Polytechnic culture: ideas, values and opportunities
Copyright (c) 2021 Ferruccio Resta
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Complexity is the central theme of our contemporary age, and what technical culture needs today is to know how to manage it. Knowing how to deal with situations that are anything but straightforward – situations that require flexible thinking, the ability to establish a dialogue between fields of knowledge, and the intermingling of points of view that are, by their very nature, heterogeneous. If this is the direction that needs to be taken in order to tackle the major challenges of the future – from energy to the environment, healthcare to data management, and so on – then it naturally follows that the old monodisciplinary paradigm that we have grown accustomed to as a result of tradition, divided up and compartmentalised, is now outdated.
In order to face the great trials of our time, of which architecture is an interpreter, we need a broader vision. Indeed, the growing speed of technological evolution, its pervasiveness and the impact that this is capable of having on the community and our future increasingly point towards the validity of a multifaceted approach that reflects and anticipates the dynamics of social development.
If complexity is in fact the theme of the future, then, we cannot avoid engaging in a careful reflection on the dualism between specialisation and a systemic vision; on the relationship between a solid specialist culture, required to understand problems in depth, and a broader cultural perspective, crucial to understanding the direction that the world is moving in.
Here is a very simple example: we cannot begin to think about creating new spaces and new functions for living and dwelling if we do not first consider some of the major issues dominating our era. One of the many, and one that I hold particularly dear, is mobility: a new concept of mobility – sustainable, intelligent, shared – redefines everything that revolves around it, starting with our behaviours. And in order to analyse these behaviours, we must first understand the potential and impact of the new technologies underpinning them. It goes without saying that the architect, the engineer, the sociologist and the visionary start-up must all be able to interface within a common framework, a shared perspective, a circular approach.
As such, the task that the university is faced with is arming its students, as well as the professionals of today and tomorrow, with skills that, whilst based on solid disciplinary foundations, are not isolated in monothematic contexts, but instead benefit from complementary paths and interaction. Points of comparison and dialogue between different fields of knowledge, different experiences, different practices.
At the heart of what we refer to as “polytechnic culture” is the value of design, which everyone contributes to with methods and tools that are different, yet all equally useful: some apply the laws of dynamics, others the laws of physics or electronics; some use an experimental method, others are more firmly rooted in tradition. Designing becomes synonymous with sharing and hybridising, in that it means forming a complex response to a need expressed by the community.
It is then worth reflecting upon how, in a civilisation in which everything is contemporary – in which a unitary and evolutionary conception of time has disappeared entirely – we are forced to design in a condition of great discontinuity. Whilst on the one hand, the relentless forward march of technology has got us used to fast dynamics, on the other, space is notoriously subject to slow transformations. Indeed, an architectural project takes months to design and years to actually construct. It also has an intrinsic characteristic, namely surviving the passage of time, of preserving memory and seeing the end of its lifecycle only decades down the line.
Whereas once upon a time, historical developments were slow and predictable – as it was easy enough to imagine what would happen over the course of the next twenty years – nowadays, this sort of long-term vision is impossible because society evolves not only rapidly, but also in radical leaps and bounds. Hence the adjective “disruptive” which so often recurs in our conversations: the unexpected, changing our paradigms.
Unexpected, just like COVID-19: a catalyst which accelerated some of the major technological changes that were underway, first and foremost digital technology, the true potential of which emerged clearly as we sought to tackle the health crisis. From distance learning to remote working, digital technology allowed us to carry on with our lives, but at the same time, it emptied out schools and universities, offices and skyscrapers; it reassigned new functions to our living spaces; it redefined interpersonal relationships; it depopulated entire urban areas and brought international mobility to a standstill.
That said, despite the fact that technology managed to soften the blow of a sudden and dramatic situation almost overnight, I struggle to believe that the pandemic and social distancing will empty out the cities in any definitive way. On the contrary, I believe that after this not-so-brief interlude, the large urban centres will once again become lively, dynamic hubs of activity. They will continue to offer that unique and eclectic collection of ideas, values and opportunities that smaller settlements struggle to ever develop.
Architecture will then be faced with the challenge of responding to this distancing and emptying by designing a different understanding of what “being there” means, and in order to do so, it will have to interface with a variety of contexts. Architecture will have the task of redefining a new living experience, of developing a complex conception of planning that lies on the borderline between the opportunities offered by remote learning and working and our needs in terms of socialising; between the needs of the economy and those of protecting the nation’s health; between an immediate response dictated by an emergency and a need for long-term sustainability.
In the case of our universities, it will mean completely overhauling our idea of campus life. Whereas some of the most prestigious universities in the world, starting with Cambridge, are offering entirely online courses, riding the long wave of COVID and using the tools offered by digital technology, I believe that, on the contrary, it is absolutely essential to restore a sense of physicality and experience. I believe that the time is right to once again start talking about physical spaces in response to virtual classrooms. I consider it necessary to do everything we can to ensure that our universities continue to draw in talented young people who choose to engage in a first-hand experience of the academic spaces and cities playing host to them – the cities that reflect these people.
It is therefore not enough to welcome new students with open arms: we must instead offer them a unique experience of life, from campus life to the services that the wider area can offer. The university needs a modern, welcoming city in order to be attractive, and vice versa: a double bond, a two-way street. An experience that will take tangible form within the university itself – with interactive classrooms, spaces dedicated to hospitality, sports, social interaction, study, workshops – as well as intangible form in the values that we will be able to convey in places that increasingly represent points of engagement and personal growth. Places which can wholeheartedly embody the approach to complexity mentioned earlier.
The lesson to draw from this pandemic is that in order to respond to complex challenges, we must turn to knowledge as our starting point. And so, after dedicating years to minor jobs and maintenance work, the university is once again positioning itself as an active force engaging in society and change. This is the best guarantee for the future: ensuring that the classrooms and lecture halls of universities everywhere can once again become “construction sites for knowledge”. And these sites – as our alumnus and master Renzo Piano has taught us – are wellsprings of hope, even and above all in times of uncertainty such as we are currently living through.