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Lilacs out of a dead land

Rob Addison



Is this the end of the Quad?
Located in the centre of Kelburn campus, the Quad is a familiar feature of Victoria’s landscape. While bearing a striking resemblance to the stark imagery of T.S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, radical plans unveiled by the University last year would completely recreate the Quad-Library area. Rob Addison explores the University’s Campus Development Plan, profiteering, and why it’s taken thirty years to realise that the Quad needs fixing.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…

Written in 1922, The Waste Land was Eliot’s response to what he saw as the decline of civilisation and the impossibility of recovering meaning in life. While his lament concerned post-war Europe, today many students say that the centerpiece of Victoria – the Quad – is a dead land.
When Salient asked a randomly selected sample of 16 students about their views, most felt that it suffered from poor facilitation. Comments such as that of student Ziane Watene were typical: “I have issues with the Quad. It should be a congregational spot; it should have grass, but it’s grot.”
As the main thoroughfare for students crossing the campus to get to lecture theatres and classes, the Quad is a point of weakness for the campus’s central kabbah. Many students see the Quad’s inadequate seating as a turn-off and subsequently turn their noses up at the prospect of sitting on the Quad’s chewing gum-laden steps.
Adjacent to the Quad, the Library receives a similar amount of criticism with its aging design and neglected facilities. Student Holly Rattray says, “It’s not a very comfortable study space and I would prefer not to study in the library. It’s a shitty place.”
Rattray isn’t the only student who believes the campus environment can potentially meddle with study habits. Two-thirds of those surveyed by Salient agreed there was a relationship between campus aesthetics and conducive study. The results of student focus groups, VUWSA and university surveys add weight to this consensus. Facilities Management Director Jenny Bentley says that from those studies “we found a common thread that came through.”
That thread found its way into our survey results too. All students were asked to give a total out-of-ten rating for the campus. The average rating worked out at 6.4 – that’s the equivalent of a B-, or “Achieved” if you were groomed on NCEA.
But does it have to be this way? Can Kelburn campus with its Quad be turned into one that inspires the hearts and minds of Wellington’s young and capable? According to Bentley and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor David Mackay, the Campus Development Framework could hold the answer.
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones
Beginning at the end of 2005, the Campus Development Framework (CDF) is a ten-year strategy which will guide the University’s decision making over its facilities. In the framework “special emphasis is placed on the Kelburn Campus, where a special need has been identified for environment enhancement and more space.”
Developed by a team of architects and urban designers from in and around the University, the project coordinators have been working in partnership with VUWSA and VUWSA Trust – a key financier of campus buildings and other assets – in formulating a proposal for development in Victoria’s main campus.
The current CDF includes a number of building projects – the controversial student accommodation building overlooking Boyd Wilson Field – and a new teaching and research building within the campus.
Also planned is the development of a “Campus Hub”. While only at a conceptual stage, Bentley says that the Campus Hub plan proposes “a new environment that flows from Kelburn Parade right through to Level One of Rankine Brown [building with] a big indoor space where you could have a mix of learning [areas], cafes and retail, heading into the library.”
The plan also resolves issues with the campus operating on uneven levels, proposing that “the top of the Student Union Building, Level One of Rankine Brown [Building], the main entry of Easterfield [Building], and the flat area outside the bottom of Old Kirk [Building], are all at the same level.” Clearly this has implications for the campus’s current layout.
“We had a look at the Library itself and at the surrounding spaces and came to the conclusion that one thing you could do is excavate the Quad. There won’t be a Quad, it will be part of a building,” says Bentley.
Does this mean the Quad, the quintessential heart and soul of student life in Wellington, could be lost forever? Mackay and Bentley say that it will, arguing that this could resolve problems surrounding the campus operating on uneven levels. Mackay says that the campus’ “centre of gravity has moved up [to the Quad] and yet it’s not realising the full potential that it suggests.”
And fear not, those who currently enjoy sitting in the University’s “centre of gravity” amidst Kelburn’s howling wind and pissing rain, because a new covered outdoor area will be allocated outside the Student Union Building. Bentley says that this could be made into “a very attractive outdoor space” with the potential for cafes and retail outlets to set up shop, making for a plaza-like development overlooking the city. The Library also faces a major shake-up, which Bentley says has been forced by a change in student study habits from over 40 years ago when the central Library was designed and built.
“We’re quite aware that the Library and the learning spaces that we offer our students aren’t being offered at leading universities around the world [because] there’s been a change in terms of the ways students like to work.”
With a focus on facilities that cater for group study and teaching, the lower levels of the Library are likely to be designated for informality, while its upper levels will be focused on formal study. This means there will be integration between the post-Quad indoor space and the informal central Library areas making up what’s been coined the “Campus Hub”.
Central to the development of the Hub is the placement of student services in the area. Mackay says that “a variety of student services will go up and be suited to that area.” This means that a number of Student Union-based services could be relocated to the Campus Hub, while there is also the potential for the development of new retail and recreational services in the central vicinity.
While Victoria University is still far from deciding what services will go where, Mackay is adamant that the decision-making process will be principled.
“What those services are is yet to be determined but one of the driving things is that the services chosen for that area shouldn’t be determined by who runs them but by what students actually need,” he says. “From a student point of view, they don’t care who provides a particular service, they’re interested in the service, so getting the most congenial and effective ones for that space is critical – which is why student input, and student services input, and VUWSA input is vital.”But students have considered the Quad and University environs to be sub-par for some time.
In 1979, VUWSA described the Kelburn campus as “a fragmented collection of discrete structures without much pretension to any integrated vision of what might constitute an ideal campus”. The greater Wellington community also got in on the act during the 1970s when the Evening Post described the Hunter building as “the only interesting piece of architecture on campus” and Von Zedlitz’s chimneys as “downright ugly”.
The ultimate kick in the teeth came from the architectural community in 1982 when Architecture Professor Helen Tippet described Kelburn campus as “the worst campus in the developed world”.
It’s clear that the campus has always struggled to make friends. Considering this, why has the current development been so long in the making?
Mackay concedes that the primary issue is Kelburn’s low-profitability when placed alongside other campuses.
“It’s a bit of a challenge in a space like this. It does create new space but much of the emphasis is on fixing-up old space. If you fix-up old space you’re not actually catering for new students – so it’s not actually bringing in any revenue.” When asked if Pipitea campus was developed as a revenue-maker, Mackay says “yes – increased student numbers help pay for growth like that.”
Because Victoria views student numbers as a means of gathering revenue, does this mean that Victoria’s neglect of the Quad and library areas has been driven by the desire for profit?
“Partly,” says Mackay.
“We had to develop the Pipitea campus because of the huge increase in Commerce student numbers and, to some extent, the same is true for [the School of] Architecture and Design. They’re now in pretty good shape and the focus has come on this part of the campus now.”
It seems that now this university’s two goldmines are up to scratch, Victoria can tend to its most-historical, most-highly student-occupied campus.
Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mackay and Bentley say that student consultation has been central to the emergence of the CDF in its current form.
During 2006, the CDF team held a number of focus groups with a range of students. Individual interviews and liaison with VUWSA have also been central components of the CDP team’s student consultation strategy. Mackay says that the number of students surveyed reached “the high hundreds”.
However, no effort has been made to encourage students to contribute to the proposal out of their own will, which may explain why none of the students surveyed by Salient had even heard of the CDF.
This fact is compounded by the project’s low level of publicity. Victoria University’s only media release on the topic came in June 2006 and briefly explained the project. The media release also advertised a low-key public meeting held in July of the same year. When questioned, Bentley said that students can contribute to the development plan by contacting her, but the fact remains that no effort is being made to welcome student contributions that aren’t sought by the CDF team.
Despite this, fee-paying students will be contributing to the development. “The University will be funding a significant component but we do have a good partnership with VUWSA Trust and they are keen to invest in facilities that benefit students,” says Bentley.
Because students fund both organisations, they are expected to pick up portions of both bills. Mackay says that this has been an unavoidable reality of university finance in New Zealand since the introduction of the Education Act 1990, which prohibited universities from funding capital by means other than from government-funded operational costs or student-funded class fees.
What’s more, a fee maxima means that New Zealand universities cannot raise fees any higher than five percent per annum. Mackay says that in the past Victoria has applied for exemptions from the fee maxima, “but we haven’t been successful.” It’s difficult to estimate the proportion of student funding that will be attributed to the CDF. To this point, Mackay and Bentley both say that student fees have not been considered in the proposal.
“The planning for this [CDF] is not based on student fees,” says Mackay. “We work on current projections of what our income’s likely to be.”
Bentley and MacKay say that the project has to be affordable considering current surpluses and existing expenses. So are students going to see a rise in fees in order to fund the development?
“Not because of this,” says MacKay. But whether students will see a rise in fees seems to be a different question altogether. It’s important to remember that the current CDF proposal isn’t finalised. While the University Council has approved further design work for the Campus Hub Project, its affordability needs to be closely monitored alongside up-to-date funding figures and University numbers.
The next step after that would be gaining resource consent from the Wellington City Council. So the current Campus Hub Project is far from being guaranteed, but what is certain is that major changes will be taking place within Kelburn campus’s central vicinity. Bentley doesn’t expect the CDF to be finalised for some time.
“We’d expect to kick the planning side of it along during 2008 and by the middle to the end of 2008 we’d expect to be under way.”
Because the development needs to be staged due to existing campus demands, Bentley anticipates a lengthy and drawn-out development period, saying “it could take five or six years.”
Mackay says that while disruptions and expense would be considerable, architectural overhaul of the central area has become somewhat essential. “We’re talking about resolving something that, unless it’s confronted head-on, will persist as a compromise.
“Do we have it as a compromise that we live with for the next 100 or 50 years, or do we swallow hard and take a big gulp and solve this problem?” Clearly Mackay prefers to swallow.