourhoods using materials sent via ‘the biggest postal operation of the UK’ requiring ‘Amazon-grade infrastructure’, according to Moreno. 

William Curti, Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement in England 1930-1939, 1975. Courtesy: Open University Press

Alongside the OU’s main social and postal innovations, its harnessing of the BBC’s broadcasting infrastructure provided an outlet to reach audiences nationwide in Britain during the mid-20th century – an era that architecture critic and A305 course author Reyner Banham has described as the ‘Second Machine Age’. Students of A305 (History of Architecture and Design 1890–1939) would thus tune into the BBC’s TV and Radio services to catch a lecture, usually from tutor Tim Benton. For example, Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye – which aired on Saturday 14 June 1975 at 08:55, with a rerun on Thursday 19 June at 18:40 – begins with Benton standing atop the house on the outskirts of Paris, where he turns to the camera to ask: ‘Why did Corbusier invent this phrase machine à habiter to describe houses like this one? And secondly, and I’m sure you’ll make your own mind up about this as we go on, what sort of a house is this like to live in?’ 

‘They were using television to allow an entire country to travel to see modern buildings they would never visit,’ explains Moreno. ‘The Villa Savoye was entering through people’s living rooms.’ This dynamic is expressed literally in the exhibition space, the central portion of which is occupied by mid-century furniture facing vintage televisions showing episodes from the course for visitors to enjoy. (They are also now all on YouTube, thanks to the Canadian Centre for Architecture.) This vision of domestic British environments – transplanted in both space and time – lends the OU and A305 an air of quaint romanticism, particularly when viewed through the lens of the Portuguese or Canadian publics visiting the exhibition.

Elsewhere, there are displays of course materials that would arrive in the post – textbooks on Expressionism or Europe 1900–14, study notes, even film strips and a film-strip viewer – which students would work with alongside the broadcasts. A brief sojourn into the architecture of the OU itself highlights the campus in Milton Keynes, notable for its lack of students and its Jennie Lee Library, a now-demolished modernist building by the late Jane Drew. Drawings and photographs of the campus, alongside the other artefacts, are complemented via exhibition didactics by Berlin-based graphic designers Something Fantastic who, in collaboration with London-based APPARATA architects, have created an environment that nods to the clean-cut, scientific aesthetic of the OU while retaining a contemporary perspective.

'The University Is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Archietecture', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: CCA; photograph: Tiago Casanova  

Looking back from what Banham might have called the Third Machine Age, these early days of the OU seem extraordinarily resonant. While the institution does still exist, its overlap with newer resources of the digital age – from Massive Online Open Courses like Coursera to a more general instant accessibility of information – has left it a somewhat clunky, outdated relic. What’s more, the fragmentation of media today (can we even talk about mass media at a time in which news come from so many different sources?) makes it impossible to imagine an equivalent broadcast to A305. 

And yet, more than just expressing saudade for this ‘crazy proposal’, as Moreno terms it, ‘The University Is Now On Air’ makes visible an experiment in harnessing huge resources for that increasingly distant concept: public good. With more flexible technological infrastructure available today (no offence Royal Mail) and a crisis of progressively inaccessible, profit-oriented higher education, it’s hard to leave the exhibition without wondering: couldn’t we do that again?

'The University Is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture UK 1975-1982' runs until 26 May 2019 at Garagem Sul, Lisbon

Main image: Shahab Mihandoust, still from an interview between Joaquim Moreno and Tim Bentton showing 'Broadcasting the Modern Moverment', Architectural Association Quaterly from 1975, 2017. Courtesy: CCA

George Kafka is a writer and editor living in London. He writes regularly for architecture and design publications including Metropolis, The Architectural Review, Blueprint and Disegno

Latest Magazines

Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019

frieze magazine

September 2019