Continuing off of last weeks post on Berger and his recent passing, I am intrigued by his concepts that we as viewers establish different meanings when works are displayed versus the actual creative process. This peaked my interests because when visiting a gallery setting, as audience members we sort of fall into this trap of simply looking at the basics of colour, line and shape and just beauty, as opposed to the physical labour that is put into the works themselves. I also overall believe this to be super relevant to our own Trent University campus. Of course as an undergraduate what appealed to me was the community feel and the magnificent buildings that surround the Otonabee River. Of course this makes me guilty of commodifying Trent for its architectural beauty and basing my post-secondary career off of that as opposed to my program, it did have some bearing but the vibe of the campus is what has made it my home for the past four years.
I am a consumer of architecture, I love everything about it, from the pillars, to the floors, to the doors that open each room, and Ron Thom’s is one of the most magnificent pieces in all of Canada. Ron Thom was the master architect of Trent, and was invited to compete for the university’s contract to be chosen unanimously to design the original buildings of Symons Campus. He began his planning stages of work in 1963, and is renowned for his use of natural materials and traditional elements in modernist form. He is responsible for the designs of Bata Library, Champlain and Lady Eaton College, which were all meant to keep in mind a sense of community and environmental awareness. To address my original statement of being a “consumer” of architecture it is important to think back to Berger, in his third episode he states, “we buy to consume, sell again or perhaps give away.” This is attractive, as an undergrad I bought into Trent to consume its natural availability, but can this be seen as negative? I have placed value on the medium surrounding the University with limited education in the field and really only on interest, I think this by default makes me a questionable consumer. However, as a student it was important to me to become more of an aware consumer by looking into the history of the structure, bringing back this idea of entering a gallery space without thinking of the physical labour.
As ill-knowledge consumers, (most of us focusing on surface level as opposed to digging deep) we fall to the traps of placing emphasis on outstanding pieces. As undergrads we fall into the traps of looking at this magnificent set of buildings and placing them on a pedestal, I had a friend tell me once who was visiting that Trent had the crappiest tasting water but the prettiest campus. Berger calls us out on this with his examination of advertisements and this ideal of publicity invoking the imagination and creating an unattainable philosophy. There is no communication between the two worlds, publicity creates an ongoing cycle of wants, a philosophy that cannot be supported and will eventually run dry. Berger states, “this culture is mad” which I would agree with because as consumers of essentially everything we place importance on objects that create prestige. What I mean by this is a prestige that was not already determined but one we just sort of fathomed as onlookers. As a community at Trent we create this prestige with the images we make public of the university. Look at our pamphlets we have appealing angles on the main bridge to show future students that you can walk right over wilderness, or even of Bata Library, with windows that make the wilderness surround you without actually having to be outside. We appeal to the consumption of the architecture an imagined idea that when you entering Champlain’s Great Hall it will feel like Hogwarts, or when you enter Bata you feel as though you are actually floating on the river.
This is insane. These images, although digitally stunning give absolutely no context to the history of the university, or even Ron Thom as an architect. This form of art is really just making Trent look glamourous, but let’s be honest at the end of the day it’s just another place of business. That being said I think as onlookers of the university it is our responsibility to be critical of how the architecture is viewed and preserved, and the Trent Alumni house has done a really great job by having a display of Thom’s early sketches and original furniture pieces. Other notable exhibitions in the area that have taken place include, Artspace’s exhibition “MADMEN on the OTONABEE” which took place March 29, to April 7th 2013. This exhibition put on by Richard Love featured some of Ron Thom’s original pieces of furniture, which were custom made for Symons Campus. Another great exhibition that travelled across Canada and made its way to Toronto was “Ron Thom & Allied Arts,” which was at the Gardiner Museum from February 13th, to April 27th 2014. This exhibition travelled across Canada to a few locations and showed the genius of Ron Thom’s architecture. In their write up of the exhibition they state, “From his early days as a west coast artist to his crowning achievements designing Massey College and Trent University, Ron Thom devoted himself to a profoundly holistic approach wherein the fields of architecture, ceramics, visual arts, furniture and landscape formed a continuum.” Both of these exhibitions are just examples of the true creativity of Ron Thom and how he has a sort of ‘total aesthetic.’
However, I think we can do more, as I said we as consumers should learn to be informed consumers, ones who give a shit about what we are looking at and its history. As an undergrad I have been lucky enough to have taken courses that address Ron Thom and his works, but why is this not a requirement for all students? Why is it not a requirement for students to have an idea as to why Lady Eaton has a curved back? (Answer: to reflect the drumlin) Why is it not a requirement to have students understand that the great hall was built with the intention of students spending the majority of their time there instead of the towers? With Trent having the architectural dynamic and history it does, I don’t see why we can’t shift our way of thinking, from not only are these buildings pleasing to the eye, but look at them from a critical stand point of why are they pleasing and worth preservation?