Universities as Heterotopias

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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

Augmented Architecture in quotes

One of the areas that I am researching at the moment is the intersection of AR and Architecture. Much of the most exciting work in this field is practitioner-based rather than academic. This post gathers together a quotes from commercial as well as academic sources from those thinking about this interesting blurring of virtual and real.

Darf Design are an interactive design studio based in London working on the edge of built and virtual spaces:

“The main focus of concern for this new paradigm of visual augmentation lies in the potential possibilities for incorporating new social experiences into the built environment which can transcend the physical limitations of built infrastructure and the hierarchies who govern our visual and social experiences.”

“Mixed reality lets us create architecture which isn’t invasive in the real world and doesn’t take up any physical space or material”


Chikodi Chima talks about Greg Tran’s Mediating Mediums which looks at what would happen if we started to create built spaces based upon potential applications of AR and envisages “smarter, more beautiful buildings, that act as a canvas for data”.

“The possibilities unleashed by augmented reality are limited only by the bounds of our imaginations, but so far we’ve only seen the technology used to add layers of data to the world as we currently know it. What about using the potential of augmented reality to start shaping the physical world we inhabit?”


Keiichi Matsuda’s research examines the implications of emerging technologies for human perception and the built environment

“The architecture of the contemporary city is no longer simply about the physical space of buildings and landscape, more and more it is about the synthetic spaces created by the digital information that we collect, consume and organise; an immersive interface may become as much part of the world we inhabit as the buildings around us.”


“The creation of new environments through the use of developments in Information Technology is significantly altering not only architecture itself but also the roles and tasks of the architects. Architecture can no longer be described in the terms we are familiar with since it no longer corresponds to the form of architecture as we know it: an inclusive and exclusive structure, clearly defined, with a single interior and a single exterior. For architects, the challenge of the future will increasingly lie in creatively coming to terms with hybrid environments, understanding and exploiting the design potential of digital spaces within the physical world, and redefining the role of architecture within a visually dominated culture.”

  • Flachbart G & Weibel P (2005) Disappearing Architecture: From Real to Virtual to Quantum

“in the augmented city, ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ spaces are no longer two separate dimensions, but just parts of a continuum, of a whole. The physical and the digital environment have come to define each other and concepts such as public space and “third place”, identity and knowledge, citizenship and public participation are all inevitably affected by the shaping of the reconfigured, augmented urban space” (p. 1).

  • Aurigi & De Cindio (2008) – Augmented urban spaces : articulating the physical and electronic city

Architecture & Morality

There has long been a debate in architecture – and associated disciplines such as the urban design, interior design and planning – over the effect that designed space has on the society. This idea is well illustrated by the quote by Winston Churchill, addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

Churchill returned to this idea and played with the form of words throughout his political career. Architects have struggled with this problem, some design with the explicit intention of influencing the behaviour – and this goal plays a substantial role in their design process – a form of architectural determinism.

Le Corbusier's Towards A New Architecture

Le Corbusier – Architect as Utopian visionary, excited by the prospect of social reform through architecture

Although no longer common, these behaviourist views were widely accepted, especially by those involved in the utopian social programme of the Modernist architectural movement (e.g. Le Corbusier). These architects saw their role not only as form-givers to our built environment, but as social-engineers with the ability to influence individuals and wider society with the power of their design. A more contemporary view held by architects is one which considers the behavioural consequences of design decisions to be a factor that can only be thought about and evaluated once the space is in use.

“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such away as to get man moving in preferred directions.” (R. Buckminster Fuller, Architect 1966)

What might the effect of this be on the design of our universities? Do architects believe that they can influence the behavior, actions and perhaps the learning that goes on in the university buildings that they design?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote may times about the relationship between architectural space and power, he rejected the idea that architecture could – in itself – either liberate or oppress the users of a particular space he did concede that

… [architecture could] “produce positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom” (Foucault, M. 1982. Space, Knowledge and Power an interview with Paul Rabinow, quoted in in Leach, 1997)

– we must logically presume that Foucault believed the reverse to also be true.

Leach, N. (1997) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, Routledge

(IN) Frequently Asked Questions

How is philosophical and / or theoretical thinking useful in research activities?
Philosophy underpins the researcher’s world view, and to a certain extent frames the types of question that a researcher might examine and the way they may go about this. It also allows the researcher to frame arguments, methodologies and methods within an understood set of boundaries and constraints. It also enables the researcher to position their work within the body of available knowledge.

Based on “The Value of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell
http://www.uri.edu/students/szunjic/philos/whystudy.htm

How has the session today contributed to your thinking in this area?

Drawing of a Homunculus kind of guy inside a head, looking at papers. Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt

Drawing of a Homunculus kind of guy inside a head, looking at papers. Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It has made me think a lot more about the role of the researcher. In the exercise, interpreting the various data sources (text, images etc.) the wide range of opinion and interpretation in my group was great, interesting – but very influenced by the socio-cultural baggage / life experience that each of us brought to the data. In educational and social research the positioning of the researcher – in relation to what is being researched – is paramount. This idea of the researcher and the subject/participant being inseparable from their cultural background and value systems was reinforced by the slide about children’s contrasting conceptions of “a princess”.

What one question in particular has arisen for you from the session today?
Rationalism and empiricism seem to be played-off against each other as opposites. Surely this isn’t really true as rationalists can’t make rational deduction without some acquired information (via the senses and experimentation).

Tightening up my thinking

Working title
The use of participatory design approaches to explore Mixed Reality educational architectural spaces

Rationale
Mixed Reality (MR) / Augmented Reality (AR) is a fast moving area and is rapidly effecting the way that that users of mobile computers interact with the spaces that they inhabit and move through. Recent advances in the types of location-aware technologies available – from wearable devices such as Google Glass and Meta Glasses, to more ubiquitous technologies such as smartphones and tablet PCs and iPads – mean that users of these devices (including students, school children, educators and other stakeholders) now have the opportunity to interact with their surroundings in previously unimaginable ways. At a very simple level creators of web content are already placing digital assets in the environment as points of interest (POIs); free AR browsers such as Layar and Junaio exist that allow users to view and interact with this information.

AR shoot-em-up

Playing AR shoot-em-up game using the Junaio AR Browser by the library

The questions around MR spaces in education are not so much about if it will happen, more to do with the form that it will take, the uses it may have and who controls it – the institution or the individual? Commentators such as Facer (2011, p117) describe a rich digital layer of location-specific information applied to the landscape of a school, available to and controlled by children, parents and educators alike.

One of the clearest articulations of this relationship between the virtual (digital) world and the real (bricks and mortar) is in the work of Greg Tran . He is an architect and film maker asking very interesting questions about MR integration. Here is his film Mediating Mediums.

Mediating Mediums – The Digital 3d [Short Version] from Greg Tran on Vimeo.

Participatory design is a practice common in many areas of design (software, architecture, urban planning etc.) at its core, is the belief that better – and by this I mean more usable, accessible, appealing – end product will result if all stakeholders are cooperate and are active in the design process. The ideas behind participatory design have a history in the trade union movement and have strong connections to ideas like action research and sociotechnical design. The Philosophical common thread is that technological/design change cannot be considered in isolation as a purely theoretical construct, and cannot be unpicked from the societal factors that surround the process.

Why is research required on the relationship between virtual and physical educational spaces*?

    • I believe that there is little research about how MR might relate to educational buildings (ref). Moreover, I think that the relationship between architecture / the built environment and MR is also under researched (ref).
    • I wondered whether architects consider possible MR uses of their spaces when they conceive them. Some architectural practices use MR to facilitate conceptual and technical design – and to show clients drawing board designs in-situ but this is not the same thing
    • I also wondered if anyone involved in the commissioning and design of educational buildings thinks about MR as part of the design process, or whether it is something that may or may not happen to them once completed (like graffiti or parkour).
    • Should the way that MR is used in educational spaces be regulated, controlled and designed, or should it be allowed to develop in an organic unplanned way
    • Are architects the most suitable profession to consider and advise on the relationship between buildings and MR? Perhaps this should be the role of Information Designers or HCI experts in the user experience (UX). I would like to find out what Architects think

*Caveat, I am only interested in the relationship between MR and formal educational spaces (Universities, Schools etc) – I am aware that learning can take place in a variety of informal settings – especially aided by portable devices but this is outside scope.

Why would participatory design approaches be useful in exploring MR educational spaces?

    • I’m interested in finding out what students and other stakeholders think MR might add to (or take away from) their educational surroundings. It seems reasonable to assume – especially at this early stage of the research – that a participatory approach to some conceptual design projects might be a useful way of generating ideas and looking at the issue from other viewpoints
    • I would like to investigate to what extent – if at all – participatory design approaches have played a part in recent real life educational building projects (in Salford, UoM and Man Met). I’m interested in whether the student voice is apparent in the finished design*.

*Caveat, I am not really interested in whether student reps were consulted about the choice of colours used in a learning zone in the Library. I’m interested in more substantive involvement in the architecture, interior layout and surrounding urban spaces

My theoretical position
I have not yet read widely enough to establish a theoretical position but in very general terms, here is my starting point

• I am attracted to the idea of Participatory Design for a number of reasons. I like the idea of an iterative design cycle, where design assets are produced in addition to the research itself by a group of stakeholders. It also articulates well with my feelings about cooperative learning, my political leanings and my interest in Participatory Action Research. Whether working with others on my research could ever truly be participatory is a point to consider.

Facer, K. (2011) Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change. London: Routledge.

The man who’s head expanded

It is only week 1 of the MRes and we are already required to think about some difficult questions – however the real difficulties on the horizon are about how epistomology, ontology, theory and philosophy relate to the research that I want to do.

What is epistemology?
Kent Löfgren describes epistemology as the study of knowledge; this study throws up difficult questions such as what is knowledge? How do we gain knowledge? Moreover, how do we make sure that new knowledge is true? Löfgren suggest three ways in which we can test the validity of knowledge which he describes as a “justified, true belief”

The person presenting the new knowledge must be able to justify it by presenting good quality, logical evidence – it must be true and the person presenting must believe (although I am not sure why the later should matter)

How does Löfgren distinguish between ’empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’ in relation to epistemological ideas?
In Empiricism, knowledge of the world is primarily found by observation through our senses and experimentation. Rationalists rely on reason rather than experience. Rationalism relies on logic and intellectual deduction. Where do the rationalists get the knowledge that they then use in their logical reasoning (surely, this can’t happen in a void?)

Why do you think these matters matter to education and social research?
There is the obvious link that those engaged in pedagogic research should be interested in big questions like what is knowledge. At a more practical level, whether the researcher is an empiricist or a rationalist will have a profound effect on the type of research they are likely to do (qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods) and probably their interest in what they feel is reliable evidence. The difficulty with educational and social research is that it does not easily fit into either view neatly. Because educational and social research is predominantly about social interactions, difficulty concepts like belief systems, power relationships, culture and social conditioning come into play when trying to unpick the complexity say of learning.

What is ontology?
Kent Löfgren distinguishes between philosophical ontology and non-philosophical ontology, the former being defined as the study of what exists – defining what is real. A consideration of ontology might include questions like are physical items more real than concepts and ideas. Löfgren explains this in terms of defining the relationship between shoes (noun) and walking (verb). Ontologies are used to build theoretical models

How does he distinguish between ‘ontological materialism’ and ‘ontological Idealism’?
Ontological materialism believes that the physical world that which you can “see” or infer by experimentation is more real and unrelated to the human observer. Ontological idealism believes that reality is a construct of the mind of the observer.

Why do you think these matters matter to education and social research?
I think that in educational and social research the view of the ontological idealist must be more common – much of the work carried out is to do with human interaction and relationships between humans and organisations and ideas – this is notoriously difficult to measure, and very difficult to detach from the baggage of the researcher.

How do you think epistemology and ontology relate to each other in research? Can you give an example?
An ontological position affects but does not determine the epistemological standpoint of the researcher. Ontology is the study of what exists, and determines the researcher’s conception of the nature of the world; a researcher’s epistemology determines the extent of what the researcher can know. For example a scientist working in a chemistry laboratory may have an ontologically firmly positivist view, believing that there is measurable knowledge (truth). In the scientists’ epistemic view of the world, relationships can be observed, repeated and measured empirically, and he/she may believe in a linear relationship between cause and effect and may wish to use research to develop laws and rules about the world (this is obviously an incredibly stereotyped picture I am painting).

In your opinion of what significance is Plato’s allegory of the cave to (your) research?
It reminds us that what we perceive may not tell us the full story, we may only be witnessing a product of reality once some other factor has influenced it, rather than reality first-hand. The shadow is only a distorted and changing outline of the real item. If the researcher’s goal was to find out the physical nature of the projected item, the shadow would only allow the researcher to make an approximation of the original object, and only then if other laws of physics and the nature of light were understood.

It also reminds us that how we view reality is determined to a great extent by conditioning, prior experience and values.

Cerebral Caustic

It has been a little while since I posted anything on the blog, but I guess I have moved house and jobs recently so I may have a valid excuse. My new employer has very kindly given me a scholarship to start my PhD, and as part of my PhD training I am starting a unit on the Master of Research: Education and Society Programme (MRes). The first unit that I am attempting has the daunting title of Theory and philosophy in educational and social research and should help me define my ontological and epistemological standpoints and in turn develop the theoretical underpinning of my work. Another bonus of this unit is that we get to read and discuss Jostein Gardeners’ Sophie’s World.

My PhD has the working title of The use of participatory design approaches to explore Mixed Reality educational architectural spaces and will draw on my interests in computing, interface design, pedagogy and the built environment. I’m looking forward to my first supervision, so in the words of the Scarecrow …

I could think of things I never thunk before
And then I’d sit and think some more