Space and Place: the Embodied University

This was a talk, to UQ’s Academic Board, by Graeme Orr of the Law School

By population, UQ St Lucia is the 10th largest community in Queensland. It would be even higher up that ladder if we measured by density. Yet what kind of community is UQ, in a physical sense of space and place? Not in the nuts-and-bolts sense, of efficient use of teaching areas or transport access. But in the broad idea of a campus and its aesthetics. Especially as universities evolve away from purely embodied places towards ‘virtual’ spaces.
A traditional typology of universities pits the spacious ‘campus’ university – a St Lucia or UCLA – against the cheek-by-jowl, higgledy-piggledy ‘city’ university, like RMIT or University College London. This risks over-simplification, in two ways. One is the reality of particular contexts. QUT Gardens Point is downtown and cramped. But it is cordoned off rather than integrated with the CBD. At the other local extreme, Griffith Nathan is technically a suburban campus, but it sits in a state forest, radically different from the curated grounds of St Lucia.
The other oversimplification is that UQ’s multi-campus ‘estate’ is incredibly diverse. Gatton campus is huge, in the tradition of an agricultural and mechanical university. At the other end are the small marine science buildings on Stradbroke Island-Minjerribah. I will focus here on St Lucia, because it is the dominant campus in terms of numbers and mentality.
The sense of spaciousness at St Lucia looms large in perceptions of the place, and within UQ’s branding. Yet, oddly, building space was at a premium in recent years. Within the spaces we live and interact, memory and even faux nostalgia play a role in shaping our experience and expectations. Students often think of UQ St Lucia as the oldest university space in the state, even though Gardens Point is. Sandstone plays into that.
As town planning and heritage battles show, UQ has different meanings to different generations of its members, as well as to the neighbourhoods of which it is part of, and to the Indigenous land uses it effaced. One story of change can be told from the drift in the Student Union complex as an all-day hangout, to part of a shopping precinct. A change from citizenship to consumption, and from governance to markets. Even a change in time itself, given the spiralling busy-ness of life. I’m old enough to remember a student union with beanbags and record players, and joint 4ZZZ/Student Union concerts in the main refectory. Such memories might seem antediluvian to students streaming Spotify.
When I returned to UQ in 2007 after nearly 20 years away, the first thing I noticed was how well dressed and made up the students were. (Well the law students anyway.) The second realisation was that campus life had come to revolve around nodes of coffee shops with good wi-fi points. By 2011, my first lament as an elected member of UQ’s Academic Board was that the Staff and Postgraduates Club was being wound up.
The upside was that clubbishness could be exclusive. Popcorn on the lawn is more casual and inclusive. But something was definitely lost. In that club, retired staff, young staff and postgrads alike found an affordable meal and jug of beer. St Lucy’s bistro, for all its swank menu and $40 bottles of wine, is hardly egalitarian. Things that once seemed inevitable, like ‘a campus bookshop’, have also washed away with changes in technology. Few lamented the passing of a bookshop that had become a gift shop. Whether the 7-11 style store that has replaced it will last longer, is another question.
All communities, including universities, are built on cross-subsidies. Some more explicitly than others. I don’t want to inflame the kerfluffle over the fate of the Student Union complex. But the Schonell Cinema’s death – twice in recent history – can be contrasted with the swish, provocative and capacious modernist Art Museum outside the Forgan-Smith building. When I used to have time for lunch, I’d meet my wife at that gallery. We would usually be half the people there. Maybe art is a tangible investment in a way that independent movies cannot be. Clearly this says something about UQ’s priorities.
Nothing speaks the physical aesthetic of UQ more than jacaranda trees and their potent colour. Jacarandas are leisurely trees to sit under. Students no longer pass on the legend, where if a flower falls on your head, your GPA is doomed. That’s as well, given continuous assessment and how the trees flower earlier with climate change. But UQ marketing milks the colour: in one recent UQ advertisement, the purple is strong enough to tint the entire universe.
Classy sporting fields are another aspect of St Lucia’s campus model and of the way UQ promotes itself to the world. Amongst students, there were always those who struggled to pay an amenities fee: for many more there was resentment at having to subsidise sporting culture. For universities pivoting to a more virtual world, maintaining grand spaces will be as much a burden as an asset. Yet as we emerge from Covid, like a bird from an oil slick, such spaces also signal to the world that UQ offers a bright and safe environment.
No part of any university has adapted so dramatically to changing technology and usage patterns than libraries. They have gone from clichéd quiet, bookish places to high-tech, largely paperless spaces, with 24-7 access, whether online or as lounges to meet, eat and chat in.
A few years back, VC Høj described his ideal of an ‘elite not elitist’ (!) UQ with a much smaller student body. The Australian Senate scuttled such Go8 dreams, by rejecting deregulated fees set by universities themselves. Today have more members of the immediate UQ community than ever, in student numbers (over 50 000) if not staff (stable at around 7000).

The paradox is that, since Covid arrived, you could shoot a proverbial cannon through the Great Court and not injure anyone most days.

The purple-shirted Covid stewards exemplify that paradox. They were an agile idea that must’ve helped UQ’s Covid plan gain government approval. And a neat way to show UQ was supporting student employment (even as casual teaching budgets were in free fall). But the friendly Covid steward brigade often seemed to outnumber staff and students, as teaching moved online.
The blessed irony of Covid in Qld is that at 1 death per million, amongst open societies, only East Timor and Taiwan have done better. Yet for higher education here, and across the globe, questions of space, crowding and rationing have been upended by the pandemic. The future is open, but how physically open?

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