I am currently reading around what modern philosophy has to say that may be relevant to educational spaces and more specifically the design of universities. My starting point has been Michel Foucault as he developed several theories concerning the built environment, power, space and our relationship to it. A number of these ideas have been of particular interest to architects.
Since the 1960’s Foucault’s work has had particular influence on the theory of architecture and its critical discourse (Fontana-Giusti, 2013). In this post, I am going to concentrate on Foucault’s ideas around heterotopic spaces or heterotopias. Foucault introduced this idea in his text Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias, which was initially presented as a lecture to the Cercle d’études architecturales (Circle of Architectural Studies) in Paris in March 1967.
The idea of a Heterotopia is used by Foucault to describe spaces that have several meanings or connections with other places that are not immediately apparent. A heterotopia is a physical embodiment or approximation of a utopia (which is an unreal and unachievable space), or a space that mirrors or runs in parallel with “normal” society that contains or confines its undesirable members, with the aim of making a real utopian space (more) possible (for instance a prison).
In Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias Foucault describes six principles or traits that heterotopias may exhibit. In this piece, I will attempt to draw connections between heterotopias and the institution of the university. Even after a brief read through of Other Spaces… I could tell that that a university was not going to be a “perfect fit” and map elegantly onto the idea of heterotopia and I was reluctant to try and “shoehorn” one idea into the other. However, having read the quote from Foucault (below), he suggests that it is okay for us – as researchers – to use and cherry pick from his theories and utilise them however they best suits our own perspectives:
“All my books…are, if you like, little tool boxes. If people want to open them, or to use this sentence or that idea as a screwdriver or spanner to short-circuit, discredit or smash systems of power, including eventually those from which my books have emerged…so much the better” (Foucault, cited in Patton and Morris,1979: p115).
Therefore, with this in mind I will describe Foucault six principles and suggest how universities could be considered heterotopic spaces, I am indebted to by Elizabeth Rice’s web article The University as Heterotopia.
- Foucault describes a crisis heterotopia these are separate spaces where coming of age activities happen out of sight (Foucault gives the example of the boarding school or the motel room). For many students going to university is a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. It is a time for many young people, where personal views on politics, society and sexuality – can be developed, experimented with, and tested – away from parental scrutiny.
- Heterotopias of deviation are institutions where we place individuals whose behaviour is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, and cemeteries). I might be stretching Foucault’s idea a little in attempting to apply it to universities. However, up until relatively recently universities were restrictively elitist containing the brightest and most privileged in society – a potentially dangerous combination (for those in power) if the worst excesses of free intellectual thought are not contained and controlled!. Universities provide us with an attractive way to mould eccentric and radical individuals into productive members of society, containing them in a safe environment until they are “safe” for release. Some of the most “dangerous” inmates become academic staff members.
- Foucault’s third principle suggests that a heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces and gives the example of garden, which is a fake /manicured version of reality (but we remark on its natural beauty!), perhaps containing plant specimens from around the world that may not normally be found together. Universities are a good example of this concept. They are microcosms of the world around them, mini cities containing banks, restaurants, recreational and learning facilities – real, yet outside the “real world”. University society is also a manicured version of reality – often bringing students from geographically and culturally distant backgrounds together in a single space.
- Foucault’s fourth principle heterotopias of time describes spaces that seem immune from the passage of time such as museums, which contain objects from many eras. They exist in the present but they contain and preserve memories of the past. Universities – for all the current rhetoric about being world leading and outward facing – are in many cases state sanctioned custodians of tradition. Universities are a societal prop entrenching and preserving traditional values and beliefs.
- Heterotopias of ritual or purification are spaces that are secluded and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. These spaces rely on ceremony and custom and require permission to enter (Foucault uses the example of a sauna or Turkish bath/hammam) – entrance is given or withheld. Universities appear superficially to be open. Anyone can walk into a campus in the UK unchallenged, however to enter the institution (rather than just the physical space) students must satisfy elaborate entrance conditions (AAB grades, UCAS points, visa conditions, financial vetting etc).
- Finally, heterotopias have two functions in relation to all remaining spaces. These are heterotopias of illusion, which expose real spaces for what they are; a theatre may be an example of this.
“Their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory,”. (Foucault, ‘Of other spaces’, 1967)
Lastly, heterotopias of compensation, these are real spaces that are ordered and regulated – in a way that is sometimes impossible to achieve in wider society that is often messy and unordered. Foucault wondered if colonies might have functioned in this way.
Of the two, the later seems more applicable to universities, which offer a very sanitised and regulated version of the world around them. A university represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
Foucault only spoke about heterotopias on a small number of occasions and did not fully develop these ideas. Criticism has been level at Foucault for this vagueness and the way this work has be (mis)appropriated by so many areas of study – but as Johnson (2012) points out perhaps Foucault purposely left the idea of heterotopias open to varying interpretation.
“In a sense, heterotopias do not exist, except in relation to other spaces. Heterotopia is more about a point of view, or a method of using space as a tool of analysis.” (Johnson, P. 2012, Heterotopian Studies : Interpretations of Heterotopia, p9)
Foucault, M. 1984 Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5, pp 46-49.retrieved 11/11/2013 http://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heterotopia.en.html (The publication of this text written in 1967 was auhtorized by Foucault in 1984.)
Fontana-Giusti, G. 2013. Foucault for Architects, monograph in ‘Thinkers for Architects’ series, London and New York: Routledge
Fox, E. 2012. University as Heterotopia retrieved 11/11/2013 http://education.goodmantheatre.org/resources/teddy-ferrara/the-university-as-heterotopia/
Johnson, P. 2012, Heterotopian Studies : Interpretations of Heterotopia retrieved 11/11/2013 http://www.heterotopiastudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/3.1-Interpretations-pdf.pdf
Patton, P. and Morris, M. (Eds) 1979. Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy Sydney, Australia: Feral Publications