Exhibition Review: The University Is Now on Air—Broadcasting Modern Architecture

How to engage people with buildings?” In the early 1970s, this question guided a team of architectural historians and educators to devise a pioneering program for the United Kingdom’s Open University, an experiment with mass education that is still ongoing. Forty years later, the question is still relevant, and even more so for an institution like the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Since the built environment is experienced by everyone, it follows that architecture should thus be one of the more “democratic” disciplines. And yet architectural education has paradoxically remained generally closed in on itself, organized around professional elites and academic historians that rarely dialogue between themselves and even less with a broader audience. While there have been attempts to rethink or challenge traditional ways of teaching design, in both architecture schools and more alternative practices, such as the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, they have been fairly limited. The University Is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture, the CCA’s current exhibition on the Open University’s course on modern architecture, is thus a welcome opportunity to think about how to reach a wider audience for both universities and institutions such as the CCA itself. But it also challenges common thinking about the production and diffusion of knowledge.

Open University, CCA
Still from a filmed interview between Joaquim Moreno and Nick Levinson, discussing production aspects of the A305 course. Film by Shahab Mihandoust, London, 2017.

Curator Joaquim Moreno and his team have created a focused exhibition, building on archival material from A305 History of Architecture and Design, 1890–1939, a course offered between 1975 and 1982 by the University; and from interviews in which four key protagonists in the design on the course reflect on its creation and impact. The exhibition design by APPARATA acknowledges the focus on popular outreach of the Open University by suggesting a domestic setting in the exhibition’s central rooms where mid-century chairs and sofas allow visitors to watch the course’s video material, originally broadcasted by the BBC, on vintage televisions.

While not subtle, the set-up invites the slow discovery of the course’s content, in a similar way to how it was originally intended. In the surrounding rooms, the exhibition explains how the material was developed and presents the extent of physical material produced for this “on-air” program, as well as the impact of the course on both British students and international educators and architects. This parallel presentation of a history of the Open University’s experiment and of a history of modern architecture is one of the successes of the exhibition. While the exhibition obviously aims at architects and educators with an advanced knowledge of 20th-century architecture, it also makes available—both in the exhibition and on the CCA’s YouTube channel—material produced to explain modern architecture to a broad public, therefore allowing anyone to learn about the history of modern architecture—just as the original course 
in the 1970s allowed families across the United Kingdom to do.

Open University, CCA
Hacker RP37A radio with Open University logo, ca. 1971.

The exhibition presents another way of teaching and talking about architecture, but also an alternative history of the modern movement. It combines excerpts from the video and radio components of the course with documentaries explaining the technical and pedagogical elements used to create them, and artifacts focusing on the tools specifically developed for a lay audience. The pedagogical elements range from a plan-reading guide to an elaborate animation combining Bach’s Magnificat with a model of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, at the time inaccessible to a British audience because of Cold War politics.

Furthermore, the examples chosen often make parallels to everyday experiences—for example, organizing the lesson on the Villa Savoye’s around the question “Would you like to live in such a house?” or stressing the relevance of technological items as cultural and symbolic forms.

Open University, CCA
Open 299, “Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement in England,” 1930-39, units 17/18, 1975.

While being conscious of their participation in the canonization of modern architecture, the instructors also saw the course as an opportunity to reassess its divergent histories, particularly while the modern movement was being challenged by post-modern architecture and demolitions of emblematic modern housing projects. Of importance are the more than 2,000 student reports, built on primary sources, that present “another map ofEnglish modern architecture” and exemplify, in the words of the curator, the “two-way communication system” that the Open University created, “with its students actively researching the history it taught.” The selection of reports presented at the CCA hints at the richness of this archive and underlines the still current potential of similar exercises.

While this is not an “easy” exhibition aimed at a large audience the way the Open University itself was, it nevertheless shows an interest on the part of the CCA to thinking about how to engage people with buildings. The YouTube broadcasting of the televised course and of the oral histories is a good step in democratizing the institution’s mission, as are the discussions held in some of the public programs on mass education that complement the exhibition. However, while the focus in the exhibition on the A305 course allows an in-depth analysis of that case, discussions of its impact are limited to its presentation at the 1976 Venice Biennale dedicated to the democratization of culture. One thus hopes that the CCA is planning to pursue this investigation of the very important topic of architectural education by turning to Canadian experiments in the future. It could then add little-known recent additions to research on the topic, such as the Radical Pedagogies project led by Beatriz Colomina at Princeton University; or Radical Pedagogies: Architectural Education and the British Tradition, a collection edited by Daisy Froud and Harriet Harriss—research projects that further question who should have access 
to knowledge about the built environment.

Open University, CCA
Timetable for A305, in “Broadcasting the Modern Movement,” 1975, by Tim Benton, as published in the Architectural Association Quarterly.

The CCA, as an institution for both research and exhibitions, is uniquely placed to create a relationship between architecture schools and the public. Taking inspiration from course A305, the institution needs to further democratize studies of architecture, both through wide dissemination and also by including non-architects in its analysis and critique of the built environment. While this has not always happened with the CCA’s sometimes-hermetic exhibitions, let’s hope this exhibition opens the door to a renewed way of doing things, echoing the Open University’s careful balance of sophisticated discussions and everyday examples.

The University in Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture exhibits at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until April 1.

Olivier Vallerand is an architect with 1×1 Creative Lab and a visiting post-doctoral scholar at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.