As republics, cities also have taking spaces where more informal kinds of conversation happen. On sidewalks and plazas, we all interact and establish different kinds of dialogue, verbal and not. Eventually, these small interplays generate all kinds of cultural manifestations. However, these are also the spaces of resistance, where we exercise the right of free speech, and its corollary right of protest. That explains why, with a sinister sense of symmetry, public plazas and streets have also been the scenarios of repression - think about Tlatelolco in 1968, or Tiananmen in 1982.
These may be the reasons why contemporary architects are constantly searching to create successful and meaningful places for dialogue, where all kinds of people can express opinions, confront positions and try to find a common ground. In the jargon of our discipline, these spaces have been defined differently: informal, hybrid, condensers, etc. As future designers of the built environment, we are encouraged to take part in that search; teachers are continuously asking us to think about the consequences of our designs over the public realm and on how people interact and, therefore, talk.
And yet, ironically, we might be missing these kinds of places in our own BK building. Think about it: is there a place where you can talk to people from different programs and departments, including teachers and staff, at any given time? Let’s say somebody wanted to organise an informal debate among students for discussing possible improvements of the faculty: where would that be? Perhaps the Model Hall, where everybody is passing by, acoustics are bad, and people are working? Or the Orange Hall, with its auditorium layout? That could be the right pick: it is used as the faculty aula and frequently shown in media as an example of the open and diverse environment of BK. However, the spaces where a large audience of anonymous spectators listens to one single protagonist defines a clear hierarchy of interaction, an unbalanced kind of communication.
In short, everywhere in BK we find rooms that have very specific programs, both spatial and temporal. However, paraphrasing what Richard Sennett wrote in The Open City (2006), dialogue, as a democratic exercise, requires less ceremonial spaces. We don’t see any of those at BK.
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that our building is a product of an emergency, a moment when the priority was to fit a whole faculty into a pre-existing structure, with limited resources at hand and within a limited period of time. This is not a criticism to what was done, no one doubts it was impressive. But urgent need is the enemy of the unprogrammed. In addition, institutions, guided by their inherent need for control, will rarely provide the platforms for free and uncompromised speech.
At this point it could be argued that, as mentioned before, these spaces might be necessary in cities, but not at a university. In response, it must be recalled how self-organised students have been a driving force of social mobilisations for decades. For example, the Provos counterculture movement of Amsterdam, founded by students in the 1960s, continuously provoked public authorities with humorous and non-violent happenings. They were even elected to the city council, where they defended their own urban visions for the city, known as the White Plans. Later, in 1968, both students and teachers played fundamental roles in the movements in Prague, Paris and Mexico. Today, students from all over the world still lead massive demonstrations, from Chile and Colombia, where they have been demanding for a better education and more opportunities for young people for the last decade, to Hong Kong, where their fight for political rights is still going on.
Thus, spaces for dialogue play an important role in education; their impact can transcend the borders of the university and influence society. When missing, it is in the hands of students to act and reclaim those talking spaces: they would be the first parties to benefit. Not only would they have a place for integrating their points of view into a single voice, but also a platform for producing a new kind of knowledge, away from the dogmas and rigidities that academies perpetuate.
In BK, the claiming of those spaces could perhaps start with small scale actions and interventions that could escalate with time. Student collectives could be organised, each one composed of and by people interested in talking about similar preoccupations and interests. Then, they could start finding those strange corners and residual areas that have not yet been colonised by functions and schedules: a happy marriage of lack of form and lack of function where dialogue could fit in.
The tower that everybody sees but nobody has entered could be the talking tower. The ceiling in the urbanism studio, big enough to fit a whole new floor, could become the talking ceiling. After a makeover, those small and weirdly decorated rooms next to the canteen could be less of an Instagram set and more like two talking chambers. The possibilities are endless.