How we build our universities

Our buildings can teach about more than architecture

I have always had a fascination with the construction of our universities: how we choose to build them, what kind of practicality they have, and – I suppose most importantly – how they stimulate creativity and learning. This came to mind today as I frantically scoured the McGill campus in search of a free computer. Today was an important deadline for those of us studying law, so I tried my best to avoid the faculty altogether.

My search serendipitously brought me into parts of the school I only theoretically knew existed – the engineering department and fine arts department among them – through skimming of the administration’s weekly news release. Every time I turned down a corridor, a new world opened up. And each had its own set of room numbers, its own bearded middle-aged men in tweed and oh so many students.

Often our time is spent tethered to places of habit – a faculty, a neighbourhood, an office. But venturing beyond can prove, though initially confusing (it took me half an hour to finally track down that free computer), a rewarding experience. I was able to learn a little more about my institution. And, afterwards, I was able to explore the somewhat impressive combination of designs so common in these aged institutions, the creation of a space for the mass of hurried students – a space that married the brick porticos of a forgotten Protestant structure with the glistening atriums of recent times, the august vestibule of a former mansion with the godawful (though functional) concrete of a new stairwell.

Though often overlooked by its primary users, our universities house a vast array of architectural flourishes. From neo-gothic and Romanesque to modernist and contextual. One could use these buildings as guideposts for a crash course on architecture. Or someone could write a book about them…

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