As Built: Identity of a college

Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis seeks to provide a narrative that is missing, a narrative that opens up for a destiny, and thereby makes possible an identity. It entails recovering, or, just as often, inventing, a beginning in which this destiny was already inscribed. Yet a destiny is always undecided, herein lies the freedom that makes life as a narrative so different from a mere transportation through time. Destiny is, in fact, openness as such.

In the case of architecture this existential principle manifests as a balancing of designated and imagined functions and uses –comparable to the facts and plans of a life– by a measure of undecidedness. Without such a balance a building can accommodate no narrative, only operations. Concepts like dynamism, flexibility, multi-functionality etc. are expressions of this conditionality. But they are prosaic expressions, because they signify only the plasticity of specific spaces and not the transcendental concept of openness in the existential sense. Architecture that manifests openness beyond these terms will have reached a higher level of genuineness towards its users, i.e. their activities, because it houses a promise that cannot be exhausted by mere spatial or functional alterations.

The new structure at HiØ (Høgskolen i Østfold) holds exactly such promise, and, in the vein of metaphor, one may say that what has happened to the existing complex is an act of successful architectural psychoanalysis.

Knowledge and Learning

The essence of HiØ is that it is a place of learning and research, and thus it is in consideration of this activity that the aforementioned openness, promise and possibility of a narrative must be viewed. To appreciate these aspects of the new architecture of HiØ we must first ponder for a second the phenomenon of knowledge and the concept of education. Then we can move in for a closer look at the building and investigate how the telos of its activity manifests in plan, atmosphere and detail.

Learning is a complex, even enigmatic phenomenon and a place of learning can be conceived in many different and contradictory ways. Yet certain traits essentially determine the enterprise: things like curiosity, inspiration and ambition on the one hand and entities such as tradition, authority and decorum on the other. A vital aspect of education is how these things are made to interplay in a productive way.

Two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was very impressed by young Theatetus: “He takes his lessons and research like a soundless stream of liquid oil.” The image suggests that learning is identified with a form of motion, i.e. that knowledge has a pace of its own, it is not static, and the decisive thing is to fall into synchronicity with this pace itself.

Somehow then, a place of learning should allow for movements and reverberations and even whimsicality, an ideal of which the best example might be the school of that other Greek teacher Aristotle, who would conduct his lessons walking in the countryside around Athens, his students around him. The place of learning was the spatial continuum of his strolls.

Transforming Structuralism

One cannot imagine a more definite antithesis to this than the programmatic buildings of structuralism of which the former campus of HiØ was one. In such buildings the continuum of space (and thus knowledge) is purposefully broken up into cells and modules with walls and doors, which combat transition, reverberation and motion. The labyrinth of rooms with designated uses and occupants mirrors a vision of learning as something almost atomic; as something fundamentally fragmented and in need of piecing together in one’s head at some later stage.

Regarding the old complex at HiØ the problem was –in addition to being simply too small– that the structuralist solutions were not able to accommodate the essential traits of learning as discussed above. And the consequence of a structure that does not in some way reach out beyond the measurable and calculable matrix of its activities is that it will never be a place where these activities themselves are truly in progress. A structuralist architectural layout that simply compounds modules in a functional frame without including also a contrary principle of undecided openness, misconceives a building’s need for functional transcendence.

Awareness of this principle is perhaps as old as architecture itself, as witnessed in the layout of ancient Knossos near Heraklion in Crete: A complex functional pattern, expandable and probably, in its way, flexible, is organised around a central openness that gives definition to the structure as a whole; in concrete terms and, abstractly, as identity.

This principle has been at the heart of the architects’ vision for the new structure at HiØ and one of the slogans for the new project was “Transforming structuralism”

With the new building the architects have managed to give the college an identity proper for a place of learning and research viz. that of housing something ultimately open-ended. For what is knowledge if not undecided?

As Built

Upon approach the building takes on different gestalts that make the arrival somewhat enigmatic. This is external evidence of the key notion of undecidedness that is the main conceptual strength of the overall architecture.

The way the elongated structure gently rests along a ridge in the landscape suggests a place of reverence. There is something timeless about its silhouette; at the same time ancient and futural, for the main spine of the building can be seen to hover slightly above the landscape. But when one gets up close and enters another aspect manifests itself; that the building actually grows out of the ground. It is embedded in the earth but opens up structurally with the site’s own transition from earth to air. The indoor openness materializes as the ground level of the central nave, or spine, along which the entire, predominantly horizonal structure, is organized. It is an elongated glass casing that touches the ground and thus performs a gesture of affinity toward the surrounding landscape. Building and natural surroundings interweave. On top of this, as a hovering vertical conclusion, rests a slim beam that constitutes the upper level of the spine. The beam stabilizes and reifies the building visually and the openness below stands forth as the integral aspect of the structure.

Moving through it one is surprised by the scale of the vertical volume, which varies and is emphasised by suspended spatial “objects” such as compartments, causeways, staircases and a plethora of unexpected volumes, transitions and sightlines.

The nave’s central juncture, which is the epicentre of the building’s reverberations both actual and metaphorical, reminds of a fairytale-like tree house where passages, people and activities might appear at unexpected instances. And crucially it does not appear as simply flexible; i.e. as capable of various and changing determined uses, but rather as something that transcends programmatic thinking as such and remains undecided and open.

This notion is furthered also by details, materials, transitions and colours, which are taken from a limited palette but whose careful elaboration balances the macro planes and structural skeleton that rises from the underground. The indoor volume takes up the exterior character of arising from the earth by a vertical motion towards lightness of structure: from heavy concrete roots –a colonnade of concrete pillars on the subterranean level (which also opens up into the vertical space of the central volume)– to light hovering compartments and transparent glass causeways towards the ceiling. A cross section of the structure, revealing the transitions between unequivocal and equivocal strata, constitutes a significant image of the new identity of the building.

The fundamental re-conceptualization, which can perhaps be described as an act of architectural psychoanalysis, has successfully given HiØ an aspect of timeless definition that one might call identity. This newfound identity manifests itself as the spatial accommodation of the interplay between authority and narrative possibility that a place of learning requires.

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