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.