Google's Office in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo By Google)

Google’s Office in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo By Google)

That’s Google’s Pittsburgh office above, not unlike Google offices all over the world. It exploits industrial space well, includes several stations for work and play, and integrates the various functions of the work-a-day world in a visibly coherent way.

I am greedily devouring the current TMN/Showtime program Billions that pits a clever inside trader/hedge fund investor named Bob ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) against equally devious US attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). There’s a point coming up, so bear with me … Billions is a telling example of how much television has changed for the better, so that we can easily label this moment a golden age, far from the time of plodding network offerings in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties. Writing for television (HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and even some network stuff – hello Good Wife) is better than ever. Once someone realized what the audience wanted, what it needed to nourish a more sophisticated palate, television rose to new heights of intelligence.

But back to Billions. Both male protagonists are shrewd, self-absorbed, driven, Type As, and although the plot can be pretty preposterous, it’s fun to watch them connive and manipulate people, whether wives or minions. Rhoades the lawyer works in a traditional space of wood panelled, baronial privacy. He is constantly seeking meetings with staff in close and darkened spaces. The camera tends to shoot him tight, with lots of close-ups to impose a sense of claustrophobia and constraint.

Axelrod is the risk-taker, an investor guru who thrives in the transparent glass-walled emporium of his 21st century building. Everyone can see him working or taking meetings. He overlooks a vast over-lit workspace, with workers at their open stations, feeding their computers with the latest figures from Wall Street. The camera shoots him through a wide lens, locating him comfortably in the pristine whiteness of his empire and commanding a team of driven and loyal subjects. Neither man is a paragon of virtue, far from it, but Axelrod’s open, postmodern style is meant to be way more attractive than Rhoades’ awkward and clearly repressed behaviour. In short, I’d rather work in Axelrod’s office than in Rhoades’.

If you are alive, you know that Apple has been constructing a new ‘campus’ at its headquarters in Cupertino, California, rumoured to be in the 5 billion dollar range. Whatever. They can afford it. I know. I bought an iPad Pro. The proposed building resembles a large space ship, round and open to the environment, with floor-to-ceiling curved-glass exterior walls. It will be green, if not lean, and marked by wide-open spaces in which all that millennial tech brainstorming will ostensibly thrive. That’s where the ideas need to go and germinate.

Is it really so hard to imagine a university without borders? For many faculty, yes. For today’s student, not so much. Clearly, we are moving away from traditional notions of program delivery and classroom instruction. There is a huge hunger for experiential learning that itself speaks to breaking down the walls between the classroom and the ‘real’ world.  Online courses, in which we are surging forward, are inherently without walls. As writer Steven Mintz said recently in a provocative piece in Inside Higher Ed, the Ivory Tower of the past (otherwise known as yore) is giving way to concepts of the “distributed” university. To put it another way, the centre will not hold all the learning anymore. Our own libraries have already shifted to the popular “commons” model of knowledge sharing. In many ways, libraries have been the first to move us away from the single cell notion of learning. It’s taking some of us longer than others to get with that program. And, speaking of program, the paradigm shift in learning to experiential and project-based problem-solving means that our programs are necessarily in the process of change, as well—to more team-based, creative approaches to education. We now require different spaces for such activities.

Design for both the renovated Battery Facility up on Signal Hill and the new core science facility include much more open space where people can congregate and actually see each other. There’s no point in constructing new space without keeping in mind the basic design needs of this and following generations of students.  Slowly, the university of this century will be changing to accommodate a different audience with far different expectations about communications and technology—and learning—than the one in which I was educated, that’s for sure. Axelrod might be a vainglorious inside trader, but he sure knows how to create an environment.

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