The NAB Forecourt: Public Space or Public Relations?  18 minute read

This paper undertakes a semiotic analysis of the New Academic Building (NAB) forecourt at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) campus in Holborn, London; a site that represents an interface between the School and the public. This paper uses a social semiotics approach to evaluate its ‘publicness’, where public spaces are those in which strangers mingle freely (Zukin, 1995). I have attempted to focus, in light of Hall’s semiotic approach (1997; 1980), on the reception of these spaces. Firstly, I will justify the social semiotics method. Secondly, the historic tension inherent in city universities is summarised, in order to frame the analysis. In the third, most substantial, section I discuss how public these spaces are perceived to be, and how the signs embodied in them affect the lived space (Lefebvre, 2011). I end by re-asserting reception as a predominant site of contestation in meaning-making, invoking Lefebvre’s spatial triad (ibid.) and the scope for a plurality of territorial appropriations and associations inferred by Soja’s thirdspace (Soja, 1996).

Figure one Forecourt located on the map in red
Figure 1: Forecourt located on the map in red. (map: LSE, n.d.; author’s edits)

Social Semiotics

Stuart Hall highlighted the need to focus on how cultural objects are decoded by their audiences, rejecting the idea that meanings encoded at production are inevitably and uncritically absorbed (1980). This has implications for reading spaces and places as texts, as audiences will interpret signs and relate to places differently. This has been grappled with by humanistic geographers since the  late 20th Century, some of whom expanded the application of semiotics beyond literary texts (Duncan & Duncan, 1988: 177), arguing that place should be viewed as multiple texts, given the multiplicity of readings that different social groups have. This entails a subjectivist analysis of place as an “internalized and concrete semiotic entity… invested with understanding, symbolic meaning, value, and feeling” (Lagopoulos, 2009: 171). Crucially, then, space is not only semiotically experienced, but also semiotically produced: the values and sentiments of the individuals involved in the production and (re-)negotiation of spaces and places are manifest in the built environment (Tuan, 2011). It is to this end that Lagopoulos suggests an analysis that goes beyond the infinite regress and “isolated theory of culture” (2009: 173) of sociosemiotics which presents an overly-subjectivist perspective. More useful is ‘social semiotics’, which offers a synthesis between spatial objectivism and subjectivism: the meanings of space (places) are produced, negotiated, and transformed within and by society (ibid.).


A University ‘in and of the city’?

City universities experience tension surrounding the question of whether a city university can merely be in the city, or whether it must be of the city, too. Early universities avoided urban life altogether, with both moral panic and social reality insisting it was “corrupt… crowded, noisy, unclean… antithetical to scholarly thought” (Berdahl et al., 2011: 8).

However, by the 19th century the idea of a university “accessible to all and that is in and of the city” (ibid.: 5) gained traction. Albert Gallatin, who penned this in a letter to Jeremy Bentham, saw the city university as an opportunity to break from the “withdrawn and competitive” Oxbridge and Ivy League systems (Nelson, 2010: 55). English higher education reformers in the 19th century followed the likes of New York University and established their own city-based institutions. The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of The London University: “Nobody thought of emulating the cloisters, the organs, the painted glass,… the busts of great men” (1826: 316). City universities were seen to have dropped the anachronisms of their secluded antecedents and embedded themselves in their respective cities. These ideas of modernism and embeddedness persist today: the UCL 2034 vision strategy (where Gallatin’s pen-friend Jeremy Bentham’s severed head remains) features the strapline: ‘in London, of London and for London’ (Addie & Paskins, 2016). LSE’s opting to use a more corporate logo, as opposed to their coat of arms, is another example.

However, this simplified transition from the cloistered Oxbridge to the open and embedded city university defies a much messier reality. Historically, the orientation and purpose of the university has oscillated between the service of the nation-state, “imperial responsibilities” (Rothblatt, 1998: 137), and the needs of the economy: with the realities of the city in which it finds itself often neglected. Today, the cloisters, for example, persist in new forms. Take the atrium that sits behind electronic turnstiles in the NAB, and the aloft bridges that allowed passage between LSE’s buildings: a powerful metaphor for perceived academic aloofness. The attempt here is to analyse the social and cultural embeddedness of the institution in its community. An embedded university would be sensitive and responsive to their position not only within a globalised system, but also a local one (cf. the Civic University forwarded by Goddard & Vallance, 2013).



The NAB Forecourt

LSE proclaims a commitment to creating “public space” (LSE Estates, 2013: 5) and the “activation of the local area, encouraging the mix[1] of the public and the LSE population.” (Grimshaw, n.d.: 8). With LSE Estates’ nominal demarcation of the forecourt as ‘public’ in mind, I will analyse how the space is likely to be – and is actually – perceived and used: representing the dissonance between the conceived space and lived space (Lefebvre, 2011).

LSE Estates proclaim that “spaces should feel as an extension of the buildings adjacent” (LSE Estates, 2013: 22), and in this case I think they’ve been somewhat successful. While the grey, almost clinical NAB forecourt seems aesthetically distinct from the beaux-arts building itself, it is a poignant ‘extension’ of the broader ambiguity surrounding whether the public university is a public space, which has troubled even former Vice Chancellors  (Knight, 2006). There are many signs present in the NAB forecourt that justify this uncertainty, presenting the question of who the ‘public’ LSE Estates describes actually is.

Figure two Metal bars set into wall..
Figure 2: Metal bars set into wall. Photo by author 21/11/17.


The most obvious sign is the delimiting of the forecourt by metal railings set into stone walls (figure 2): a territorial strategy in Kärrholm’s territorial production matrix (2007: 24). Immediately, the metal bars present a physical boundary (‘body stabilization’: ibid.: 16), along with metal bollards and steps where the wall pauses. This constitutes a frontier – physical and psychological – between the unequivocally public pavement and the forecourt which exists behind these tangible barriers; making the accessibility of the forecourt decidedly ambiguous. If LSE Estates genuinely intended for this space to be public, why not do away with these protrusive boundaries and instead opt for steps or slopes, particularly on the south face of the forecourt? Take, for instance, the glass barrier installed on the south side. In its place could have been steps, creating a broader entrance for people coming from Sardinia Street and thus appearing more ‘open’. Beyond the semiotic, the barriers seem logistically frustrating, creating bottlenecks to paths of desire (Kingwell, 2009).

Figure 3: Tactile paving comparison. Photos by author 02/12/17.

Beyond the more obvious symbolism of walls, there are more subtle signs. One is the choice of paving materials, which distinguish Westminster and Camden Councils’ weathered Yorkstone pavement from the high-finish granite, metal, and glass of the forecourt. This was noted by passers by, who said the stark difference in materials made them feel that it was ‘part of LSE’ and ‘for students’. Granite is an expensive material, and thus gives off an air of prosperity and investment in spaces. It has been used repeatedly by LSE to create the feeling of a ‘university quarter’ (LSE Estates, 2013:6), demonstrating their interest in influencing the spaces around them: a common aspiration of city universities (cf. Goddard & Vallance, 2013). Even the tactile paving is bespoke, deviating from that found just a metre away (figure 3), further aesthetically distancing the space from that usually understood as public, and associating it with the corporate identity of the School. However, this is again confused by the inclusion of two Westminster Council recycling bins, which stand next to the LSE wayfinding map. This is a neat embodiment of what I refer to as the ‘ambiguity’ of the space: the bin is that typically found on the clearly public street, yet the wayfinding map is so recognisably branded. This has generated tension between the competing conceived spaces (Lefebvre, 2011) of the Council and LSE, visible in planning documents. Finally, ‘wet floor’ signs that periodically appear serve as a reminder that this space is closely maintained and monitored by LSE, in a way reminiscent of indoor spaces.

Figure four LSE wayfinding map, Westminster bins, wet floor sign.
Figure 4: LSE wayfinding map, Westminster bins, wet floor sign.
Photos by author 02/12/17.

A distinct feature of the forecourt is the stadium-style raked seating on the north side. Some of the people I spoke to assumed this represented the lecture theatre, while two others independently perceived it as an attempt to invoke the idea of a public space for debate and discussion: a kind of agora or forum, harking back to the ‘ideals’ supposedly embodied in Greco-Roman antiquity. It seems that this interpretation is near to that of the architects’ imagining, which claimed the steps “physically express the LSE’s presence to the public realm” (Grimshaw, n.d.: 12). Whether the steps conjure images of the lecture theatre or of the agora, amphitheater, or forum: all of these images and signs ultimately have an exclusive basis. Historic ‘public spaces’ such as the agora in Greece and the Roman forum were constituted through the exclusion of minorities and women, reflecting prevailing inequalities in social relations (Low & Smith, 2006: 4; Ruddick, 1996). The restriction of these spaces on the lines of ascriptive identities as well as narrow, privileged social classes circumscribed the publicness of these places. Thus, I would argue that the agora and forum are actually rather apt invocations (when received in the negotiated or oppositional position), as the contemporary university – especially elite ones such as LSE – also poses accessibility issues along many of the same lines as their ancient predecessors, albeit in less explicit ways.

Figure five Cafe A-board.
Figure 5: Cafe A-board.
Photo by author 02/12/17.

The wooden A-board with the cliché chalked coffee-related quip, next to the tables and benches, suggests an attempt at creating a cafe feel to the space. Grimshaw architects originally intended the cafe to have a greater connection to the forecourt, which it believed would ‘activate’ the area, “creating a place where public and LSE populations can intermingle, generating a magnet to draw people to the NAB.” (Grimshaw, n.d.: 12). This seems to reflect the idea that ‘cafe-culture’ is a means to make public a space; though Varnelis and Frideberg’s work demonstrates that this generally constitutes no more than a performative image of public space (2008). Further, just as the stadium steps could be interpreted as a reference to the agora and forum, contemporary ‘cafe-culture’ surely inherits the much lauded role of the coffeehouse as central to the ‘emergence’ of the public sphere of the early eighteenth century (Parsons, 1963: 17). However, the coffeehouses championed by theorists like Jürgen Habermas, and their modern-day equivalents, maintain their own “invisible divides of power and access” (Varnelis & Friedberg, 2008: 17). The modern-day cafe is also largely devoid of the eighteenth-century deliberative democracy and debate, and is instead a site predominantly of consumption and the private enjoyment of individuals at their own tables; entailing ‘invisible’ socioeconomic barriers to access. Thus, seeking to ‘activate’ the space through the inclusion of a cafe reveals a thin conceptualisation of the verb.

Moving away from more tenuous readings of the space, there is one glaringly obvious physical sign which crucially undermines the publicness of the space: the turnstiles that lie behind the enormous metal-clad doorways. The turnstiles are the culmination of the aforementioned signs, and give weight to the argument that the university is still cloistered. If someone unaffiliated with the School were to make it this far, they’d see that beyond the turnstiles is a grandiose atrium: a place for card-carrying School members to use. The architect’s’ description of the forecourt as a “magnet” (Grimshaw, n.d.: 12) thus begs the question: who is the magnet supposed to be attracting? Assuming it’s the public, any magnetic pull is fatally compromised by the fact that they cannot access the NAB unless they have a card that can be validated by the electronic turnstiles, or a ‘reason’ that can be validated by security personnel. There is a Public Events Program, but we should question the demographic narrowness of attendees and whether the events themselves are embedded in the community: in terms of the topics they address, the speakers they platform, and the audience they draw. An illustrative example is that of the Lunchtime Concerts, which feature classical musicians performing in the ornate Shaw Library: both the content and venue exuding what is popularly known as ‘high culture’. LSE seems to have failed to shift from the “high-cultural role of the elite university” to a “broader cultural role” (vs. Bristol University: Chatterton, 2000: 166). Instead, it more closely resembles what Parsons described of the earlier universities, whose interaction with the city’s public was “limited to occasional sallies from their ivory towers to throw fine intellectual dust, verbal pebbles, and occasionally a useful critical rock at the follies of the cities.” (1963: 205).

Thus, the NAB forecourt perpetuates the ambiguity surrounding the public or private nature of the city university, most obviously through physical boundaries such as walls but also through more subtle signs and invocations.



Contesting Places; Thirding Spaces

While the territory of the forecourt is generally associated with members of the School community, it is crucial to note that multiple territorial associations and appropriations operate in spaces (Kärrholm, 2007). In the case of the NAB forecourt, territorial associations are contingent on the time of the day, week, and year (i.e. term-times). A pertinent example is the soup kitchens that offer food to local people every evening around Lincoln’s Inn Field. I observed at 8:30pm on a Wednesday a totally different scene to that seen during the day, when the space was clearly associated as a place for students and staff (cf. Fassi et al., 2016: 4). People were eating, drinking, and socialising on the tables and benches. Despite this, there still seemed some cautiousness or tentativity on behalf of the evening inhabitants, who contained their presence to the tables closest to the pavement. A member of LSE Security told me that they ‘turn a blind eye when there aren’t many people around’; implicitly suggesting that if the people who use the space at night were to do so during the day they’d be moved on; or more concerningly that they aren’t considered ‘people’: social death. Thus, at a time when the forecourt seems most animated, most public (in Zukin’s conception, 1995); there are clear tensions between the territorial strategy of LSE and those using the space.

These tensions are dialectical, as demonstrated by Lefebvre’s spatial triad (2011). The conceived space, proximate to production in Hall’s schema, is that imagined (in the context of the perceived space) by  those such as architects, LSE Estates, and the Westminster Council planners: it is “a place for the practices of social and political power” (Lefebvre, 2011: 222). Out of the duality of perceived and conceived space comes the representational or lived space, which places more focus on the symbolic value ascribed to a place by those who interact with it (proximate to Hall’s reception). Soja utilises Lefebvre’s lived space – through synthesis with Foucault’s (quasi-palimpsestuous) heterotopia (1994) and postcolonialist theory (Notably Bhabha’s Third Space Theory, 1994) – in his concept of Thirdspace (1996). Soja’s Thirdspace is a radically inclusive and active process, with ‘thirding’ describing a process in which infinite manifestations of “an-Other” may appropriate spaces and re-negotiate hegemonic boundaries. This could be thought of as a broader version of ‘queering’ (cf. Dillon, 2005), but is distinct in its extension of interpretation beyond gender and/or sexuality, and its focus on the active re-negotiation of present hegemonic culture.

The ambiguity that is apparent through semiotic analysis of the forecourt’s signs also exists in the documents published by the School: most notably through the continual conflation of  ‘visitors’ and ‘students’ with ‘public’. A social semiotic analysis encourages us to situate this ambiguity in its broader social location. What at first seems to be a mere aesthetic ambiguity – which could be remedied by more conscious architecture – must instead be understood in its relation to the ambiguity that characterises the university more generally. The accelerating commodification of higher education, through the creation of a student marketplace (Goddard & Vallance, 2013: 154-155) and a (re-)orientation of degrees toward the service sector, along with social inequalities that continue to prevent access to such institutions (not only as students and staff, but as members of the public). As city universities attempt to navigate an increasingly complicated and competitive role in a globalised education marketplace (Goddard et al., 2014), their commitments to and embeddedness in their local communities also seems increasingly complicated and fraught. But, this needn’t be a teleological process, and we should remind ourselves that the territorial tactics and strategies of the dominant territorial producer are almost always challenged by other groups. Thus, those that wish to challenge perceptions of LSE as private and generate new territorial associations and authentic public spaces can do so (cf. Fassi et al., 2016): even simple acts of spectacle (cf. Garrett, 2017) can challenge what were previously thought to be hegemonic conceptions of place, introducing negotiated or oppositional meanings, and producing new places altogether.

Joshua Hardman


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