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Architecture on the air: The story of Open University’s televised classroom

A new exhibition looks at a pioneering, mixed-media college course exploring modern architecture

A student watching an Open University broadcast on television in February 1971.
Getty Images

Satisfying your curiosity for architecture, or any subject, has never been easier. Thanks to Google, online courses, and YouTube, there are more blueprints, documentaries, and articles—mostly free and nearly instantaneously available—than one could possibly absorb in a lifetime.

Using new media to educate the masses may seem novel today, but back in the ’70s, it was more revolutionary to view television as a means of enlightenment than advertising.

A new exhibition at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, The University is Now On Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture, explores the legacy of a British radio and television course meant to democratize education about our built environment. Part of the pioneering Open University, this media-savvy course brought the buildings of Le Corbusier into your living room.

“This wasn’t simply providing vocational information, as had been tried before via distance education,” says Joaquim Moreno, curator of the exhibition, which is filled with videos, course material, and photos explaining how the mixed-media class operated. “This was intended to be a real university. And to be something more than a second-rate university, it needed the arts and humanities.”

One of the Corbusier course books included in the Open University’s modern architecture course.

Based in the southern English city of Milton Keynes, The Open University grew out of progressive educational reforms of the Labour Government in the ’60s. Through experimentation and media technology, the Open University sought to be part of the vanguard of revolution in educational access, piggybacking on the infrastructure of the BBC to turn any place with a radio and television into a potential classroom.

“We are open in many ways, but first of all to people,” said Geoffrey Crowther, Lord Crowther of Headlingley, the first Chancellor of The Open University. “We are open as to places. This University has no cloisters—a word meaning closed. We have no courts—or spaces enclosed by buildings. Hardly even shall we have a campus. The rest of the University will be disembodied and airborne. From the start, it will flow all over the United Kingdom.”

The exhibit at CCA in Montreal, Quebec

The class on display in the CCA exhibition, A305, “History of Architecture and Design, 1890–1939,” was a third-year undergraduate arts course offered between 1975 and 1982. Via television and radio broadcasts, Open University students would become familiar to the beginnings of modernism, with a focus on architects and designers like Le Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Known as blended education, the course combined radio and TV broadcasts with mail-delivered study materials, in-person tutorials, and residential summer sessions on conventional university campuses. Each student also submitted a final paper, a detailed study of a single example of modern architecture.

While the methodology, and the often one-way flow of discourse relative to today’s online education, seems primitive, there were many breakthroughs in terms of making architecture more accessible: Televised lessons would take students on walking tours through great buildings, offering perspectives previously only available via in-person tours.

Class 12, on the work of Alfred Loos, offered students a walking tour of the architect’s work in Vienna. Other programs delved into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, and the significance of the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts Paris.

The tone was studious, but not stuffy. During the first class, Dr. Geoffrey Fowler offers a breezy, relaxed tour through the design process of his own modern home. While he doesn’t have Bob Ross levels of charisma, his informal, conversational tone conveys grand themes without being over the top, or littered with jargon.

Like any Open University course, students would follow along with dozens of programs, watching dozens of television broadcasts and listening to hours of radio programs, all while keep pace with more than 200 pages of printed study material (the CCA exhibit, up through Sunday, April 1, will publish each of the 24 A305 lessons online).

The logistical challenges of getting materials to 2,500 students, not to mention producing hours of television and radio, were heightened by the need for mass appeal. To make sure students, as well as the thousands of additional casual listeners, could follow along without the interruptions of obscure terminology, curricula and materials were shorn of academic buzzwords.

“Scripts couldn’t be jargon-filled,” says Moreno. “It needed to speak to everyone. That’s one of the incredible parts of the program. You’d have a huge audience welcoming architecture into their home.”

Courtesy CCA

This additional reach underscored the goals of the BBC, which had a mandate to support a more learned, flexible society. At some point, according to Moreno, British architecture magazines would even print broadcast schedules, creating a national audience for these lessons. Used copies of the Corbusier books continue to circulate.

While the Open University still exists today, broadcasts of the modern architecture course ended in the early ’80s, due to poor enrollment and the high overhead of maintaining and updating materials and lessons.

The course’s vision, of using broadcast media as a means of democratizing information, has been supplanted by new technology. But as far as introductions to modern design go, these lessons and episodes still stand up, a sign that accessible means of enlightenment are never outdated.