No University Buildings

On November 17, 2008 the Senate of the University of Waterloo met to discuss a proposal to establish a satellite campus in the United Arab Emirates. In the days leading up to the meeting, members of the university community had expressed concern about various human rights issues in the UAE, and wondered if the University of Waterloo was wise to open a branch in Abu Dabi. Senior university administrators articulated a reasonable response to the issues raised, and also suggested that if Waterloo was to justify its reputation of being the most innovative university in Canada (at least according to the annual Macleans rankings), it should be prepared to take some risks. To assuage fears that the university would be quickly embedded in local society to such an extent that it would be difficult to maintain Canadian values, the Vice-President Academic and Provost Amit Chakma promised that if at some future date the position of the university would appear compromised as a result of a clash between Canadian and local values, he or his succesor would not hesitate to close the UAE campus and repatriate the program to Waterloo. Amit told the Senate that such an action would be relatively easy because the university did not intend to build or own buildings in Abu Dabi. It was to rent the necessary facilities from a local organization, the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training.

I was convinced by Chakma’s point—but not so much because I believe that we will indeed pack and leave when confronted with a unbridgeable conflict between our own sense of what is right and wrong and local customs. The reason that I accepted his argument arose from my understanding of the university as an institution that is not only rooted in a living past, but that also celebrates the formidable hold that past has on current educational ideals. In the end, the universities are still the places where sustained and disinterested enquiries that touch questions of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness have a place—enquiries that in the more utilitarian world outside the campus have little relevance. Such enquiries are part of what we like to call “The Academic Tradition”—one that is at least seven centuries old.

Universities take pride the longevity and vitality of the academic tradition, and often express in their buildings their antiquity: even in Canadian university architecture,  the so-called Collegiate Gothic style, which harkens back to the form of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, is alive and well. The Toronto architectural firm KPMB (Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna, Bloomberg), known for the refined modernism of its buildings, did not hesitate to design in the mid 1990s the Joseph S. Stauffer Library at Queen’s University in an updated version of the medieval precedent, with massive stone masonry and stripped down Gothic details.  The website of the library states that in its architecture the library aims to link to “the great academic traditions” and provide “a sense of stability and continuity.”[1] Not much original thought there. In fact, I would like to argue that the Waterloo non-campus campus in Abu Dabi may well be closer to the original spirit of the university in not going for buildings dressed in stone, but for some cheap (yes, we’re after all dealing with one of the least flashy and fiscally most cautious universities in Canada) and most likely dreary rented rooms in some concrete office building.

Let’s not forget: universities did not arose fully dressed in Collegiate Gothic. Like most worthy enterprises, they began naked. The first universities were the product of a counter-culture if not revolutionary movement that opposed a world that had gone stale, a world of feudal and ecclesiastical stability and continuity. The great Victorian scholar of education Simon Somerville Laurie described this situation in his Lectures on the Rise and Early Constitution of Universities (1886): universities were not the result of some Lord Spiritual deciding that the diocese needed educated men. “The Church did not found universities any more than it founded the orders of chivalry. They were founded by a concurrence (not wholly fortuitous) of able men who had something they wished to teach and youths who desired to learn.”[2] The universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the body corporate of masters and students, was a free, voluntary, self-supporting centre of teaching that was free of ecclesiastical and civil control and a place of free learning—something close to what we called in the late 1960s a “happening.”

As anyone who remembers the late 1960s knows that the strength of the happenings partly derived from the paucity and contingency of the setting. In his Empty Space (1968) the great English theoretician of happenings (and of course of modern theatre), Peter Brook, observed that “a Happening is a powerful invention, it destroys at one blow many deadly forms, like the dreariness of theatre buildings, and the charmless trappings of curtain, usherette, cloakroom, programme, bar. A Happening can be anywhere, any time, of any duration: nothing is required, nothing is taboo. A Happening may be spontaneous, it may be formal, it may be anarchistic, it can generate intoxicating energy. Behind the Happening is the shout ‘Wake up!’”[3] Brook was interested in the happening because he recognized in it the core of what theatre should aspire to: to be the Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible. Such theatre that Brook had first discovered when he traveled through the bombed cities of Germany in 1946.

Walking along the Reeperbahn in Hamburg on an afternoon in 1946, whilst a damp dispiriting grey mist whirled round the desperate mutilated tarts, some on crutches, noses mauve, cheeks hollow, I saw a crowd of children pushing excitedly into a night club door. I followed them. On the stage was a bright blue sky. Two seedy, spangled clowns sat on a painted cloud on their way to visit the Queen of Heaven. “What shall we ask her for?” said one. “Dinner,” said the other and the children screamed approval. “What shall we have for dinner?” “Schinken, leberwurst …” the clown began to list all the unobtainable foods and the squeals of excitement were gradually replaced by a hush—a hush that settled into a deep and true theatrical silence. An image was being made real, in answer to the need for something that was not there.[4]

Brook visited performances in bombed-out theatres, and was struck by their vitality.

In the burnt-out shell of the Hamburg Opera only the stage itself remained—but an audience assembled on it whilst against the back wall on a wafer-thin set singers clambered up and down to perform The Barber of Seville, because nothing would stop them doing so. In a tiny attic fifty people crammed together while in the inches of remaining space a handful of the best actors resolutely continued to practise their art. In a ruined Düsseldorf, a minor Offenbach about smugglers and bandits filled the theatre with delight. There was nothing to discuss, nothing to analyse—in Germany that winter, as in London a few years before, the theatre was responding to a hunger.[5]

At this time he first perceived the causal relationship between the destruction or of the theatre and the impact of the performance. He deepened his understanding in the mid 1960s, when he was to give a presentation in a university. The event was scheduled in a large and state-of-the-art lecture theatre. “As I began to speak, I felt that everything I said was quite pointless,” Brooks recalled 25 years later. “I became more and more depressed, for I couldn’t find a natural way of getting through to them.”

I saw them sitting like attentive students, waiting for words of wisdom with which to fill their notebooks, while I was cast in the role of a tutor, vested with the authority that goes with standing six feet above the listeners. Luckily I had the courage to stop and suggest we look for another space. The organisers went off, searched throughout the university and finally came up with a small room which was too narrow and very uncomfortable but where we found it possible to have a natural and more intense relationship. Speaking in these new conditions, I at once felt that a new contact existed between the students and myself. From that point on I was able to talk freely and the audience was liberated in the same way. The questions, like the answers, flowed much more smoothly.[6]

Am I too bold when I imagine the beginning of the university as a kind of happening that did thrive because it was not embodied in purpose-built architecture, because the masters and students met in the small and uncomfortable rooms such as the space that allowed Brook and the students to engage with each other? Certainly, in May 1890 the eminent historian Maurice Croiset suggested so much during his speech in honor of the sixth centenary of the University of Montpellier. The essence of the university was restless agitation and a spirit of renewal that opposed the powers that existed. 

Everywhere in Europe at that time, the two powers of the world attracted all attention—the one [the Church] by the boldness of its lofty cathedrals, the other [feudalism] by the massiveness of its castles. But between the two, and at their feet, an obscure force is already agitating. It is composed partly of ideas and partly of passions, a menacing force that is aroused by instinct and that does not know yet either all that it aims for, nor all that it might do.[7]

I like Professor Croiset’s characterization of the university as an “obscure” and “menacing” force that challenges by means of ideas and passion the might that is embodied in monumental buildings—and not only because I hope that the University of Waterloo will be able to develop from its borrowed and rented quarters a similar dialectical relationship to a political, social and commercial environment that has decided to mobilize the best and the brightest architects to create the greatest buildings in the world. I like it also because it so powerfully reminds us of that fact that not Collegiate Gothic, but a spirit that is closer to that described by Peter Brook lies at the heart of university architecture—a spirit that Brook saw embodied in the concept of the “empty space.” 

In order for something of quality to take place, an empty space needs to be created. An empty space makes it possible for a new phenomenon to come to life, for anything that touches on content, meaning, expression, language and music can exist only if the experience is fresh and new. However, no fresh and new experience is possible if there isn’t a pure, virgin space ready to receive it.[8]

In Hastings Rashdall’s standard work on the origin and history of medieval universities, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (first published in 1895 and still in print), the 13th subsection of Chapter Five, “Paris,” paragraph 3, “The Constitution and Privileges of the University,” is tersely labeled “No university buildings.” Writing about the University of Paris, Rashdall observed that “neither the university nor its constituent bodies assembled in a building of its own.” 

The great medieval universities (as distinct from their colleges) were poor corporations. Neither Paris nor Oxford possessed any endowments whatever, except a few legacies devoted to special purposes, such as a benefaction for poor scholars, or the patronage of a few chaplaincies or other benefices. In this poverty lay the real strength of the universities, upon occasions of collision with the spiritual and temporal authorities: just as their wealth was the weakness of the great ecclesiastics in their struggles with the secular arm. If a university “seceded” or dispersed”, there were no temporalities which could be sequestrated; it took all its property—the fees of its students—with it. Wherever there were rooms to be hired for schools, and churches and convents to be borrowed for congregations, a university could soon make itself at home.[9]

Rashdall does not speculate on the manner in which the “empty space” of the early universities contributed to their vitality. But he was explicit about the way the independence of universities from the church and the feudal powers, represented by the lofty cathedrals and the massive castles, was founded on the fact that these self-governing and egalitarian corporations of masters and students did not only have the explicit right to strike—a unique right in the Middle Ages—but also to the ability to pack up and leave town. Such a dispersion, which was a frequent occurrence in the early days of the university, caused significant economic loss to the city from which the masters and students departed, and gain for the place where they re-established themselves. The possibility of dispersion to foreign territories was not only a practical tool, but also a reflection of the university as a body that counted a majority of foreigners to begin with.  And thus the masters gave lectures outside, or in their lodgings, or in rented spaces, while the universities conducted its public celebrations in churches rented for the occasion.

When Amit Chakma invoked the possibility that the University of Waterloo would “secede” from the UAE if it determined that its values became compromised, and when he argued that this would be a realistic option because the University would not seek to own property in Abu Dabi, he reached back to that time of academic beginnings when masters and students turned their backs to the comforts, certainties and architectural glories of the cathedral schools for the sake of spiritual freedom and organizational independence. It may be good to recall such origins, summarized in the pithy statement “no university buildings,” at a time when the prospect of a recession forces us to reconsider how we will spend increasingly limited resources. a spirit of excitement and innovation that came with owning nothing but a passion for companionship and a spirit of enquiry.

Robert Jan van Pelt is University Professor at the University of Waterloo where he teaches in the School of Architecture. He has published seven books on architectural theory, the history of ideas, Auschwitz, Holocaust history, and Holocaust denial. Recently he completed a comprehensive history of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution to be published by WW Norton in 2009. An internationally recognized authority on the planning and construction of Nazi concentration camps, van Pelt chaired the team that created the masterplan for the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. He has contributed to and appeared in many TV documentaries, and in Errol Morris’s film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. Presently he is preparing the English-language edition of David Koker’s wartime diary written in the concentration camp at Vught.


[1] http://library.queensu.ca/stauffer/dedicate.htm
[2] Simon Somerville Laurie, Lectures on the Rise and Early Constitution of Universities, with a survey of mediaeval education, AD 200-1350 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886), 108.
[3] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 55.
[4] Ibid., 43f.
[5]Ibid., 44.
[6] Peter Brook, There Are No Secrets: Thoughts on Acting and Theatre (London: Methuen, 1993), 3f.
[7] Maurice Croiset, “Discours prononcé par M. Croiset,” in Le Conseil Général de l’Université de Montpellier,  VIe Centenaire de L’Université de Montpellier: Comte-Rendu, Discours, Adresses (Montpellier: Gustava Firmin et Montane, 1891), 61
[8] Brook, There Are No Secrets, 4.
[9]Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, New Edition, F.M. Powicke and A.B. Amden, eds., 3 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), vol. 1, 406.