The way in which architecture and space have informed and enabled academic and political discussion in Greece is a relationship that goes back thousands of years. The conversation and debate that comes with the lively contemporary café culture in Athens abound. In many ways, the whole city is a kind of campus.
Under the theme of FREESPACE set by the Biennale Architettura 2018 directors Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara, the architects behind Greece’s offer have responded by creating The School of Athens. It is a project that takes the rhythms of contemporary Athens, the city’s history and the architecture of the international academic and offers a utopian and imagined space, designed learning and creative conversation.
“The School of Athens is an ambition,” explains Ryan Neiheiser, co-curator and co-founder at Neiheiser Argyros, a London-based international architecture practice. “It is an in-between space. Neither inside nor outside, not quite a room, but also not simply a space for circulation. Although we typically think of learning taking place in the classroom, educators and architects have recognised for thousands of years that learning also takes place in the space between – in the hallways, on the stairs, at the café, in the quad.”
The physical result is a stepped landscape which has been created to be a functional room in which talks and events will take place. The opening event included speakers such as Elizabeth Diller, Joseph Grim plus Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. Throughout the summer, leading Greek academic, scientific and cultural figures will speak on a variety of topics.
Within this space, the pair have also placed 56 3-D models of institutions that embody in some way the academic ideal. These are arranged in a grid-like structure, and the viewer is invited to discover them freely, without notes or guidance. Institutions included begin at Plato’s Academy and encompass functioning contemporary spaces such as the courtyards at Cambridge University and the Carpenter Centre by Le Corbusier – places where students and professors can easily convene and interact.
Both facets of the design work to create a new, active utopia within the Biennale. In inviting a community to develop within it, the space becomes a living utopia rather than an imagined one.
Xristina Argyros, co-curator and co-founder at Neiheiser Argyros, adds: “The ambition is to both look back, and to scan across the current landscape of university architecture, to extract compelling and successful spaces that are free – democratic, un-programmed, and common.”
While extreme politics, distressing cultural narratives and censorship abound, a focus on an ideal space that offers harmony is certainly a welcome projection – a testament, if ever there needed to be one, to the power and importance of academic spaces.
Through their work, Xristina and Ryan also address further questions around academic communal spaces. They seek to both dissect the common characteristics of these spaces and consider how they can be nurtured and taken forward to aid discussions in the future.
Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser’s work in the Greek Pavilion coincides with a book that the pair are editing, which explores in more detail how academic institutions can help to shape a positive future for the city. As Athens finds itself increasingly under the spotlight as a new cultural destination, shaping positive debate around the evolution of the city more widely will be key. The School of Athens might be the vision to unlock it.