In UMSU University Centre, beside the cashier’s office, there is a cozy little nook with a built-in bench.
Low enough to feel intimate, sheltered enough to provide a sense of privacy, long enough to accommodate multiple people, it is the sort of element that we need more of in our buildings.
That placement of this bench and nook was determined by an architect. Following decades of schooling and training, a university-educated professional determined that a bench was called for there. People do not become architects to design HVAC systems, they become architects so that, in this world, there is a nice place to sit just when you think you begin to feel you might like to sit.
Although non-architects familiar with the work of Frank Gehry and other “starchitects” might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, the work of an architect is one of rigorous, painstaking analysis blended with an artistic sensibility regarding human needs. To practice architecture — to place that bench — requires two university degrees and years of apprenticeship. It is the life’s work of someone dedicated to making the physical world a bit more beautiful, a bit more functional.
For decades, that bit of design continued to function not only as intended, but actually became more valuable as a built element: there is an electrical outlet in the nook, and people now frequently sit there with charging laptops or phones. For decades, the daily lives of people sitting in the nook have been a little bit better, because someone took care and thought to improve the physical world.
That bench makes the University of Manitoba a better, more humane, more beautiful place.
And then someone put a Coca-Cola vending machine in the nook, blocking a portion of the bench from use, lending to the still-accessible portions all the intimate charm of a service corridor.
Was this an approved action, or opportunism? Was it done by employees of the university (who, once upon a time, paid someone to create that bench), or by employees of the vending machine company? Is it late-stage capitalism run amok, or institutional ignorance?
Whatever the reason, there is in the placement of that vending machine something ominous. The work of an educated professional suddenly undone is an increasingly common sight, but it is truly jarring to see such disregard for knowledge and skill from the very institution responsible for fostering these things in society.
If the vending machine seems a small thing, easily corrected, it represents an increasingly common attitude of disregard towards the achievements of the past. T. S. Eliot famously wrote “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” and in this way the placement of this vending machine is the reason our streets are full of litter, the biosphere is collapsing, our cities are crumbling. People fail to think or take ownership of the effects of their actions, and step by step the world becomes worse.
There is already another vending machine directly across the hall, which blocks nothing but a blank wall.
Is it too much to suggest that that was the logical spot to place this one? Is it too much to suggest that we decrease the number of machines peddling sugar water on campus?
This treatment of its architectural heritage by the university is particularly jarring to see in light of arguments recently put forward by the administration regarding the physical plant of the university. In response to the (since passed) proposal to give several buildings on campus heritage protection, the administration initially argued that such protections were unnecessary, as it had its own system of maintaining historic buildings.
If it cannot properly place a vending machine, then it is truly laughable to suggest that the university has the knowledge or the will to maintain such historic gems as the John A. Russell Building.
Whatever the reason for the placement of the offending vending machine, it should be moved. The University of Manitoba has a faculty of architecture, and the least it could do would be to act like the fruits of that education have value.