The Rector’s Hall in Vilnius University.Photo: Vidas Naujikas, Vilnius University (from the book “Univer-city”)

Reviews European universities. Visions and branding names

+ Bo Larsson (ed.) Univer-City: The Old Middle-Sized European Academic Town as Framework of the Global Society of Science – Challenges and Possibilities. Lund: Sekel Bokförlag 2008. 472 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 52-53, Vol II:II, 2009
Published on on February 18, 2010

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The university is unique among our civilization’s institutions: it makes the true content of European culture evident and tangible. No other institution in our society is as old as the university; none has changed so drastically during the course of its existence. It remains, moreover, extremely dynamic. Indeed, its durability is linked to its versatility (in this regard, it is rewarding to compare the university to the two-thousand-year-old institution of the Catholic Church!). The university has survived revolutions and modernization, it has been subject to both the wisdom and the stupidity of reformers, it has given way to political repression, and yet it has endured. It has continued to exist as an institution, even if the centuries have brought changes to both its contents and its structure. The university’s ability to survive is indubitable. It is, clearly, the surest means of developing a civilization, of bequeathing a cultural legacy from generation to generation, quite aside from its functions in research and teaching. Universities, and their associated libraries, are the most visible expressions of our collective memory. They set us apart from other beings, as humans; they are, at the same time, the collective expression of our visions of the future. (The museum, a younger institution than the university, has been more exposed to the proclivities of the times. As a result, museums have been more frequently subjected to changes in structure, contents and spatial aesthetics.)

The university, which originated in Plato’s Academia, soon made its triumphant way over Egypt (Alexandria), around the Mediterranean and up into Northern Europe. Ever since the middle ages, the meaning of academia has, as concept and institution, been identified with specific place names. Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Prague (1347), Heidelberg (1386), Rostock (1419), Uppsala (1477), Tartu (1632) stand as branding names for learning, for science and research, for academic and for student life. Universities became identified with the towns in which they were seated. Patronymics, by contrast, were associated with outstanding achievements in the sciences rather than with any particular university as an institution. Not until 1810, when the Prussian idealist Wilhelm von Humboldt founded the Berlin University, did an academic institution acquire a personal epitheton. The “Humboldt Spirit”, the “Humboldtian University” — these terms denote the modern research university. As of the late 19th century, this type of university would triumph globally. No longer would the geographical setting — the town — constitute the reference point of a university’s excellence and quality. Today, what sets a university apart is its reputation for adherence to the principles of scientific freedom and individuality, the indivisibility of research and doctrine, the indivisibility of the disciplines.

From very different points of view — historical, spatial, regional, structural and cultural — the Univer-City illuminates the problems of the university as an institution. Because the university is an urban institution, many, if not all, “universitial” problems are bundled into the relationship between university and city. This is true today, when universities often constitute the second-largest if not the greatest regional or urban employer, with economic weight to match — not to mention the revenues contributed to city coffers by students’ household consumption. The problematic relationship between university and town is apparent in, for instance, the objections raised by the citizens of Berlin and the Prussian authorities to the founding of a new university. They worried that the young people — that is, the students, unleashed and with slovenly lifestyles — would cause unrest in the city; they were feared as a potentially criminal element.

When one pages through Larsson’s rich and wonderful work, almost all of whose illustrations are in color, one gets a sense of what causes the friction between university and city. Indeed, one is left wondering why there are not many more such works. This book presents case studies of twenty-six selected “old” universities, located in medium-sized European towns — ranging from Coimbra (1290) in Portugal through Cernivici (1875) in Ukraine, Turku (1640) in Finland and Urbino (1467) in Italy, to Germany’s Göttingen (1737). Each is analyzed in terms of the relationship between the town and the university as an institution. The selection includes many “great” names: St. Andrews, Cambridge, Uppsala, Salamanca, Bologna and Vilnius, to mention just a few.

Town/county antagonism towards the university reflects problems associated with the development both of the modern city and the modern university. These were caused, first and foremost, by the cramped nature of the old towns. The Europeans, as well as the Americans, have found several answers to the resultant hemming-in of the universities’ development. First, there was the Campus University, placed outside the city gates. Then there was the takeover of declining urban industrial areas. These were transformed into sites of knowledge, as old and abandoned harbor and factory facilities furnished homes for colleges. Today, the same problems of space are solved by placing university areas in the green meadows at the edge of town. A third option, which is motivated by regional politics, is to locate universities in far-distant places. Most of the universities founded after the 1970s have served as aids to regional development (and as showcases for politicians with regional obligations). To this category belong universities founded so that a neighborhood might be upgraded, or in order to assist in the recovery of a declining area through the infusion of intelligentsia (of this, Södertörn is an excellent example).

City planning and university planning, the maintenance and development of a city’s environment, the preservation of cultural legacy and the modernization of the university — these are opposites, but also communalities, whose dynamics unfold during the planning process. They are systematically thematized in Larsson’s work: the cooperation between city and university, which benefits both parties and creates synergetic effects, as is noted in the publisher’s introduction. Carl-Gustaf Andrén’s historical overview of the city-university relationship and Claes Caldenby’s analysis of the interface between city and university deserve particular attention. These sketch the guiding lines that the reader will follow on his or her voyage through the work. What does a university need, at present, as a place of research and teaching? How can these needs be realized with and within the modern city?

It is, as the editor makes abundantly clear, fascinating to see and read how similar are the planning problems faced by middle-sized universities in Europe’s middle-sized towns. Here, it appears, is a tradition that seems to reach across the continent, one that can be traced in plans and drawings, designs and planning suggestions. To this is added the cultural, urban background, against which the universities have to contend — they have, after all, constituted a type of “city-dweller” not always and everywhere welcome.

The work (the result of a Lund conference) includes illustrations, which are enough in themselves to demonstrate the allure of the city-university symbiosis, at least in middle-sized towns. Starting in the middle ages, the European university town has been distinguished by the combination of concentrated urban life and the studious atmosphere that emanates from young people. This denotes, on the one hand, the possibility of withdrawal — marked, in the city ambience, through meadows and town squares; on the other, the aesthetics of the traditional, dense building style that characterizes edifices built in the middle ages and early modernity. The fact that only three photographs show winter-time university environments (quite wonderful: Turku Castle in the snow), while the rest portray the vivacious, out-door academic life of spring and summer — it never does rain in these pictures! — pretties up the actual realities and glosses over the often fairly monotonous every-day life of a small or middle-sized town; the provinces possess an aesthetic allure of their own …

The presentations of the various universities and towns vary a good deal. The fluctuation in quality is far from negligible — for the contributions are also written by planners and university promoters, people with their own agendas: the marketing of universities. There are, further, articles written by city planners who focus on their city’s image rather than on the critical dimensions that arise from their own activities — it is not the gift of every planner to be a writer, or to convey a comprehensible message to a non-planner. Some contributions are crammed full of numbers and charts; not every university and town is analyzed and described with equal stringency. Some chapters give us little more than the town’s history; others concentrate on city planning; while still others offer brilliant analyses of the town, the university, and their shared future. But one can read past this heterogeneity, for it serves to make clear the different facets of the conditions of university and town. Further, this heterogeneity opens new perspectives through which the university becomes “comprehensible” as an urban institution — one can read “science in the town”, read in the several senses of that word.

+ Bo Larsson (ed.) Univer-City: The Old Middle-Sized European Academic Town as Framework of the Global Society of Science – Challenges and Possibilities. Lund: Sekel Bokförlag 2008. 472 pages