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Universities have always used architecture as marketing. From the massive brick towers and shady arcades of Bologna to the elegant quads of Oxford, from the gothic towers of Cornell to the colourful collapsing forms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, architecture has been used to attract students and academics, to proclaim the power of knowledge and the wealth of benefactors and to demonstrate to the city that these are buildings that mean something.
The first universities were monastic and the lineage shows in the cloisters and quads that still form our fundamental idea of how an old college should look. It is a surprisingly universal idea – the madrasas of the Islamic world, of Baghdad, Damascus and the first caliphate were organised around the same ideas: arched, shady corridors surrounding a courtyard. It is a cosmic model, a garden of paradise surrounded by spaces of contemplation. The religious nature was abandoned in the Renaissance, but the sense of the university as something sacred – in particular of the library as a nexus of knowledge and a Borgesian heavenly space – has never been lost. […]