A revolving white elephant

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Fraser McGowan
Contributing editor

Level two of the library finally reopened to students earlier this year, after the refurbishment took longer and cost more than initially expected. The project even had its own blog – imaginatively called ‘Library Improvements’ – which certainly succeeded in elaborating upon the patently obvious, but failed to offer an explanation for why the project was behind schedule from the beginning. Such an explanation would have been at least some comfort to those of us unfortunate enough to be resident on level nine during a dissertation crisis, at a time when there was only one working lift. Anyway, despite the many setbacks, the refurbishment is finally finished and all is well in Gotham City.

So far, I’ve been into the library four times this year and it is certainly an improvement on the post-Soviet look that level two managed to rock since the mid-1990s. I won’t deny that it is nicely decorated, and I will happily admit that the main lifts are infinitely better than the primordial contraptions that, if you were very lucky, used to rattle their way to the floor you actually wanted to go to without squealing to a leisurely standstill halfway there. There is much to be appreciated, and I do not think that anybody could disagree with the aim of improving the look of the old place.

It looks good, but it could be the design equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb. It’s fundamentally the same old library with all of its unresolved problems. Admittedly, there are 150 more spaces available on level one, which was previously closed to students entirely. 150 more study spaces but, alas, I’ve heard it said by those in a position to know that there are hundreds more students on campus this year than there were last year. I don’t think that the intention was ever to alleviate overcrowding, or if it was, clearly somebody missed the email which explained that the University is committed to “modest increases” in the number of students for the next few years to part-fund the campus redevelopment. As demand for study spaces continues to outstrip supply, it is reasonable to conclude that the point was not to improve things in such a way that might actually, you know, make it possible to find a free desk during exam season or to leave your stuff unattended by a computer for 10 minutes without causing a minor diplomatic incident. It must, surely, have been about making it easier for the masses to move in, out and around the building. Either that, or the whole thing amounts to a paint job, some new armchairs and a working lift, which would make the endless delays even harder to justify.

Sure enough, it quite clearly says on the webpage devoted to the library renovation that it is hoped “the changes will improve access to our spaces”. A modest ambition, one would think, given that a building isn’t really a building at all if it isn’t accessible to people who might have cause to enter. Curious then that the entrance itself presents the biggest problem to the accessibility aspiration. The now infamous revolving door is fast becoming an ominous metaphor for the campus redevelopment as a whole, and a classic example of something that seemed like a good idea at the time. As entrances to buildings go, it is perfectly satisfactory, so long as you are the only person trying to use it at any one time. If you have the displeasure of using it at the top of the hour, however, when classes begin and end and people tend to move around the campus, it starts, stops, starts again, then stops again, before finally starting again, as it clashes with people’s feet, arms and bags. It is more of an evolving door, only performing its function as a door after a prolonged start-stop shuffle and an orderly queue forming on either side of it. On at least one occasion this month, such a lengthy queue had formed outside that staff had to open a side door before people started to faint.

Who was to know, though? It’s not as if revolving doors are universally problematic or anything as foreseeable as all that. They probably have revolving doors at Edinburgh University that are just as annoying. Apparently, St. Andrews is due to get one next year and it’s guaranteed to be a real doozy. Frankly, we’re leading the world in defective solutions to non-existent accessibility problems. It’s a mystery to me why we didn’t install a revolving door years ago, if only to maximise the sheer relief of managing to get through it without suffocating.

Everything else aside, the revolving door has improved accessibility in exactly the same way that bricking the windows up might have improved the flow of natural light, or that filling the air ducts with concrete might have improved the ventilation. It represents exactly the kind of lesson that needs to be learned as the rest of the campus redevelopment proceeds. Then I remembered that the proposed Learning and Teaching Hub – due to be built over the next five years – is going to have not one but two escalators in it, on the pretext that they are the best way to move vast numbers of students around quickly. I would be interested to know how that conclusion was reached, and by whom. If it was the same group of people who thought that a revolving door would improve access to the library, then I would humbly suggest that, perhaps, designing buildings isn’t for them.

At Glasgow, these things tend to be planned and managed by “project boards” – groups which can include any number of non-experts drawn from a range of academic and non-academic departments, and, of course, the student representative body. They have consultations with staff and students, but whenever a project board gets together to make decisions (normally after a member of the University’s senior management group has visited a few Australian universities) the whole thing becomes a bit of a vanity project rather than a functional solution. More often than not, a project board’s objective is to find a solution before it has found a problem. Now I come to think of it, the old doors to the library worked pretty well after all, didn’t they?

The University is about to spend a £1 billion on extending the Gilmorehill campus, getting itself into mountains of debt and “modestly” adding to the overcrowding on the existing campus in the process. Your opinions on the proposals will be sought, and, at least theoretically, taken into account for the benefit of students ten years from now. All I will say is, to staff, students and project boards alike, beware of white elephants, revolving or otherwise.

Credit: Florianne Watt

Credit: Florianne Watt