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Paolo Strina

The Theatricality of the University Campus.

American Lessons

F. Gehry, post-modern architectural details of the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.

F. Gehry, post-modern architectural details of the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.

Direct experience gained in one of the most prestigious scenarios of American academia helps create a typological profile of the campus, a place that produces culture and that, originally, was set against the city according to a principle of anti-urban life. According to the American ideal, nowadays the campus represents a completed city part that wishes to impress the spectator – whether student, city inhabitant or visitor – by heightening emotional effects through its capacity to introject the complex functional programme of the entire urban settlement, and to communicate by means of thespian figures.

What can be more eloquent to describe a fact than an image, especially if it is urban, like a city or a fragment of a city?
In his study Images in the Modern City, Walter Benjamin attempts to immortalize places that are notably different from one another in terms of identity culture, grasping their peculiarities from direct experience, by using narrative snapshots focusing on sociological and anthropological aspects, as well as politics.
In tune with the literary reference, an architect recognizes the distinctive characteristics of a city by laying hands on the forms that subtend functions and trigger collective behavioural phenomena, as well as the actual image of the subject.
In the vast seas of the urban theatre, an allegorical image that well describes the current condition of the contemporary European city and not only, oddities of character are portrayed by protagonists of the urban scene emerging from the landscape of the indistinct.
These personages, often related to specialized containers that replicate the architectural type of the ‘grand machine’, if corroborated by supporting elements that guarantee multi-functionality of the whole, instil an effect of urban centrality that is latent in the settlement composite.
From them are derived places with a differentiated role according to their transcalar relational capacity with the urban whole and the stretches of the territory. Following this principle, it becomes possible to codify centralities reacting with city parts, the metropolitan landscape and multi-centric systems of relations.
The University Campus site. imported non-manneristically from the American model, like various polarities that catalyse extra-urban flows, embodies a potential centrality of a metropolitan type that can be adopted as a -pilot neighbourhood to try out new urban models of an integrated nature, to be set up using regeneration policies based on the technique of densification.
“The theme of urban theatricality emerges as soon as the city ceases to expand and is forced to gaze upon itself, thereby discovering the lack of image, as well as liveability and belonging, that have marked its recent development. How can we use the tools of architecture and the urban project to recover a condition in which the city, in particular its suburbs, once again becomes a theatre of the social relations and representativeness that animate it?” 
The context described is the result of an anti-city attitude rooted in urban planning and development strategies, out of which often come modern university campuses strongly linked to the infrastructure but equally strongly separated from the compact mass of the city.
The American lesson, centred on the architectural campus type, at one and the same time rehearsal room, backstage and stage for elitist communities of the of the Ivy League ilk, teaches how originally the university field-base was conceived as an alternative to the city, to the extent of reproducing the entire programmed complexity within a sort of student phalanstère. An analogical comparison following the theatrical metaphor leads to a parallel with Classical and and late Renaissance ancient theatre, where the principle of introversion and isolation with respect to the remaining urban community places reigns. Since the advent of the departmental institution and the consequent increase in the range of courses, a greater need has arisen for specific spaces for each disciplinary area, corresponding to a contextual explosion of the form of the eighteenth-nineteenth century chromosome. The morphological upshot is a modern settlement divided and disseminated in a strict interface with the connective fabric of the expanding city; extroverted in terms of the local facilities that the campus can avail itself of, and introverted as far as interchangeable group and mass structures are concerned.
There are many modern campus models in the USA, in which can be gleaned the set of fragmentary plastic and expressive forms, components of a sort of urban dramaturgy; including the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles (1920). A genuine architectural revival in the form of a patchwork of classical-style volumetric elements, set out like a stage set. An interesting interpretation can be made of the interview with the designer, F. Gehry, included as a video-documentary available on the university’s official internet site, in which he appears sitting in a director’s chair; an allegorical image of the architect-director-playwright.
The Gehry of Loyola looks like the ancestor of the Gehry who designed the Ray and Maria Stata Center Pavilioninside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.The MIT is a cutting-edge university institute, specializing in technological research and featuring student services that guarantee a complete and unique life experience, inside a proper neighbourhood that is today completely encircled by the suburbs beyond the Charles River. 
The afore-mentioned campus is the subject of the preselected snapshot it derives from, via a caption description using key words, morpho-typological characteristics of the contemporary American field -base. 

Architectural layout:
founded in 1861, the campus lies on the right bank of the Charles River, near the confluence with the Mystic River on which the city of Boston rose in 1630. The main neoclassical block features an open courtyard with double wings lying along two governing axes (East-West, North-South) marked by two ‘pantheons’. The latter work as both a compositional pivot and, with their denotative domes, as landmarks indicating the monumental entrances to the historical block. Meanwhile, the green spaces instantly acquire notable importance in terms of both size and role, as demonstrated by the park nestling inside the courtyard overlooking the Charles River. To the West, directly connected to the urban and extra-urban traffic artery that links up with the historical city on the other side of the river, is the main entrance. The access is characterized by a pronaos that acts as a filter between the ‘Piranesian’ hall, the road, and the linear frontal park, a site of aggregation for resident students. The neoclassical nature of the original building is transmitted by the typical architectural elements, archetypes of different styles, such as pediments, colonnades, friezes and trabeations, as well as the rhythms of the spatial bays emphasized in perspective by pilasters. To the East, the modern features, which have evolved from the nineteenth century until today, inflect the formal and typological characteristics of the original building. Stylistically heterogeneous linear and punctual elements, (from the rational to hi-tech, passing via the Brutalism that marked Boston in the 19th century. with original creations like the City Hall by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and the Government Service Center by Paul Rudolph) composed together, arrange a sequence of conclusive but permeable spaces that echo the scheme of courtyards/furnished internal piazzas.
To the West the park is similar in type to a green mall, bordered to the South by a promenade lined with residences, and to the North by a terrace of complementary services and the campus’s aggregative activities. Despite the strong relationship between the buildings and the road, the confine is imperceptible, aside from the natural one to the South created by the river. This aspect encourages the facilities to spread outside the original complex while maintaining continuity with it.

The American campus is also a tourist destination: the top students its guides and enthusiastic promoters. Its historical value and contemporary quality are attractive factors for the masses. The visitor is fascinated by the architectural constructions that punctuate the fabric of the university-city. In this specific case, the building-monument of technology and science is the Ray and Maria Stata Center Pavilion, a symbol of hi-tech that predominantly houses electronic engineering and IT labs, other labs researching artificial intelligence and teaching rooms. In pure Gehry style, the building is a manifesto of the institute’s technological and expressive avant-garde. 
This architectural example, together with other elements characterizing the campus’s modern developmental phases, answers pure visibilist aesthetic requisites.   

Residence and Aggregation
The residential facility, commonly associated with the typically Anglo-Saxon Brotherhood House concept, is concentrated in a site outside the educational and operational centre; it follows a serial and sequential composition decidedly eclectic in terms of its volumes that marks the bank of the Charles. Their arrangement creates a border element which, by complementing the specular structures lining the road, defines the typology of the mall overlooking the ‘rotunda’ of the main entrance. The centre of the mall, in pure Jefferson style, is enlivened by the Kresge Auditorium designed by Eero Saarinen, out from which stretch the open-air sports and recreational areas.
The choice of the site brings an idea of ‘student village’ in which comfort is guaranteed as much by the quality of the residential spaces as the available services. The line of residences, dialoguing with the interior of the mall and with the river towards Memorial Drive, stands out for its ‘dual-fronts’ eminently expressed by Baker House, the student hall of residence designed by Alvar Aalto in 1946. The organic nature so typical of Aalto’s style breaks up the rational serial style of the earliest residential blocks that open the volumetric enfilade. This is a student hall of residence for freshmen, devoid of any institutional symbol as the designer wished. The building stands out starkly against the neoclassical language of the background chromosome. The relationship with the natural landmark of the river is reflected in the undulating façades answering requisites of visibility, adherence and rapport with the landscape, the sunlight and consequent interior comfort, as well as variety in distribution. In fact, in line with the design scheme, the single, double and triple rooms with a total of 353 beds, all enjoy a view of the river and great natural light.
The variety in the types of room, which is also reflected in the façade, featuring a particular double curve shape, meant that common spaces could be created inside for leisure rooms and small refectories.
The residence described is an expression of ante litteram social-housing.    

Mens et Manus:
motto of the MIT and mantra of the students and lecturers who inhabit it; manifesto of a specialized, evolved place, the star of a work staged in the theatre of urban forms.  


W. Benjamin, Immagini di Città, Turin, 2007
I. Calvino, Lezioni Americane, Turin, 2000
G. Canella, Il Sistema Teatrale a Milano, Bari, 1966
G. Canella, L. Stellario D’Angiolini, Università, Ragione, Contesto, Tipo, Bari, 1975
K. Christiaanse, K. Hoeger, Campus and the City: urban design for the knowledge society, Zurich, 2007
M. Loi, Thomas Jefferson, 1734-1826. Primo Architetto Americano, Turin, 1993
C. Quintelli, La Città del Teatro, Milan, 1995
P. Reed, Alvar Aalto. 1898-1976, Milan, 2007
PhD thesis: N. Montini, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di parti di città, Parma, 2015
PhD thesis: A. Nolli, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane in sistema di relazione policentrico, Parma, 2015
PhD thesis: P. Strina, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di tipo metropolitano, Parma, 2015 

Paolo Strina, architects, has a Ph.D title in architectural composition at University of Parma. He is a member of a research group Urban and Architectural Laboratory.

F. Gehry, post-modern architectural details of the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.

F. Gehry, post-modern architectural details of the Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.