Nonsense: finding a role for the illogical on university campuses

Traditionally, university campuses are realms of quiet reason; they are ordered and elegant environments. Facades of classical columns or polished minimalist constructions reinforce this pleasant, “academic” atmosphere. However, campuses are with surprisingly frequency places of revelry and anarchy too – and for good reason. Shouldn’t campus architecture engage with the wild, disruptive aspects of university life as well?    


Students load themselves, carefully, into a raft to celebrate Valborg in Uppsala

It seemed like a good idea at the time

As four pink unicorns look on, a team scientist clad from head to toe in body hugging lime-green lycra clamber into a polystyrene raft on a river that merely weeks before was frozen solid. The raft rocks ominously, drawing gasps of concern from the unicorns. The scientists seem unperturbed however, perhaps accepting that minutes from now they will be cast into the river’s chilly waters anyway as their raft plunges down a medieval wier.   

This is the famous raft race that takes place every May-day weekend at Uppsala University in Sweden. Over the course of this day, not only do lime-green scientists and pink unicorns gleefully take to the city’s icy river but thousands of students, both past and present, gather on a hill so that they can each put a hat on at the same time – 3pm, incase you are wondering. Naturally, the day is finished off with choral singing around massive bonfires.  

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Punts block the river to watch May week fireworks in Cambridge

This supposedly “out-of-character” behaviour is in no way an isolated event in the world of universities. The University of Cambridge hosts similar May revels for a whole week (in June, of course, those crazy academics!). At Åarhus University in Denmark a student regatta on a remarkably small lake draws a crowd of over 30,000. No doubt similar larks were a feature of your university time too.

Neither is such behaviour limited to students. Grown-ups, otherwise known as Faculty Members, engage in similar antics. At a university diner recently I was asked to share a drink from the horn of a now-extinct herbivore by a world-leading academic dressed-up in a cape made from cat fur.        

Genius  – and it’s twin madness    

What’s all this crazy behaviour about? No doubt student antics are a tried and tested form of stress relief either before or after university exams. Possibly though, all this nonsense is also an admission that thinking isn’t always that logical or sensible. Whilst we like to consider that our best ideas come from a cool-headed analysis of the facts, we know that this is seldom the case. More often than not, we are “struck” by an insight or idea after we’ve sat pondering it fruitlessly in the library or lab and not infrequently in random circumstances – think of Eureka in his bath. Insights seem to appear when we actively disengage from thinking.

More than this, new ideas often emerge when contrary or normally unassociated thoughts are brought together. Steve Jobs, famously, was an advocate of this approach. Further, many great minds dance along the tightrope between genius and madness, finding that falling into the different, difficult and bizarre takes their reasoning to another plane. Distracting play, unintended encounters and irrational behaviour, it seems, are important to the development of ideas.

Buildings that encourage crazy

This being the case, shouldn’t university campuses provide opportunities for nonsense as well as sense? Can we design academic buildings that deliberately take us out of the everyday, disrupting our trains of thought and engaging us in the unexpected? Previously I’ve written about how ideas can be enhanced by being discussed in alternative, non-university locations, what about alternative locations on campus?       

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The rolly-polly Learning Centre at EPFL

EPFL, Switzerland’s premier university of technology, have created such a building together with the Japanese architectural practice Sanaa. Their Rolex- sponsored Learning Center  is both disturbing and delightful. The building has a distinct lack of flat floors and instead undulates, providing hollows and slopes where students can gather informally and researchers can be reminded, physically, that not everything is straightforward. It’s a building that is both elegant, different and bold, much like EPFL.

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Nothing is straightforward at EPFL

Queen Mary’s University in London requires that some of its staff work in cells – not the normal academic offices that function much like prison cells – but literal human cells. It has created a building strung with giant pods that each take the form of a different cell in the body. These pods at the Centre of the Cell  primarily give school children safe access to a working research lab and are linked to an education centre. Cheerful parties of young kids from some of the most deprived boroughs of London crocodile between the different pods during the day, waving at the scientists below.  The building is playful and disruptive. It’s also a huge success enabling Queen Mary’s to recruit world-leading researchers driven to “do different”. At the moment Queen Mary’s plans to add a giant neuron cell to its campus collection of oddities – see the hedgehog below.  

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A cell pod suspended over lab benches at Queen Mary’s in London

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A giant neutron cell, shortly to be added to the Queen Mary’s campus

Other universities hint more cautiously at nonsense. In Stockholm, the medical university Karolinska has build an elegant conference centre that looks ever so slightly like it might tumble over. The Aula Medica subtly defies gravity and norms of construction making users wonder at what holds it together. Wonder is a good quality for academic buildings to spark.  

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Can it stay up? The Aula Medica on Karolinska’s campus in Stockholm

Reaching a sensible conclusion

In the academic world we invest substantial effort in making the disruptive and creative task of thinking originally look sensible and respectable. We use order and simplicity on our campuses – and in the design of our buildings especially – to convey this impression. However, as even our own research tells us, the production of original thought is anything but a logical and calm process. Isn’t it time that campus architecture accepted this reality and created designs for buildings that actually help us think, buildings that introduce elements of nonsense, play, difference and disruption?    


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