Trent University is retaining Canada’s modern architectural heritage: March 9, 2018 Globe and Mail article

A March 9, 2018 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “At a moment of architectural crisis, Trent University is retaining Canada’s modern heritage: The institution is engaged in a careful renovation of its original Bata Library, while new projects are being guided by attention to the original campus.”

Outcomes of 1960s-era architectural design at Trent compared to Simon Fraser

I much admire how Trent University is arranged into a series of clusters, extending across the campus within a natural setting (close to trees and water), wherein academic disciplines and student residences are congregated. Each cluster has its own identity, and is of a reasonable (as contrasted to massive and overwhelming) size.

This is an outstanding and impressive design arrangement, which closely and thoughtfully takes into account the presence of nature, the need for belonging (to a community of scholars, in this case) that students possess, and the requirements of academic and fitness-related pursuits.

A remarkable feature of the Trent University story, in particular as it relates to land-use planning and architecture, is the fact that the original architectural vision for the university has remained intact, these many years later.

The article mentions that Simon Fraser University was built around the same time in the 1960s as Trent University. I transferred to SFU in the late 1960s from McGill University and finished my BA some years later. Because a university degree served me in good stead in my subsequent career, serving as a first step in getting a teaching certificate in Ontario (where I attended the University of Toronto Faculty of Education for my B.Ed degree), I continue to support SFU as a donor.

I recently read a passage in a book by Bruce Alexander, who was starting his career as psychology professor at SFU at about the time I was studying psychology at the university. The book is entitled The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit (2008).

I learned about the study when I read a book about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, namely: Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction (2018).

Alexander’s 2008 study features, at least from my own perspective as an observer, an outlook that is very characteristic of SFU in the 1960s and early 1970s. A book entitled Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (2005) offers highlights of the major changes that the university was undergoing, with understandable disruption, at the time.

Alexander argues, in his study, that addiction of any kind is related to the loss of what he describes as “psycho-social integration” (a sense of being a valued, active member of a community of one kind or another). He argues that such a loss of psycho-social integration is inevitable for large numbers of people in a global free-market economy.

Bruce Alexander came upon his theory, which he views as an explanation for increasing worldwide rates of addiction, based largely upon his widespread reading of history.

That is, he began as a psychologist and in the course of research about addiction, found that history has much to offer, in broadening his understanding of the forces that drive addiction.

Occasionally, the fact he is not a professional historian is evident, however, at least from my perspective as an observer, when a person reads the book.

As an example, his analysis of a trial featuring a former Nazi, who was captured in Argentina after the Second World War, relies heavily on a particular historical analysis, by a particular author.

As a result, the conclusions that Alexander has reached, with regard to how bureaucracies function in the course of genocides such as the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War, appear (to me) to be somewhat narrow, given the lack of reference to a wider range of scholarship, that is available regarding topics, such as  the history of Nazi Germany in wartime, that Alexander discusses.

That being said, Alexander’s interdisciplinary intermingling of psychology and history is in general highly productive and valuable.

Architectural history

Alexander also discusses the architectural history of Simon Fraser University.

He notes that one of the guiding principles, in the 1960s design of SFU, was that disciplines would be set up in architectural spaces that would, by virtue of their positioning next to each other, bring together scholars – by way of conversation, and productive exchanges of ideas – from a wide range of disciplines.

As Alexander notes, however, such an intermingling of disciplines did not come about, for varied reasons. The reasons, from my understanding of the history of SFU, have to do with how power came to be concentrated within the structure of the university, and how such a concentration of power interacted in turn with wider structural forces at play in a free-market (one can also call it neoliberal) economy.

As well, whereas originally the Burnaby campus was set up within a clearing at the very top of Burnaby Mountain, in the midst of a forest-covered setting overlooking Burrard Inlet, the eventual picture that emerges (at least in my imagination, not having visited since the 1970s) is a mountain top featuring ongoing condo development encircling the campus.

I haven’t been back to SFU since the mid-1970s, meaning that I do not know what the campus looks like now. However, The Globalisation of Addiction (2008) gives me a mental image of condos popping up, up and down the mountainside.

Bruce Alexander adds that SFU, with the passage of time, has focused strongly on research on behalf of what he describes as the free-market economy.

In that context, he refers to a Macleans survey of colleges and universities, which has determined that SFU is highly rated by students with regard to research and decidedly less highly rated with regard to student satisfaction.

I note from a more recent Macleans overview that the above-noted survey trends remain about the same, a decade after the survey that the author would have been referring to.


That is to say, the architectural vision that gave rise to Trent University still holds true for Trent, which is evidenced by a very high rate of student satisfaction in a recent Macleans survey. The original architectural vision that gave rise to SFU, however, no longer holds true for the latter university – although it does, indeed, do very well in the area of research; and I am pleased, as I’ve mentioned, to be a regular donor to SFU, given that the university was a great springboard for my own eventual career.

Etobicoke South Detention Centre

The previous discussion also brings to mind posts, in which I initially spoke with enthusiasm about the element of transparency, with regard to architectural design, that is evident at a superjail in South Etobicoke:

Feb. 15, 2017 Toronto Life article: “The $1-Billion Hellhole.” Previous posts share backstories about superjail.

It turns out, that is, that in this case, an inherently positive architectural feature (namely, the sense of transparency referred to above) has minimal practical relevance when we take into account the larger picture, which is concerned with how the superjail in question apparently operates, when viewed from within the power structure of the institution.

Click here for previous posts about the South Etobicoke Detention Centre >

Power concentration at the nation-state

The foregoing discussion, regarding how power is concentrated – or, equally importantly, is intentionally channelled in a manner that avoids heavy concentration of it – within institutions brings to mind a previous post.

The post in question concerns how power came to be concentrated at the level of the nation-state, as a key outcome of the conflicts that gave rise to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars:

After his defeat in Russia (1812), Napoleon Bonaparte lost for a final time at the Battle of Waterloo (1815)


Of interest regarding Bruce Alexander’s work referred to above, a March 30, 2018 Scientific American article is entitled: “Cambridge Analytica and Online Manipulation: It’s not just about data protection; it’s about strategies designed to induce addictive behavior, and thus to manipulate.”


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *