Enterprise and the subject of education: Foreign Office Architect’s Ravensbourne College

by ytheory

Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010: auditorium (photo: Aleksejus Ragovskis)



The society regulated by reference to the market that the neo-liberals are thinking about is a society in which the regulatory principle should not be so much the exchange of commodities as the mechanisms of competition. It is these mechanisms that should have the greatest possible surface and depth and should also occupy the greatest possible volume in society. This means that what is sought is not a society subject to the commodity-effect, but a society subject to the dynamic of competition. Not a supermarket society, but an enterprise society. The homo economicus sought after is not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production. (Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France,1978-79, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell,  Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, p. 147.)

Not the exchange of commodities, claims Foucault, but the production of a competitive subjectivity, homo economicus, and the volumetric expansion of an environment accommodating the mechanisms of enterprise, are the goals of neoliberal governmentality.  Both Foucault and Deleuze understand the new modes of power that emerge in the late-twentieth century as dependent upon the production of a space open to transversal movement: for Foucault, ‘the framework of a multiplicity of diverse enterprises connected up to and entangled with each other’, for Deleuze, ‘inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry’. The ‘dynamic of competition’ demands an environment in which enterprise, and enterprising subjects, are given free reign to pursue their interests. Hence all the former ‘spaces of enclosure‘ — the prison, the school, the hospital  — must be rendered permeable to the market. Education, for example, is not only modelled upon the competitive realm of enterprise but is made continuous with it. The digital media and design college, Ravensbourne, designed by FOA, and advised upon by DEGW, on the Greenwich Peninsula, London, exemplifies in an advanced form just such a reshaping of education as an environment coextensive with enterprise.

Ravensbourne:  Learning 2.0

Ravensbourne’s relocation to Greenwich in 2010 was designed to facilitate and reinforce its institutional adoption of a ‘flexible learning agenda’. According to this agenda, the ‘vision’ for the new Ravensbourne was to be one where ‘space, technology and time will work together to create a new and flexible learning landscape that will support ongoing expansion and change, as well as narrowing the gap between an education and industry experience’ (Jeanette Johansson-Young, ‘The BIG picture: A case for a flexible learning agenda at Ravensbourne’, internal publication of Ravensbourne College, 2006). The adoption of flexible learning was driven by broader developments in higher education in the UK in which the Department of Education Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England had recommended the development of ‘blended learning strategies’ to universities. ‘Blended learning’ according to Bliuc et al, ‘describes learning activities that involve a systematic combination of co-present (face-to-face) interactions and technologically-mediated interactions between students, teachers and learning resources.’ (A.M. Bliuc, P. Goodyear and R.A. Ellis, ‘Research focus and methodological choices in studies into students’ experiences of blended learning in higher education’ The Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 10 No. 4, 2007, pp. 231-44, cited in Paul Harris, John Connolly and Luke Feeney, ‘Blended learning: overview and recommendations for successful implementation’, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 41 No. 3, 2009, p. 156.)

These ‘learning activities’ are more flexible and better accommodated to the needs of the contemporary student than conventional approaches, it is argued, since they enable and incorporate access to electronic learning resources, in a ‘virtual learning environment’, outside of the regulated times and spaces of the educational institution. Blended learning is considered flexible not only since it enables the student to ‘time-shift’ education to a time and place of their own choosing, but because it responds to their existing priorities and predispositions, as described by DEGW in their ‘User Brief for the New Learning Landscape’:

The ability and motivation of students to learn has changed and will change further as economic pressures compound the effects of new media and new attitudes to learning. Today’s students assimilate knowledge vicariously from broadcast and interactive media and through practical application rather than formally from books and many are easily bored by traditional teaching with little visual content. Some lack basic transferable skills in communication, group-working and written English. Most expect time-shifted delivery of learning to accommodate the part-time work that helps them manage student debt. Rapid acquisition of fashionable, marketable skills or commitments to intense personal interests (e.g. bands) can take priority over formal achievements in an academic discipline. Future students are likely to rank educational institutions by their ability to deliver employment and to accommodate diverse approaches to learning. (DEGW, ‘User Brief for the New Learning Landscape’, 2004, cited in Jeanette Johansson-Young, 2006, op. cit.)

Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010

Ravensbourne has sought not only to use digital media as a support for traditional learning methods but as a means to interpellate the student and their practice within market-based forms of enterprise and competition. In the internal report on the college’s ‘Designs for Learning Project’ its authors argue that ‘[w]ithin an academic environment, practice takes place in a vacuum, or, rather, an endlessly self-reflecting hall of mirrors.’ Insulated from the ‘creative dialectic between creator and client (or public) that exists in the “real world”’ students problematically ‘overvalue individual artistic or creative input, rather than the negotiated creativity of the marketplace…’ Students of Ravensbourne are thus required to adopt ‘web 2.0 values’ and use online social networks and blogging in their projects as a means to mediate ‘a renewed connection with the audience, or consumers, of creative products.’ This practice, it is proposed, should become ‘a normative component of creative education.’ (Miles Metcalfe, Ruth Carlow, Remmert de Vroorne, and Roger Rees, ‘Final Report for the Designs on Learning Project’, internal publication of Ravensbourne College, 2008, p. 3.)

Perfectly exemplifying the neoliberal extension of the market form throughout the social field, and too the  ‘inseparable variations’ of a control society, student practice is released from the artificial enclosure of the ‘hall of mirrors’, where the value of creativity was given within a purely educational context, into an environment where its worth can now be valorised according to the terms and ‘realities’ of the market, and through which can be established a continuous feedback loop informing its future development.

As much as the market is posited as the environment through which education is to be modulated, education, in a complimentary movement, is proposed as a source of ideas and creativity valuable to the market and its own development. DEGW, for example, argue that the new Ravensbourne should operate as part-college, concerned with teaching and learning; part-lab, focused on experimentation and development; and part-hub, offering new ideas and services to the market. Located on the Greenwich Peninsula, in close proximity to new commercial and business development projects, Ravensbourne is envisaged not only as a receptacle for the surrounding environment’s enterprise-based values but as a contributor to the local ‘knowledge economy’ and as a catalyst for ‘urban regeneration’.

Whilst the connections, mediations and feedback loops between education and enterprise proposed in this model utilise digital media as their channels of communication in a so-called ‘virtual’ space, the modulation of physical space too plays a critical role in their realisation. The conventional college building and the university campus are refigured in the discourse of DEGW as a ‘Learning Landscape’ whose description, in its reference to the connective qualities of landscape and the informal encounters of the urban, echoes the approach to networked spatial production produced by Zaha Hadid for BMW at Leipzig (see earlier post on this):

The Learning Landscape is the total context for students’ learning experiences and the diverse landscape of learning settings available today—from specialized to multipurpose, from formal to informal, and from physical to virtual. The goal of the Learning Landscape approach is to acknowledge this richness and maximize encounters among people, places, and ideas, just as a vibrant urban environment does. Applying a learner-centered approach, campuses need to be conceived as “networks” of places for learning, discovery, and discourse between students, faculty, staff, and the wider community. (Shirley Dugdale, ‘Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 2, March/April 2009)

Following this model, architecture is then employed to produce the spatial compliment of a ‘learning landscape’ designed around patterns of circulation, connectivity and informality. In the specific case of Ravensbourne, FOA’s architecture is designed both to articulate the building’s interior as an atmosphere that will inculcate in the student the requisite connective, flexible and informal modes of conduct, and to render it permeable to its surrounding environment as a mechanism for the integration of education and business.

The ‘learning  landscape’ and the ‘univer-city’

According to the taxonomy of building envelopes proposed by Zaera-Polo in his ‘Politics of the Envelope’, the Meydan complex is of the ‘flat-horizontal’ or ‘X=Y>Z’ type. FOA’s Ravensbourne, in contrast, appears to fall broadly under the category of ‘spherical’ or ‘X=Y=Z’ as described here:

Spherical envelopes generally enclose a wide range of spatial types with specific functions, rather than being determined by the provision of a repetitive spatial condition, as in residential or commercial projects. Unlike other envelope types in which the border between public and private occurs on the surface of the container, the spherical type often contains gradients of publicness within. Spherical envelopes often correspond to public buildings, buildings that gather a multiplicity of spaces rather than a repetitive type of space: city halls, court houses, libraries, museums, indoor sports facilities, etc. (Alejandro Zaera-Zaera-Polo ‘The Politics of the Envelope’, Volume #17, Fall 2008, p. 87.)

In plan, Ravensbourne is a chevron-shaped block whose form responds to the outer curvature of the O2 (former Millennium Dome) building to which it lies adjacent. The main entrance is situated at the junction of the building’s two wings and opens out onto one of its large atria. This quasi-public space is intended as a bridge between the urban environment and activities of the Greenwich Peninsula and the college itself. Rather than being met immediately upon entry by the reception and security areas that clearly mark the thresholds of other educational institutions, the visitor encounters an informal space which includes a ‘meet and great’, area, a delicatessen and an ‘event’ space hosting public displays and exhibitions. This internal space, combined with the environment immediately exterior to it, then constitute what DEGW, in their account of ‘univer-cities’ such as Ravensbourne, describe as a ‘third place’, existing between home and work and combining ‘shopping, learning, meeting, playing, transport, socialising, playing, walking, living…’ A place then in which the activities of the market appear indissoluble form those of urban life, entertainment and education.

Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010: main entrance

Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010: auditorium


Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010: auditorium (photo: Aleksejus Ragovskis)

Ravensbourne, Greenwich, London: Foreign Office Architects, 2010: auditorium (photo: Aleksejus Ragovskis)

From the atrium the successive floor levels of the college and the connections spanning between the two wings are exposed as if in a cut-away section of a more conventional building. Rather than enclosed in stairwells or embedded between rooms, wire mesh-sided stairways and passages are cantilevered into the atrium. These elements form a complex series of crossings and intersections across mezzanine levels whose dynamics are further animated by the movements of the building’s occupants. Hence an image is presented to visitors within its public atrium of the college as a hive of activity and movement whilst, to its students and staff, it affords a motivational image of the public, or ‘market’, with which the creativity and value of their work has always to be negotiated. In this sense Ravensbourne offers an articulation of the ‘gradients of publicness’ to which Zaera-Polo refers and too of the ‘creative dialectic between creator and client’.

The building’s circulation is designed not only to serve as an image of movement, but to organise that movement according to a principle of connective liquefaction.  Ascent through the buildings floors, for example, is staggered across its two wings so as to accentuate the condition of movement over that of occupation. As Zaera-Polo explains: ‘The idea is to produce a smoother change of plane, to liquefy the volume of the building so you don’t have this notion of being on the third floor or the fourth floor. You are always in between floors.’ (Alejandro Zaera-Polo, quoted in Graham Bizley, ‘FOA’s peninsula patterns for Ravensbourne College’ BD Online, 29 July, 2009, accessed at http://www.bdonline.co.uk/practice-and-it/foa’s-peninsula-patterns-for-ravensbourne-college/3144928.article>, 22 August, 2010.) The plans for several of the building’s integrated levels also reveal this liquefaction of volume within the large floor and undivided floor spans. Differentiated only by mobile partitions, the arrangement of teaching studios and open access studios zoned within these spaces suggest informal access and the integration of programmes within a continuously mobile and flexible whole.

Whilst a small number of programmes are allocated clearly demarcated and discrete spaces within the building, the overarching principle of organisation is designed to preclude the establishment of any fixed patterns of occupation or consistent identification of certain spaces with specific programmes. This principle of deterritorialisation is consistent with the spatial concepts proposed by DEGW as appropriate to the ‘univers-city’: ‘Traditional categories of space are becoming less meaningful as space becomes less specialized, [and] boundaries blur…Space types [should be] designed primarily around patterns of human interaction rather than specific needs of particular departments, disciplines or technologies.’ (John Worthington/DEGW, (2009), op. cit. p. 16.). Lecturers, for instance, are not provided with a private or fixed office space, but required to use available space in open-plan offices on an ad hoc basis. The organisational diagram of Ravensbourne then reflects that of other spaces designed to accommodate the mechanisms of a control society where, as Mark Fisher has argued in his Capitalist Realism, ‘‘Flexibility’, ‘nomadism’ and ‘spontaneity’ are the very hallmarks of management,’ (p. 28) and indeed the school’s head of architecture, Layton Reid, reports that he wants his students to behave as “intelligent nomads”.

The ‘Learning Landscape’ is one in which circulation, encounter and interaction are privileged so as to maximise communicational exchange as a source of value.  This internal ‘landscape’ is modelled after the urban environment with its intersecting activities and multiple opportunities for encounter and exchange. Critically, it is, of course, the idealised model of the urban, as the networked and extensive environment of the market form, rather than as a space, say, of social contestation, that is reproduced within Ravensbourne. At the same time, this urban mimesis is intended to render the building functionally coextensive with it immediate environment.  The relationship between the two environments, between interior and exterior, is figured as symbiotic rather than substitutive: whilst the market is introjected within the space of the building—the business ventures of students are to be ‘incubated‘ and ‘hatched‘ within its architecture—market-negotiated creativity is projected outward as a source of ideas and services for business.

Ravensbourne’s organisational diagram is also, however, modelled after the ‘virtual’ space of web-surfing, blogging and social networking—web 2.0—that students are required to navigate as the means to valorise their creativity in market terms. Circulation within networks, flexible movement across and between activities, opportunistic exchange, engagement in multiple projects and self-promotion are the normative standards of ‘online’ conduct that find their correlate within the physical space of the college.  In both spaces, and in moving between them,  the student is to be, just as Foucault described the ideal subject of neoliberalism, ‘an entrepreneur of himself’. Spatially continuous with the business of its urban environment and analogous in operation to the ‘virtual’ spaces of enterprise, the architecture of Ravensbourne then positions the subject of education within an environment whose behavioural protocols further extend the reach of the market form throughout the social field.