Monday, 3 December 2012

Lakehead University: The Unbuilt Campus

Architecture is often referred to as politics in three dimensions, because any large project can generate a complicated history. Architecture is more a way of promoting, transmitting, and reinforcing the values of a society, a visual metaphor that can be read by the building’s style and type where the function of each type evoke a psychic recall. Think of a church. Think of a hockey arena. The functions and styles are completely different. A university campus like Lakehead University has multiple functions, so the styles vary from building to building, from student housing, to classrooms, to labs, to administration offices, including consideration for details such as the shape of the bricks, the colour of blackboards and the design of chairs. With multiple functions a university campus is much more interesting than a single construction project.

A photograph of a model of Lakehead University as it was imagined back in 1967 was taken by Panda Associates. They added theatrical elements to the photo using low and dramatic lighting. The mysterious looking photo currently hangs at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery for a collection of archival works, amassed and some created for a show called The Unbuilt Campus: Visions of a Potential Lakehead University.

Formerly a professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair at LU, Gary Genosko went to some trouble collecting and commissioning works to capture the idea of the unrealized. It’s an interesting project that has both throwback elements and a little bit of a sci-fi quality to it. The modernist elements, which still hold up today, are the result of the partnership of two prominent Canadian architects of the day, Robert Fairfield and Macy DuBois. Genosko refers to the design, and specifically the design of the new style of brown brick used in the university’s construction as a “modernist jewel.”

In his talk last Friday, Genosko also touched on the vagaries involved with allegiances, conflicts, egos, economics, politics, environmental concerns, and aesthetics that were all part of the construction of LU. The bigger the project, the more interesting the history as ideas about what to add or alter change over time, especially when the architect’s ideas are a bit lofty and expensive, or when a university president has his own ideas about what to add to a campus without consultation with other local authorities. And then there are good ideas, such as an International Indigenous Knowledge Center (or Spirit Center), that go unrealized, an idea which Genosko says still floats around the campus and in the minds of local visionaries.

Sadly, Lakehead University’s archives are under-resourced and insufficiently supported. Without dedicated staff it is difficult for researchers, like Genosko, to access the collection and make use of it. Nor does LU have institutional archives, so the library is not actively collecting or preserving the records of the university itself - a major gap. The university administration cannot guarantee that its own history will be accessible in the future.

So what Gary Genosko has done is important. However, it may be a bit dry for most, requiring some reading of the printed material to understand the displayed works. And it
helps to know a little about Lakehead University, as did some who attended Genosko’s presentation who offered interesting tidbits such as how inspectors were paid to ignore contractors shortfalls (insufficiently insulating parts of the university) with alcohol. But anyone familiar or curious about the process of the construction of a big architectural project will find this an interesting show, which might also introduce some to a new trend amongst curators and architects to present shows and discuss what could have been.
Another worthy show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is Possible Worlds by Sylvia Ziemann, along with works from the gallery’s permanent collection. All three shows are on display till December 30. Then plan to attend a great show of Carl Beam’s work beginning January 12.

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