Tara Brabazon: Town and gown together

Bridging the chasm that separates universities from the environments that support them enriches and enlivens the educational experience, argues Tara Brabazon

May 19, 2010

I often wonder how universities would change if students designed their architecture and grounds. Many campuses were built by and for benefactors, donors, colonisers and cultural improvers. These buildings signify power, affluence, opulence, empire, importance and improvement. In formerly colonised nations, the illusions/delusions of grandeur are manifest in their architecture.

In Australian academic Andrew Riemer’s sad, moving and melancholic memoir Sandstone Gothic (1998), he remembered – with longing – his education in the 1950s. Then, when academics and students entered the lecture hall, they “left their ordinary selves and the everyday world far behind them”. For Riemer, this disconnection of education from life was a relief and an inspiration. But even in that supposedly golden age, there was a cost in separating institutions of learning from the wider context of living.

Rarely do universities bend, shape and shift to cater for the experience of students. Instead, every three or four years, a new cohort of eager scholars scrambles for bays in the car park, slides through lino-laid corridors and buys overpriced and underbrewed coffee. The generational renewal of students is rarely matched by a rejuvenation of the built environment in which they sit, read, write and think. The funding of infrastructure – with the notable exceptions of the University of Sheffield’s Information Commons and Glasgow Caledonian University’s University Library – provides lecture theatres and tutorial rooms that continue existing models of building, seating, teaching and learning.

The environment of our universities contributes to students’ educational outcomes in ways we rarely track or measure. I recently travelled to Vancouver, the remarkable West Coast city of wide skies, blue water and fine food. While the phrase “good lifestyle” is best used in cheesy advertisements for retirement villages, Vancouver offers a balance of civility, health, fitness, education and pride in place.

It is also a city of learning, with many universities peppering the metropolis. While the justifiably famous University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University are internationally recognised research and teaching institutions, the transformation of the province’s colleges into universities in 2008 matched the realignment in the UK in 1992. While there are transitional issues to address in such a movement, particularly when negotiating the relationship between teaching and research, British Columbia’s new universities offer a specialist and distinctive pathway through education. As with the post-92 process, there will be successes and failures in this scholarly reorganisation.

One of these institutions is the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. It is consolidating its new university status, testing and stretching its fresh identity. But it is not the rebrand that makes the educational experience it offers special, but rather its location. Positioned on Granville Island and hemming False Creek, it is within walking distance of galleries, a vibrant public market, theatres and permanent spaces for busking. The Granville Island Cultural Society manages two venues and frames the diversity of street life. Non-profit art organisations make their home in Cartwright Street, including the Federation Gallery, the offices of the Federation of Canadian Artists and the Crafts Association of British Columbia.

Granville Island is a place of walking, cycling, talking, sitting, thinking and laughing. Time slows. It mixes a scoop of San Franciscan bohemia from that other great West Coast city with child-friendly, community-focused activities. It is a mixed-use environment, with a cement factory operating alongside a range of maritime industries, ferry docks, entertainment complexes, restaurants, brewers and shops. Publishers and bookshops trade alongside biking/hiking businesses, a luthier, the Granville Island Psychic Studio, a tarot room and a yoga centre. Even coffee production extends beyond the simple labelling of “fair trade”. The Origins Coffee Company on Cartwright Street advertises itself as not only committing to “ethical coffee”, but also choosing to roast “on vintage equipment using time-honoured techniques and by doing so, maintaining a meaningful relationship with the creative process”. Yes, it is describing coffee making rather than the development of public education programmes in Angola.

While tourists rubberneck at the artists and bohemians who smoke, drink, stroll and talk, Granville Island is also a special space for students.

When recollecting our university years, most of us remember being surrounded by beautiful yet sterile buildings. The gardens were well manicured and pristine, more suitable as a backdrop for wedding photographs than bustling, disordered and agitated student living.

While Richard Florida’s “geography of creativity” and Robert Putnam’s “social capital” have not only reached the level of cliché but even saturation in local government policy, the role of landscape in education remains the fodder of university marketing departments rather than the curriculum. While students – rather than parents – look for as many bars as possible within stumbling distance of the campus, places of education offer much to scholarship. Too many universities look the same. Most of us could be parachuted into a campus anywhere in the world and within five minutes could locate the chancellery building, library and coffee shop. A greater challenge is to understand the differences that reside just outside our classrooms, cafeterias and car parks.

The great surprise of the online learning “revolution” is just how committed students remain to the lived experience of education. The sense of participation and connection is not only formed through shared reading lists, timetables and panic over assessment deadlines, but also an ability to put ideas into context. Sean French wrote that “cities aren’t meant to be pleasant: they’re just the places where human life happens; rather like eucalyptus trees are for koala bears”. By extension, university landscapes are not meant to be enjoyable or enriching: they are sites where scholarship emerges. But by bringing together the gown and the town, the academy and the city, education is enriched and enlivened. Deeper and wider learning is possible.

Many of us have worked in universities where there is a barren, gaping chasm between the lives of our students and the city, town or region that services their needs. In these locations, students are resented, a drunken inconvenience for cab drivers, landlords and shopping centres. They loiter, drink too much and spend too little. But in special pockets of learning, geography and the academy combine to create something special. Granville Island is one of those places.

Don DeLillo, in that rightly celebrated “fiction” on life and postmodernity, White Noise (1985), remarked: “It’s amazing how many people teach these days…Everyone I know is either a teacher or a student. What do you think it means?” There are many answers to this question, but one truth remains. This is not the time for universities to remain special, distinct, aloof and disconnected. Riemer’s Sandstone Gothic was nostalgic even when it was published. At our most honest, we are all teachers and students of daily life, watching and reading, listening and laughing and, most importantly, learning.

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