More than just a school

Impact of urban university leaves no room for cheap architecture

The decision to locate Manitoba’s major university far from Winnipeg’s urban centre may have been the most unfortunate planning decision in the city’s history.

At first glance we might think that a university is a university – and that as long as the appropriate educational statistics are satisfied then campus location should be irrelevant.  However, the experience in other cities reminds us of the important contribution large urban universities make to the richness and vivacity of their cities (in Canada, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax come to mind).

Winnipeg is fortunate in that the University of Winnipeg is expanding.  Though the U of W may never grow to become our major provincial university, it does show promise of becoming much more of a presence in this city’s downtown.  If the current building campaign is successful, the U of W may bring at least a taste of the impact McGill, the University of Toronto, or Dalhousie have had on Montreal, Toronto and Halifax, respectively.

The architectural heritage of the U of W is surprisingly strong.  The original Wesley Hall (now home to the U of W Collegiate) was a beautiful sandstone structure which has recently been restored.  At the north end of the main campus, along Ellice Avenue, sits an imposing – though generally forgotten – brick building (Lockhart Hall).  Lockhart Hall was designed by Moody Moore and Partners, and is an excellent example of the architecture of the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, the U of W launched an adventurous rebuilding campaign.  This initiative resulted in the construction of Centennial Hall, designed by Louis Morse of Moody Moore and Partners.  Centennial Hall may be seen today as a lot of steel and glass hulking over sidewalks and smaller buildings below.  In fact it was an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: how to double the size of the university’s facilities without buying more land and without destroying all of the buildings that already filled the campus.  The grand scheme grew out of current theoretical work in Europe, and was recognized in the international architectural press as an important breakthrough building.

As the University of Winnipeg expands, we can all hope that this tradition of excellent institutional architecture will be continued – guaranteeing that new buildings will reflect the long tradition of urban universities constructing high quality, durable buildings.  Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that architectural quality is not high on the institution’s agenda.  Work that has recently been completed at the north end of Lockhart Hall, the handsome brick structure along Ellice Avenue, provides a telling case-in-point.

Road works were completed at the Ellice Avenue entrance to create the main campus drop-off.  The concrete ramp, which provides access for wheelchairs, received a new red vinyl roof.  It is this roof that caught my eye.  It appears that the roof was constructed to reduce snow-clearing costs and to make life for those who need the ramp more comfortable. Given the quality of the work, it also appears that the cheapest methods and materials were chosen to put a roof on the ramp.  The result is an arched vinyl roof supported by randomly spaced galvanized steel pipes.  The new roof stands in startling and disturbing contrast with the building behind it – both in terms of construction quality and in terms of architectural excellence.

Our institutions are clearly strapped for funds.  This malaise seems to be a permanent reality for universities, and public sector bureaucracies are perennially afraid to be seen “wasting” the taxpayer’s money.  Too much attention to this sometimes imagined political hot potato can, and often does, lead to short-changing of our society’s broader goals.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of excessive budgetary caution we have to, from time to time, remind ourselves of the underlying mandates of our public institutions, and assure that those mandates do not suffer.

A university works within clear and well-understood mandates: to provide good-quality educational services reliably and within established budgets.  There are, as well, other mandates: to enrich our society; to establish and maintain a presence and status in our culture; to be a beacon of excellence; and to be a permanent and significant reflection of our society’s pride and aspirations.  These mandates extend well beyond technical and short-term fiduciary responsibility.

All building projects at the university are integral to it’s mandates.  This is as true for a roof for a ramp as it is for a large-scale building project.  It is especially true when that roof becomes an integral and highly visible part of a larger building.  All actions by the university carry the inherent obligation to promote and reflect the significance of the institution.  Especially for building projects, money spent for the long term is better than money spent many times over for the short term.  (The vinyl canopy not only sends a message of lack of care; it will have to be replaced 20 times in the lifespan of a well-designed and well-constructed version.)

One can only surmise that the decision to construct this flimsy and distressing “Band-Aid” grew from the internal administration’s desire to get it done “fast and cheap”.  The results confirm that the departments charged with facility management should not become the arbiters of institutional presence.  They should not be licensed, because of their budget control responsibilities and obligations, to oversee technical performance, to decide what an institution is – in the public eye and memory.  As for every other public or private institution, the head person is where the buck stops, and the president of the University of Winnipeg might do well to keep closer tabs on the physical signals the university is sending.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, July 29, 2007

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