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MATTER OF COURSE: Roman architecture

Loath as I am to leave my house, I wondered: Could I take an architecture course without leaving my laptop, thanks to the brave new world of online education? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which purports to have the oldest architecture department among American universities, has been offering OpenCourseWare classes for some time, as has EdX, the much-ballyhooed Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) collaboration between Harvard and MIT, launched three years ago.

Yale entered the online game a few years ago, and I audited what felt like a New Haven classic, Professor Diana Kleiner’s “Roman Architecture,” initially webcast by Open Yale Courses and now available through Coursera. I rode for free, as it were. You can also take the course for “credit,” in the form of a Verified Certificate from Coursera, at a cost of about $50.

How was the class? I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a classic undergraduate lecture course, the kind you find at almost any decent college or university. Sure, there was some pandering, which makes it a popular course. Kleiner argues that the Romans invented the modern shopping mall (i.e., Trajan’s multilevel market building), and the fast-food joint, in the form of the beautifully preserved thermopolium at Pompei. Yes, the class prepares you for high-level cocktail conversation. (And, indeed, some people use the Coursera course as a sort of video guidebook before visiting Rome.) But it’s serious in purpose. If you want an introduction to the professions of archaeology, classics, and art history, this is an excellent place to start.

Kleiner is engaging and has been engaged with the material all her life. It wasn’t uncommon to see slides of her as a younger woman posing on the paving stones of Pompei, or atop a crocodile statue at Hadrian’s Villa Adriana. Even better, she has opinions, which make for great classroom fodder. A Kleiner-ism that I heard more than once: “I know I’m biased, but I think the Pantheon is the greatest building ever conceived by man.” That inevitably generated a teaching moment, in the form of a near-endless discussion thread titled “Is Professor Kleiner right about the Pantheon?” Weighing in from all over the world, students nominated many other buildings for “greatest ever” status, among them the Sydney Opera House, Hagia Sophia, Taj Mahal, and so on.

Inside Trajan’s Forum, Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Rome. Photo: Carole Raddato

A student named Joe Rosenthal from northern California studied the Pantheon in considerable detail and demonstrated to the rest of us the non sphericity of the famous dome, a detail that certainly would have eluded me. He posted an online photo of a small, carved walnut Pantheon replica that he sent to Kleiner at Yale. Gift received; “I do indeed treasure Joe’s Pantheon!” she wrote in the online forum, not the one below Palatine Hill. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) That’s one way an online course differs from shuffling dutifully into a poorly heated lecture hall. Here’s another way: Class is always in session. I attended most lectures during the worst moments of Boston’s February ice jams, and of course it was quite soothing to arrange myself just so, in an ikea chair within range of a functional space heater, and fill my brain with . . . concrete.

If you are reading this magazine, you are probably familiar with the design/build dichotomy of the ancient world: The Greeks excelled in design, and the Romans mastered construction. The Romans delighted in stealing Temples of Jupiter and rechristening them Temples of Zeus — and building them to last. Speaking of rechristening, I learned that the nave of Rome’s famous Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli used to be the frigidarium (cold pool) of the Baths of Diocletian. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on.

Yes, I learned a fair amount about concrete, from its early use in opus incertum (“uncertain work”) to the lighter, stronger remix that substituted tufa and pumice stones for the earlier, heavy rubble base.

We owe this breakthrough — “no small accomplishment” —   to the emperor Caligula, Kleiner informed us. Who would have thought? Hadrian was also a practicing architect who probably deserved credit, or partial credit, for many of the masterpieces attributed to him, for instance, his magnificent mausoleum, elegantly repurposed as the Castel Sant’Angelo, which towers above the Tiber due east of Vatican City.

Kleiner says she visits the online class site every day — the classes were prerecorded in a Yale lecture hall — and generally enjoys the MOOC experience. She’s a bona fide evangelist, having worked in online education for 15 years. Although she is guarded on the subject of finances, she allowed that the architecture lectures, initially financed by a Hewlett Foundation grant, are “revenue neutral” for Yale. “It’s not clear whether the university will ever get income from this kind of thing in a serious way,” she said.

“I love face-to-face education,” Kleiner said. “Being able to interact with students in my lecture course is extraordinarily exciting. I was initially skeptical about Coursera, but it has worked out better than I thought it would. The forum discussions are better than at Yale because people are putting more time into them. It’s a lot of extra work, but I take it very seriously.”

I, too, was initially skeptical about Coursera. It worked out better than I thought it would.