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March 29, 2004 | by  | in Features |
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Bricks & Mortarboards

In times of yore, when people hadn’t yet realised that writing odes was a funny thing to do, many a stirring verse was penned in celebration of the grand halls of the campus. And it’s easy to see why. Bristling with a beard of shaggy ivy, the eastern face of the Hunter building has always symbolised everything that is traditional and magnificent about the university. Wise and sagacious, this will be the hundredth year that he has perched atop his lofty Kelburn shelf, scrutinising the city as critic and conscience, or so the saying goes. And he is my favourite. For all the atom-smashing achievements of Lord Rutherford though, I can’t help imagining the future in store for his new abode. Will it herald a new, technologically superior age of knowledge for Victoria, or does it, like nuclear energy before it, have just as destructive a potential?

Certainly if recent letters to Salient and the instincts of this writer are anything to go by, the latest fracture of the university by Victoria’s building program has touched a nerve. The budding lawyers that have crawled out of their finely carved woodwork to defend their proud edifice from the invading commerce students, and also the general rancour that has greeted the new Easterfield entrance, indicate that a beautiful and efficient campus is still important to today’s students. And so with the noble and unquenchable thirst for broad-minded knowledge that only a stereotypical arts’ student could harbour, I embarked on a tour of the Kelburn and downtown campuses, to see exactly what shape our buildings are in after a hundred years.

Like Orpheus into the Underworld, I trekked down to see the new Pipitea campus, a place so controversial that even its name can cause vitriolic letters to be sent to the editor. As I arrived, labourers were turning earth in planters being built between the two main buildings of this campus: the Old Government Buildings (OGB), which houses the Faculty of Law, and Rutherford House, home to the schools of Commerce. My first impression was that if I were a commerce student, I’d be hanging out at the law school too. With a bus terminal for a doorstep (right next to the Railway Station), a barren atrium so spacious you could fit a bowling alley in it, and bright, clinical halogen bulbs that undo the good of all that borrowed light they have, the ground floor of Rutherford House seems almost designed to drive people away – and the ground floor is crucial because it’s where most of the social interaction occurs. The upper levels have wonderful views on nearly all sides, but when I stepped out of the lift I felt I was at a Telecom or IBM office, not a university. While there is still a lot of work to be done there, and the ground floor has to cater efficiently for up to a thousand students at once, like most of the students I talked to, I didn’t think that the opportunity to create the perfect space for students had been grasped.

Peter Wood, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, is sympathetic to the new building though. “You’ll notice the sticky-out bits which are quite obviously lecture theatres,” he says, “and I think that’s a way of trying to send out a signal that this is educational and not just another CBD building. Except you’d probably have to have been a student to understand that the box is actually a lecture theatre, otherwise you might think it looks like a giant air-conditioning unit.”

A stone’s throw across Bunny Street, the OGB on the other hand is one of the most architecturally impressive buildings in New Zealand, let alone the university. Built in 1876, when the sea still lapped Lambton Quay, the neo-Renaissance building is markedly different from the Gothic Hunter building. With kauri dado railing in every corridor, daring double-return staircases at either end, and ornately carved coats-of-arms and acroteria, it is a living example of the architecture of yesteryear. Right down to the decorative stencils and the regal insignia ‘E.R.’ on the carpet and gates, it is probably the closest thing Wellington has to a palace. Part art gallery, with notable appearances from Frizzell, Killeen and Woollaston, and part museum, as the preserved former Cabinet room indicates, I could spend hours wandering the corridors looking at the photos, information panels, and craftsmanship. OK, I did spend hours doing that, but it was strictly research, of course.

A short walk to Vivian Street later, and I’m in Wood’s office at the School of Architecture and Design. The school itself is perfect for its students: very modern, and with a visible skeleton, its atrium is perfect for showcasing the students’ projects. “It carries in principle,” Wood says, “the values of the university built around us based on speaking, on talking, of seeing, of passage.” Sure, it’s all very well analysing the finer points of a building’s architecture, but the purpose of the building cannot be forgotten – to house an education for students. This means more than merely storing lecture theatres and tutorial rooms though. “Of course universities are not just about [institutional] learning, and if you’re talking about learning that involves all sorts of cultural and social groups, then you have to start to design a version of the university based on things that happen outside of strict teaching,” Wood says. That’s why we have paintings and sculptures around the campus as well as plants, why there are science projects hanging on enormous boards in the Cotton building and why we are given places like the Union Hall or Quad to hold debates and meetings. Victoria would be lacking something if she didn’t have an example of Victorian architecture, like the Hunter building. The catch? “It’s very hard to judge what other kinds of learning take place outside of lecture theatres,” says Wood.

Indeed, this focus on the broader aspects of learning and culture is entrenched on an even bigger scale. The psychological effects that buildings can inflict have been well documented, which is why, for instance, you won’t find a modern science block with endless, claustrophobic corridors of marbled orange lino anymore, as you do in the New Kirk building. The goal is to make a building that will reflect the students inside, and enforce what they might become. The law school “speaks volumes about the way in which students are meant to behave,” Wood says. “But it probably does that successfully to prepare law students for the kind of environment that they’re going into – a very structured, a very rigorous, a very hierarchical arrangement. I think the law school works brilliantly to tell the students right from the day they step into that building where they’re headed with their education.” Of course, it wouldn’t be particularly novel or helpful to comment on the other differences between law students and their Kelburn counterparts, but the institutionalisation Wood talks about makes a lot of sense. Similarly, the corporate look – and location – of Rutherford House befits a student looking for a career in the business sector. Many students I talked to up at Kelburn noticed how much ‘dressier’ the Pipitea students are. Two commerce students admitted to feeling a bit out of place wearing sandals and bandannas when walking through the OGB. What about Humanities students though – how should they be housed? Wood elucidates.

“The classic version of that is the one of the cloistered courtyard. [This] is a pretty special space where you come into a building, pass through it, and arrive at this outdoor space in the centre of it, which is inevitably quite formal, with its surrounding pathway. And the idea that an outdoor space is contained and protected by the building that surrounds it is a very good metaphor for the way the university is meant to work intellectually.” Up at Kelburn, the entrance to the Hunter building on top of the New Kirk wing is probably the closest we get to this model, or it would be if it wasn’t just a place to go for a smoke.

When I ask Wood what his favourite building at any campus is, he surprises me initially by choosing the Adam Art Gallery, which just looks like a black cube from the north side. “I think that the art gallery is a high quality space, and a significant building in so much as it does more than just serve the basic needs of hanging up paintings or putting on exhibitions,” he says. “It’s the spatial qualities of the gallery that I enjoy.” He also has praise for “the internal boulevard” of the Maclaurin building, which he calls “a really good moment in our campus that is quite underrated […] It has the potential there to be something quite special, and it’s a much more interesting space to me than the Quad.”
The Quad is significant because it is unequivocally the heart of the campus – that is one of the few points that students and university management would agree on. “The centre of the university is the relationship between a repository for knowledge [i.e. the library], and then right outside, the living community that accesses that knowledge,” Wood observes. “And between those two we should find the university proper.” One student I spoke to remarked that she thought it was silly having a loud place next to a restful place of work, but that seems more like an issue for the glaziers to resolve, because the juxtaposition of the two places is more important. In fact, the relationship of each building and space to the ones around it is really where the architecture of the campus matters most.

******

Since at least the 1960s, the greatest criticism of Victoria’s Kelburn campus has been that it’s a mess – a patchwork blanket, a higgledy-piggledy assembly of buildings with little overall structure. It holds true today – the variety in style, size and climate that one experiences in a hundred-metre walk anywhere on the campus is remarkable. It is, of course, a product of gradual building, changing needs, and developments in technology. The late 70s/early 80s were times of economising and maximising, and while they produced the efficient filing cabinets that are the Von Zedlitz and Murphy towers, they are not buildings that would be celebrated today for fitting in the footprint that they’re built on and relating to their surroundings.

The first attempt at addressing this problem of variation on campus was the precinct project in the early 80s, which saw the removal of all external power lines on Kelburn Parade, and the creation of the Quad’s roof and the overbridge that adjoins Kirk to Murphy. In 2002 the university decided to meet this challenge further by publishing the Campus Development Framework Plan (CDFP), the principal objective of which was “the creation of a policy platform that is sufficiently broad and flexible to meet emerging programme needs and the demands of specific building development proposals within a framework of guiding principles.” The five values it holds paramount (alongside flexibility) are amenity, safety, equity, efficiency, and environmental sustainability. These values are then placed against specific goals and planning principles for individual developers and designers to consider when building.

Now amenity and maybe efficiency are the only virtues that really interest me quite frankly, which is why I’m concerned about the new Easterfield entrance, which seems ugly and unnecessary. Wood is also critical of it, calling it “a clumsy, grand gesture, not done with enough grandness”. The portico and the glass box are separated by a security seal, and he thinks that “the idea of a great boulevard through there becomes problematic the second you realise that the building shuts down at 5:30pm”. It seems to contradict the CDFP policy that “entrances to the campus should be welcoming”, however, I have to admit that it is in an “obvious” location. The Director of Public Affairs at Victoria, Jude Urlich (her favourite’s “the Hunter building, hands down”!), stresses that once the Quad has finished being refurbished, the entrance will make sense, as it will connect to the Quad via the Easterfield atrium and a widened corridor, and thus provide effective transport to the “true centre of gravity of student life” as well as being the aesthetically pleasing front door that the campus was previously lacking. Which is a noble idea, even if the execution of the project has its detractors.

On page 25 of the CDFP is the admission that I want to see, that there is a “lack of unity and aesthetic quality in building design” at the Kelburn campus. I’m hoping that the first step is the hard bit – now that Victoria has admitted that it has a building problem, it can use the other steps in the strategy to abstain from its rather disorderly behaviour.

Other recent additions to the campuses comply with the CDFP to varying degrees. Developers are attaching a four-floor annex to the architecture school, which the university will then lease. Wood describes this as little more than “a lean-to, to fit more children into the house”, and while it fails to take into account its visibility and use of space among many other things, it fits with the plan in that it efficiently utilises a partnership with the private sector.

While on my mini-tour the amount of developing that Victoria is doing astounded me. Beside filling up the spaces in the Murphy Building, Victoria has an 18-month option on the former Circa Theatre site to build a music school with Massey. Then there’s the new entrance to Old Kirk, the Malaghan Institute moving into the Central Services Building soon (and there are plans for five more major research centres), and many more to be added to the more obvious projects, that are the strengthening and expansion of the library and the work at the West Wing of the Railway Station. So whenever I hear people complaining about the din around, I find myself in two minds: yes, I sympathise with the need for quiet study and wonder why this construction wasn’t finished before term started; but on the other hand, construction has been more or less ongoing at Victoria for fifty years, and will continue to be so. The CDFP makes it even clearer: “building changes on the campus will be part of an overall campus strategy”. This reflects the need for constant improvement and growth to remain a leading edge institution.

However, the strategic schema that the CDFP offers by no means ensures the remedying of all of Victoria’s building woes. Urlich acknowledges that challenges are always presenting themselves, whether coping with another increase in student numbers or finding some way to incorporate all of the houses on the west side of Kelburn Parade. Similarly, it will be difficult to strike a balance, predicts Wood, between the fringes and the centre: if the Quad and the library have too strong a presence, the peripheral places will become deserts; but a lack of focus everywhere would mean that students never meet up. Nor is it just a matter of making sure you can get from Cotton to Hunter to Von Zedlitz without getting wet. “It is tricky because a student body will organise itself in ways that a university can’t plan for”, says Wood, and sometimes the most social spaces will happen by accident, not by design. And thus, to say that “outdoor spaces, as the major social areas of the campus should become foci of attention”, that they should facilitate “casual interchange, chance meetings, study between classes as well as providing opportunities for relaxation, entertainment, circulation and aesthetic pleasure”, as the CDFP does, is helpful, but not enough. These opportunities already exist – if anyone doubts it they should have a look at the romanticised photos that accompany any publication that Victoria produces, of students quietly laughing as they enjoy a hot summer’s day casually studying on the lawn at the top of the Student Union Building.

******

A final lens change no longer sees buildings on their own, nor in relation to one another on campus, but rather the wider interaction between campuses. Newsflash: an estimated seven thousand Vic students now study away from Kelburn. The topography of Kelburn is fairly different to the more flat expanses of central Wellington, but consider the heritage area, the transport systems, the building laws, the milieu – everything changes once you move a campus downtown. The advantages and problems for these so-called satellite campuses are the same for staff and students. On the one hand, there are the obvious physical issues – for students at both campuses, travelling sucks, and it simply won’t be possible to take all and only the necessary books down to the Pipitea campus. Interloan and bus services will have to do, but I’m yet to find anyone outside of the ever-pragmatic School of Management that thinks that this issue is negligible.

The biggest benefit of the separate campuses is that the facilities will be custom-made for the students. Design students don’t actually have to leave the building to access any books, hardware, information or space that they could possibly need. In theory, says Dr. Bob Garnham, Senior Lecturer in Tourism, commerce students are in the perfect position to study. “It makes it easier for people in the business world to contact us,” he says. “From a teaching perspective from Tourism, this is an ideal site…. Down here for example we could literally cancel a lecture in a theatre and take them outside,” because of the proximity to parliament, Te Papa, the Stadium, public transport, and other tourist attractions and sources of information.

Garnham seems to be a practical man, and baldly asserts that “there is no difference between the office here and the office up the road, quite honestly”, because “the offices that we had at the Murphy building, that’s a tower block. No real difference from here [i.e. Rutherford House]”. When I ask him what his favourite building is, he says, “I don’t have a favourite building,” before warming up a little. “I started off in the Murphy building, on level five, staring at a grass bank, getting boiled in the summer, then moved off to Old Kirk building, where Art history is now,” he says. “And I think that that would probably have to be my favourite building […] They were the best offices I have ever been in. They were light; they were airy. Easy access to lecture theatres, easy access to the library, easy access to the Student Union and so forth. That’s probably the ideal location.”

The relationship to the city – “town and gown” – is precisely what Victoria hopes to achieve. The CDFP rather embarrassingly longs to have “specialist activities in strategic Wellington city locations”, as the university has a “desire for strong interactions with the city – Victoria University in Wellington as well as Victoria University of Wellington [italics theirs]. This supports the University’s position as the Capital City University.” That’s only marginally better phrased than the past attempt to try and sell Victoria as “the Cambridge of the South Pacific”. (And don’t get me started on the “embrace your subject at Pipitea campus” posters.)

There’s also the problem that the Kelburn campus just can’t sustain all of Victoria’s students. Urlich warns me against using intangible numbers such as equivalent full-time students (EFTS) and the amount of space that Victoria occupies, simply because part of the CDFP involves making more efficient use of space through multi-purpose facilities for example, and because statistics are always fluctuating. However, even if the estimate in Rachel Barrowman’s excellent book, Victoria University of Wellington, 1899-1999: A History, namely that the maximum number of EFTS at Kelburn being 12,000 is extravagant, the fact that there was only a whisker over six and a half metres of usable space for every equivalent full-time student in 2003, when the national average was 11.6 m/EFTS twenty years ago, makes for a hell of a lot of space being used efficiently.

When it was first suggested about twenty years ago that the law faculty could move into some empty space – Karori perhaps? – to alleviate overcrowding, the staff there were “scandalized” by the idea. Funnily enough, they found it much easier to fall on their sword and move to the swank OGB in 1996 though. A little-known disaster in satellite campuses happened in 1994, when “150 Victoria students enrolled to do the first year of their BCA at the Central Institute of Technology,” Barrowman writes, “in Heretaunga.” Unsurprisingly, that didn’t last long. History suggests that moving students off-campus is a last resort, only to be encouraged in the face of over-population. After all, there is a reason why all the faculties of a university are traditionally located together (isn’t there?).

Certainly, the environment is different in town, in that there is no need for student facilities, or a Quad, because the town substitutes for much of the social environment. “Mid-city campuses are located within the city and therefore the context is different – students move in and out of the campus during the day with relative ease due to the close proximity of other services,” says Urlich. “This means the context of a specific centre of gravity is not relevant. This reflects the practice of other city campuses where buildings and facilities are often spread over several streets and it is difficult to identify a heart.” The result is a campus more isolated from the social and political climate of Kelburn, something that both staff and students lament. Garnham acknowledges the downside that they “don’t have the social facility here [at Rutherford House] that we had with the staff club up the road [in Kelburn]”, and also lets me in on a pet hate of his: “downstairs is the meeting ground, the trysting place for local high schools”. It will be interesting to see if anything like a Quad – a provider of private asylum for students – can manifest itself in such a public area. Amanda Hill, president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA), is also worried about the difficulty for VUWSA and the university to provide services for Victoria’s satellite campuses, and about the lack of atmosphere on the satellite campuses.
(And in case you were wondering, her heart is divided between the Hunter building, “because it’s lovely and old, and quite monastery-like”, and the OGB, “because it’s a really nice place to study – and they’ve got chairs on wheels!”)

Part of the different atmosphere must be chalked up to the more vocational and professional aspects of the law, architecture and (some) commerce degrees, but part of it must be the isolation from an enormous institution dedicated solely to learning – there are stimuli everywhere that hurry students up, that coax young professionals into joining them just next door in the real world. And that’s fine, because these degrees are more focussed, and generally more demanding. If students are after more “opportunities” for “casual interchange, chance meetings” and the like, there is always another campus and, fittingly, it is a campus that houses faculties with a broader range of disciplines. And so ultimately everything is in the right place from an architectural point of view. The professionals can keep on beavering, facilitated by the city if not the university; the arts and sciences students can ponder their myriad weighty issues cloistered in their ivory towers on the hill.

Hopefully, the CDFP will result in more money being pumped into the Kelburn campus and level out the relative “under-expenditure” as it promises to, because at the moment I’m sorry Kelburn, but you’re the weakest link. One day you’ll get some decent circulation, you’ll harness those spaces that are nice, and bring about a greater sense of unity without compromising flexibility, aesthetics, and all those other values – so that a hundred years from now, your students can rightfully say:

Be this the Citadel that we shall guard
Inviolate, by service for her fame;
Our thews her honour and our troth her shield
Troth welding grey walls faster than the frame.
Her fight we’ll fight upon the strenuous field
Until the finish—loyal and keen and hard.
For her will the unselfish try be got,
And for her cause the winning goal be shot;
There will be praise and handshake,– warm and real,
And closest union for our common weal.

from: ‘Ode on the Laying of the Foundation Stone of Victoria College, 27 August 1904’
by Seaforth Mackenzie

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