As I walked from the newish subway station yesterday morning, across York Commons toward Vari Hall, I was reminded of how different this space used to be when I was an undergrad here in the early ’80s.
Instead of Vari Hall there used to be a rather large concrete ramp that ran up to the Ross Building.
Apparently, as described in L. Anders Sandberg‘s article, “The Ross Building Ramp and Terrace: Curse or Promise?“, the then York President Harry Arthurs, “hated and cursed the ramp,” he found it to be “ugly, useless and totally misconceived” and planned to have it removed.
As undergrads we used to wonder if they had tanks in mind when they built it. 🙂
But I do fondly remember my convocation ceremony taking place in the courtyard at the top of that ramp. We may have walked up that ramp to take our seats in the folding chairs that awaited us: don’t remember if that was true or not. If you’d like to see what that might have been like there are a couple of convocation photographs included in Sandberg’s article.
But Sandberg writes that Arthurs “neglected its symbolic and other utility functions, including the activities that took place underneath it and the emotional attachment it held to many members of the campus.” He provides a wonderfully different perspective and tries to “make the case that these spaces have some promise and endearing qualities that should be celebrated, remembered and perhaps even serve as an inspiration to do things differently.”
He begins by talking about the “modernist-brutalist” architectural style of the Ross Building. I particularly like this passage describing the symbolic shift away from a university education that “promoted critical thinking amongst students [preparing] them to be engaged citizens rather than mere professionals or workers”:
Brutalism does not sound very people-friendly but it was in fact part of a post-war movement to provide inexpensive housing to the masses, but also architects with large budgets adopted the style because of its ’honesty’ and sculptural qualities, and even, perhaps, its uncompromising anti-bourgeois nature (Wikipedia, 2014). To me, it is an illustration of the enlightenment university, the university that fosters citizenship and a broad-based liberal arts education. Vari Hall, by contrast, was built in a postmodernist style in 1992 and named after George Vari, a wealthy businessman who built and sponsored part of its construction. It is part of the neoliberal or enterprise university, the university where students are consumers and an education is conceived of as a commodity that yields a good job.
It’s funny what you think about as you make your way to your office.