Saturday, 8 August 2009

The Corporate University: Excellence . . . Schmexellence

Bill Readings describes 'excellence' as an empty, circular term that cannot be applied across fields; as he explains in a whole chapter dedicated to this phenomenon: “An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane.” (1999: 24). Readings text is influenced by, amongst others, Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and this is apparent when Readings discusses the more 'performative' aspects of excellence's measure: “[...] the question of the University is only the question of relative value-for-money, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer [..]” (Readings 1999: 27). He also makes reference to how this consumer-orientation of the university ties in with technology, which is also a large focus of Lyotard's critique. Readings says: “All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ration in matters of information.” (1999: 39). I would now like to turn to an example, provided by Readings, of how choices based on these performance measures actually impact urban space; I shall also examine the same phenomenon at the University of Leeds: car parking.

Readings provides a anecdotal example of how space is utilised at the University in relation to excellence. Jonathan Culler informed Readings that the University at which he worked, Cornell in New York State, had received an award for “excellence in parking” (Readings 1999: 24). While one might assume that this meant the Car Parking Services Department was efficient at getting cars in and out of the car park, and/or effectively utilising the space, so as to get as many in as possible, what it actually meant was - and I shall use Readings own words and italics here, so as to allow the irony to appear - “that they had achieved a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access.” (ibid). Readings explains how the term 'excellence' has a function that enables it to work on either side of what can be considered as excellence: it becomes translatable and usable by anyone who wishes to describe excellence within any phenomenon, in whatever way they choose, by any criteria (ibid).

During the major planning drive of the University of Leeds that took place after World War II, and in particular during the 1960s, architects were employed to draw up plans to expand and develop the campus. Many architectural plans were made, alongside two large bound proposals prepared by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. These were: University of Leeds Development Plan: being a report on proposals for the way buildings could be planned and laid out to accommodate both the present needs and the growth of the size of the University which may be expected during the coming decade (1960) and University of Leeds Development Plan Review 1963: being a review of three years' progress on the Development Plan published April 1960 (1963). Much of the work is oriented towards a section of the campus that is referred to as “the precinct”. One of the drawings/maps provided in the 1963 review states next to it “This drawing indicates the relationship between the new development and the existing street pattern.” (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon 1963: 167). The map of the university, as it existed at the time, has the planned buildings superimposed over the existing area, so that both are visible. The precinct area includes plans for a number of very large buildings and vast car parking zones. Part of the conclusion of the report says the following:
No effort has been spared in Leeds on the part of the City Authorities, the Hospital Board and the Council of the University to make the planned expansion possible despite the extreme difficulties inherent in the comprehensive re-planning and redevelopment of the old City sites which have hitherto rested in many ownerships and were laid out between a network of streets obsolete for any present purposes. (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon 1963: 269).

It is only when viewing the above-mentioned drawing, that it becomes apparent what the architects mean by “a network of streets obsolete for any present purposes”. The precinct in particular, but also many other areas of the proposed site, are terraced housing. This is made even more clear when looking at an aerial photo of a section of the University of Leeds campus, taken in 1953. Whole streets of terraced houses needed to be 'acquired' in order to become University property, and then be demolished so that the development plan could be put in place. This was done with the aid of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs).

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. 1963. University of Leeds Development Plan (Leeds: The University of Leeds).

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

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