Multipurposing Ourselves to Death

For the last 60 minutes, I’ve been sitting here in the lobby of the Atlantic Technology Centre, the longest time I’ve spent in this building. Over the weekend, Catherine and I attended the [surprisingly excellent] stand-up comedy evening at the new Student Centre at the University of PEI.

Both spaces suffer from what I will call “multipurposeness.” Their designers were obviously charged with designed spaces that could be used for innumerable functions. Indeed John Hughes, Manager of the Technology Centre, when he took me through on a tour last year, was very proud of the fact that walls could move, cables could be re-routed, and spaces completely transformed very easily.

Here in the lobby of the Technology Centre, the aesthetic is “change” — the chairs have casters, the furniture moves around, the partitions are portable, the giant plasma screens can swing around. About the only thing that can’t move easily is the giant Pepsi machines.

Up in the Student Centre, the aesthetic is “washable with a fire hose.” Everything is made of concrete and steel; the doors to the performance hall cum cafeteria are garage style. Although The Wave, the pub inside the space, achieves some degree of intimacy, even in that space there is a sense that it could be converted to a electoral polling station or a blood donor clinic or a primary school classroom with the flick of a couple of switches.

I fear that what we gain in flexibility in these spaces, we lose much more in the lack of a “sense of place.” Both spaces could exist anywhere in North America. Neither responds to or is related in any way to its environment. Neither feels comfortable, nor unique, nor inviting.

Walk into Province House, arguably the greatest building in Charlottetown, and you know immediately where you are. The space oozes Charlottetown, and indeed the building appears to grow right out of the earth that surrounds it. The interior spaces are quirky and purpose-built. Although you can hold a dance in the legislative chambers (obviously), you’ve be hard-pressed to build a bowling alley or accommodate a storage area for airplane parts.

I’ve no argument with the architects or designers of these modern spaces, for quite clearly they accomplished the task they were given. And there are obviously benefits to flexibility (especially when this whole IT things implodes and this building needs to become a cattle processing station, or a fallout shelter, or, more likely, another generic office building).

But by achieving the ultimate in flexibility, they have also achieved the ultimate in genericness. They can be used for any purpose, and thus they speak to no purpose. Sitting here I could be anywhere. And as a result, I am nowhere.

The last multipurpose craze I lived through was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when there was a school building boom in Ontario. Almost all of these schools, partly under the spell of the “tear down the walls” message of the Hall-Dennis Report, incorporated “flexible” spaces. My grade 7 classroom had dividers down the middle, and could open up to the grade 8 classroom to become one big room. Libraries gave way to general purpose “resource centres.” Cafeterias and gymnasiums became “cafeteriums” or “gymneteria.”

The effect was the same: going to school inside those modern contraptions, especially contrasted to the 100-year-old schools that I attended before and after them, felt like being nowhere.

Being nowhere isn’t a pretty place to be. Not then, not now.


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on April 19, 2004 - 19:58 Permalink

Flexibility in design doesn’t require a building lack character. See How Buildings Learn by Stuart Brand (it’s on my desk upstairs if you want to borrow it, Peter).

Jason's picture
Jason on April 19, 2004 - 23:41 Permalink

I was just about to blog as to why the ATC sucks….but on a couple other reasons. I agree with Steve on the lack of character issue for the ATC. I worked there during the Mrs. Ashboro and it was one of the most bland buildings I’ve worked in. The only saving grace was the the windows……

Anyway….I’m beginning to rant on what I was going to blog. I’ll have it up in a day or so.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 20, 2004 - 02:03 Permalink

While it is surely possible to repurpose buildings over time, I suppose I’m speaking more about “instant” repurposing. The difference, in other words, between buildings “learning” and buildings “quickly changing their minds.”

GiArc's picture
GiArc on April 20, 2004 - 03:33 Permalink

But let me put the utilitarian challenge back at you.

In the days of the limited public purse when change is about the only thing you can count on, how can you possibly justify building a space with only one purpose?
I recall when the “Unicentre” was built at Carleton University in the early 70’s. Over the next decade hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent, not teaching or developing, but rather “re-purposing” the students’ university centre.

I know we can argue that beauty and purpose are not mutually exclusive. But what you can’t argue is that purpose or multi-purpose isn’t a significantly less expensive alternative. Beauty is expensive. And not always purposeful.

So next time you’re in the ATC or anywhere else that demands some aesthetic, as SpongeBob would say, use your imagination.

Ken's picture
Ken on April 20, 2004 - 16:32 Permalink

I think the informal way that business gets done in PEI is stifled upon entering ATC. At best it is like a high school, at worst Nazi headquarters. It is oh so ultra clean and antiseptic and formal. Institutional. Cold.

In this quest to bring Technology to some higher level a big building downtown is what we got. Nice if you like buildings, but even then no heart, no mojo.

A stupid idea well executed.

Ken's picture
Ken on April 20, 2004 - 16:35 Permalink

Limited public purse, thank god or we’d have more money spent on useless developments.

Multi purpose, all of which lose money.

Ken's picture
Ken on April 20, 2004 - 16:46 Permalink

Holland College Summerside, the main building, has been declared to have no purpose. They are shutting it down.

This building is 30 years old, located in the heart of the city and will be probably be levelled for a shopping centre.

This building is where I studied electronics, and I will miss it. The learning stops in a few weeks. I can seriously say that building, by hosting HC’s fine programs, made a serious difference in my life.

Can anyone testify to something at the ATC that has changed their lives? Will it be missed by anyone in thirty years if torn down?

Alan's picture
Alan on April 20, 2004 - 17:51 Permalink

The ATC changed my life when I saw someone walk off the street and into the server room unnoticed.

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on April 20, 2004 - 19:07 Permalink

I happen to enjoy working at the ATC. And yes, it has changed my life. I now walk to work in a matter of minutes. I rarely drive a car anymore. I spend lunch with my son. I’m guessing most people in the building would tell you they feel like they are “somewhere”. In fact, I find the overall design very appealing. In much the same defense that Nils used to explain his general satisfaction with Air Canada, I have nothing to complain about. Except, of course, the cost to taxpayers, which should be first on everyone’s list of Air Canada complaints too.