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The evolution of university design, as pioneered by Price the prophet


As seminal moments go, it is hard to beat the terse exchange that took place some time in the early '60s between the junior minister of housing and local government, Lord Kennet, and the visionary architect Cedric Price.Price grumbled about the shortcomings of the new wave of British universities.

Kennet said, in effect: 'If you're so bloody clever, why don't you come up with something better yourself.' And so he did.

Price's response, Potteries Thinkbelt, is now the stuff of legend. By using the derelict rail networks of the Potteries district of North Staffordshire to transport mobile classroom, laboratory and residential modules around the region as required, Price sought to create a higher education facility that was portable, flexible and anchored in the communities it was to serve. A critique of, and reproach to, the aloofness and rigidity of conventional universities, the project also included detailed designs for portable prefabricated housing units, and addressed the problem of realising conventional building programmes on a landscape pockmarked by disused pits, industrial detritus and vast areas of unstable land.

As an example of joined-up thinking, the project is commonly held to have been brilliant, visionary - and comprehensively ignored. But if there was no explicit response from government at the time, it is interesting to note how much of Price's critique has since been addressed. Industrial regeneration is high on the agenda, prefabricated housing a national obsession, and 'education for all'has become a government mantra.Price's characterisation of universities as 'medieval castles with power points, located in gentlemanly seclusion'has been partially succeeded by new types of educational establishments, while his distaste for the elitist connotations of the word 'university'have been neatly countered by the casual rebranding of polytechnics as universities.But what about the possibility of creating an education system that plugs into the wider community, and is free from the constraints of finite buildings and fixed sites? You only have to read this week's column by former Price employee and fellow visionary Will Alsop to see that the idea is very much alive and well.

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