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Guerrilla in the midst: the Universitas Project and a new type of institution

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 11:03 authored by Andrew SteenAndrew Steen
The Universitas Project was the brainchild of Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies co-founder and Museum of Modern Art Curator of Design, Emilio Ambasz. In 1971 Ambasz sent his “Project Working Paper” to an extensive list of intellectuals ranging from Kenneth Frampton to Michel Foucault, Denise Scott Brown to Roland Barthes. Ambasz’s document, colloquially named “The Black Book,” called for the creation of a “new type of institution” to be built in New York state. The goal was to design the structure and the curriculum of this “Universitas” to help educate architects and designers for what Ambasz defines “a post-technological society.” Ambasz solicited “critical essays” from the respondents that addressed “The Black Book” and spoke to his reformist educational and institutional agenda.

Italian semiotician Umberto Eco replied with the parodically-titled and -framed “Critical Essay”. In this piece, Eco outlines a kind of non-university: a network-based model of education “by the masses” not merely “for” them. In outlining the relation of his “new university” to existing knowledge, Eco inserts a translated extract from Mao Zedong’s On Practice: “To acquire knowledge it is necessary to participate in the process which transforms reality. To get to know the taste of a pear it is necessary to transform it by eating it.” These sentences help figure Eco’s argument. They indirectly capture the system of relation and the spirit of engagement he advocates. But the quotation also exercises the poetic function of language. It opens the “Critical Essay” to readings outside strict referential meaning. The message challenges the basic premises of Ambasz’s Universitas.

This paper takes Mao’s quotation as a lens through which to understand Eco’s “Critical Essay”. It founds a semantic chain that opens Ambasz’s Universitas Project to cultural slippage and ideological contestation. Eco’s little “Black Book” response is presented here as non-institutional: a guerrilla incursion into so-called critical architectural discourse.


Publication title

Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand: Architecture, Institutions and Change




P Hogben, J O'Callaghan






School of Architecture and Design



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Sydney, Australia

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Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand: Architecture, Institutions and Change

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Sydney, Australia

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Date of Event (End Date)


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