June 18, 1998 * Vol . 12, No. 4


Improving the vitality of campus life

New buildings and renovations have been designed to cultivate the interaction of people and ideas

by Lee Gavel

"I was lucky to have studied at two universities which were small at the time, and staffed by outstanding professors with whom it was possible to have outstanding contact ... The physical plant of each university in no way accommodated that adventure. On the contrary, it seemed to shun the opportunity for students and staff to meet in convivial surroundings. This was a chance to show that the university should encourage the universality rather than the specialization of knowledge; that as much learning took place in the lounges and the corridors as in the classrooms; that a mountain top was no place for a traditional campus. " — Arthur Erickson, SFU architect

"Why don't students interact at Simon Fraser? Principally because the physical plant is such an unmitigated disaster ... When I was a student, everywhere I turned there were meeting places: lounges; games rooms; fireplaces; reading rooms; music rooms with pianos; lawns with shade trees; TV rooms; trophy rooms; etc. Anytime a student wanted to talk, he/she knew where to find others ready and desirous of compliance." — Dr. Norman Swartz, philosophy department

The comments above are made by people who use a traditional university as a reference point for what was good and bad about their experiences as students. Both celebrate the need for spaces which support shared community interactions.

Why — when the goal is the same — is there such a feeling that we have failed?

Reading Prof. Swartz's "Opinion Piece" in SF News (April 2, 1998) struck to the heart of concerns I experienced as a student on campus in 1967 and it is in sympathy with those thoughts that we have tried to understand and improve circumstances since 1987.

Each September, the incoming yearly cohort of students arrives to an acropolis of concrete warmed by the sunny days of summer. With the eventual arrival of winter's blanket of wet air, students and others retreat to the internal caverns of concourses and hallways. The universal reaction to this annual retreat leads to complaints of cold, wet, grey, depressing concrete, soulless, spare interior spaces and a lack of natural light.

To many, SFU resembles an airport more than the warm, home-like reading rooms Prof. Swartz remembers so fondly. I would also venture to say that the campuses of his memory were built in a different time to different standards of government-mandated construction costs, student-to-floor area ratios, and to building programs which recognized the need for space devoted to social purposes rather than just more offices, labs and classrooms.

It is SFU's exterior architecture on a sunny day that best fulfills Erickson's intent of celebrating the meeting of the university citizenry at the crossroads of the mall.

The central meeting place was to be convocation mall and close to this were located the common-to-all facilities such as the library and gymnasium. Given the extreme winter climate, a rain-protected pedestrian circulation system was implemented by connecting all buildings to one another. The concourses thus became the common spaces of campus necessary to accommodate large numbers of people flowing between areas at class changes.

These two areas – the mall and the concourses – which were specifically intended by the architect to foster interaction are rendered ineffective during the winter. The mall is inhospitable because of the cooling of the heavy concrete mass and blowing wind and rain. The concourses essentially become pedestrian freeways between zones of differing uses. There is very little opportunity or incentive to loiter on a freeway.

How does this contrast to those campuses remembered by Prof. Swartz?

He mentions McGill, an urban campus within an exciting city street system on the flanks of Mount Royal, and the University of Indiana, a classic large land-grant campus with separate buildings in a park-like setting. In both of these cases the buildings do not have to accommodate the flow of pedestrians across the campus as the exterior street and walkway systems become the meeting places, while spaces within the buildings accommodate those wishing to continue a discussion, a tryst or a moment of reflection in a more private setting.

A typical building program on this traditional campus does not have to devote the construction funding or space to build the street and therefore can be more generous in creating social spaces, ie; reading rooms, study halls and generous lobbies. It will often be the case on older more established campuses, that those leather couch-adorned, oak panelled, softly lit rooms will have been created with alumni or donor funding.

Places to loiter in comfort need ownership. They need the human resources to watch over them. A comfortable disarray of books, magazines and pillows needs to be cared for or it will rapidly turn into a slum. An anonymous lounge such as in our rotunda, even though renovated several times, has never been very successful in that it is bare and empty.

I differ with Prof. Swartz because I believe we have improved in terms of providing places to loiter on the campus we have inherited.

We have attempted to balance activities across campus through the development of the west mall and the Maggie Benston centre, reinforcing the intent of the mall as a meeting point. We have dispersed classrooms across campus rather than having them all centralized to reduce the load on the concourses.

We have adopted an approach, within our means, to view concourses and hallways, not as pedestrian freeways, but rather as pedestrian-oriented streets with sidewalk cafes, interesting storefronts and places for people to sit and watch the passing parade.

In each of our new buildings we have provided a naturally lit atrium to serve as a street corner to foster displays, ceremonies, and to offer places to take a break. Look at the south science building atrium at lunch time to see how this works.

Along the concourses and in the AQ we have demolished the infill offices and rooms built during the space crunch of the early '80s and installed the new public space with bright floor and wall finishes, study carrels and comfortable seating areas. In those office and classroom areas which we have been able to renovate we have installed glass rather than drywall in spaces adjoining the hallways to make the activities behind accessible.

To some, these improvements have an aesthetic quality too much like a modern airport because the materials used are durable, easily cleaned and relatively maintenance free. I would not disagree, but when the university chooses to fund its cleaning and maintenance budgets at half the level of the private sector, then leather and oak will not last.

Many of these improvements have been possible because of the major new buildings added to the campus over the last 10 years. With the anticipated lack of new projects over the next few years, there will be a natural inclination to once again steal space from common areas to serve other interests. It will be important to remember the importance of public spaces in the face of this pressure.

The proposed development of a residential community on Burnaby Mountain may help provide the economic viability to shape us into a more well-rounded community capable of supporting formal and informal spaces which contribute greatly to the vitality of campus life.

What we do not have are those very special rooms that are the stuff of memory. The closest we had – and it was very modest – was the original faculty club which I, amongst others in the glow of the young university's new found egalitarianism, reclaimed to become a daycare and which has since become a hamburger stand.

In 1967 university architect Lee Gavel enrolled as an undergraduate at SFU. After SFU, he went on to become an architect and practised in Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver. In 1987 he returned to SFU to manage construction of the applied sciences building and has overseen, during the last 10 years, the largest building boom experienced since the original construction of the campus.

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