Hallowed Halls of Learning

By Anne Tate

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Observations on Urban Form: A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design

For 800 years, Cambridge University has proclaimed to the world that learning matters. The ancient buildings enclose brilliant green courtyards brightened by flowers of all colors still blooming in late September. These courts create a world of quiet thought set apart from the bustle of the surrounding city jammed with vehicles, tourists, shoppers, and busy daily life.

These sanctuaries for study, by their very elegance and distinction, declare that education has value. They insist that stepping inside and pausing to think for a moment, or a year, or a decade, is an important act.

Cambridge college courtyard and exterior street
Inside and outside the college gate.
Photo by Anne Tate.

I was privileged last week to dine with the fellows of one of the colleges. It was a lovely experience, a hospitable lunch of bangers and mash, pea soup, salads, cheeses, delicate desserts, all laid out in a handsome wood paneled dining room. Leaded windows overlooked the sun-washed garden. The ancient room was precisely sized for the number of fellows in the college. The horseshoe-shaped table had seats on the outer and inner edges, facilitating conversation across and to the sides, but also giving focus to a room-wide discussion when appropriate. Everything about the room and the lunch enhanced the collective experience for an intimate group of scholars, as it had for hundreds of years.

Fellows dining hall
The fellows dining hall at Cambridge University.
Photo by Anne Tate.

My host introduced me to the other fellows who knew each other because they dine together like this most days. During the term, they join the undergraduates in the great hall and sit at the head table (in the manner of Hogwarts). Conversations ranged from the personal details of raising their children to the topics of their research. Afterward, we moved to a cozy sitting room upstairs for coffee and more conversation. The deep upholstered chairs, the warm sunlight streaming in the bay window, and the delicious coffee made one reluctant to leave, and the conversation moved into deeper ideas and opportunities to extend collaborations.

The conversation space is quiet, comfortable, and remote from daily pressures. It tempts one to linger. The extended open discussions inculcated by this environment encourage participants to mull over new and unexpected connections, challenge preconceptions, and invent new forms of disciplinary overlap. The ritual of dining together and then retiring for coffee and conversation in another room may derive from elite country house manners but the value of slowing down to talk to each other is universal.

Courtyard colonnade
A courtyard colonnade at Cambridge.
Photo by Anne Tate.

The dining halls, sitting rooms, corridors, and courtyards are all designed to entice people into extended conversations. The fellows of the college come from different disciplines, assuring that the students have someone from their field in their residential space. The luncheon ritual offers the fellows a structured space for talking with scholars across fields. Faculty who do not talk to each other do not collaborate. The departments and programs represent disparate and often competitive silos, so these opportunities are critical to opening the minds and incubating the ideas that produce new knowledge.

Stair landing with seat
Stair landing with seat.
Photo by Anne Tate.

Historically, universities like Cambridge were created for a privileged few. Today the privilege is less about class and more about the luxury of time and a place to pursue knowledge. Offering this experience to a wider range of students is increasingly the goal, if not the reality, of elite institutions, and today one sees people of every culture and background roaming the courts of the colleges. This diversity will increase the value of these conversations and the knowledge that comes from them. Perhaps we should follow their practice of honoring thinking, talking, and learning by putting beauty, grace, and ritual at the heart of all our educational institutions.



Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.

Header photo of Cambridge college courtyard courtesy Anne Tate.

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