Sunday, 5 July 2015

The New Laidlaw Library at the University of Leeds - Part 2

Every Discourse is Emitted From Space – Henri Lefebvre

Please click here for part 1 of the blog on the Laidlaw Library: On Knowledge and Phalluses

Located on the periphery of the campus, on Woodhouse Lane, the building cost £27.5 million. It was designed by the architects ADP and built by Shepherd Construction (who also carried out the work on the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Building). It is located between two church buildings in an area that was mostly made up of a university visitors’ car park. Trinity Congregational Church is now used as a nightclub called Halo (and a bar/cafe called the Quilted Lama) and the Emmanuel Church is the University of Leeds chaplaincy and is also used for seminar rooms. The library is also situated within a Conservation Area.

Described by the university as “the first city-fronting building that the University has commissioned for over 30 years” and as “a highly sustainable landmark building” (University of Leeds 2013), that it is “city-fronting” might be more an issue of a lack of space elsewhere on campus, rather than any statement to the city concerning its town and gown relationship. However, from the perspective of aesthetics, the vista when travelling from the city up to the university along Woodhouse Lane has now changed. When approaching North up Woodhouse Lane, having just crossed the flyover, the Parkinson Building fills the space straight ahead of you. The buildings leading up to it on the left has previously blended into the background, not least because the church that is the Halo nightclub has not been sandblasted for many years and is covered with the blackened veil of dirt and pollution. The bright new postmodern glass and steel surface of the new library will stands out in its setting between two churches. While the Ziff Building is not that visible from the main road, the new library can now represent the university to the extent that it is a statement of how much, financially, they are prepared to invest in student learning during the period of higher course fees.

It is here that we can see the university’s economic relationship with space (hence the Lefebvre quote above). The discourse around learning is connected directly to neoliberal policy through the use of the term ‘excellence’. Bill Readings discusses the concept of “excellence” and higher education in The University in Ruins (1996). Readings says that it is ‘excellence’ in its manifest bureaucratic forms which is the driving force behind harnessing the university’s function of the past and in postmodernity placing it under the forces of the market (1999: 38): “Like the stock exchange, the University is a point of capital’s self-knowledge, of capital’s ability not just to manage risk or diversity but to extract a surplus value from the management” (1999: 40).

Upon repeated use the language of the university of excellence becomes normalised. You can see the use of the term in the image above as it appeared on the hoardings surrounding the Laidlaw Library while it was under development. But excellence has ideological origins which are needed for it to function within the capitalist system, both within and outside the university. The language that excellence adopts, while serving the purposes of the corporatised university, also has the function of creating a type of abstraction, which removes the output of the system – the data that is promulgated – from not only the material practices that are required to deliver it, but also from the staff who work in the university and produce this data (or are party to producing the data).

This discourse, hence, has a spatial extension: the university speaks to those who operate within its campus, and also to those outside it. While it is apparent that the university has a discourse available for interpretation, I would like to suggest, along with Readings, that its historic origins – which still exist in its current posthistoric form, as ruins – enable a reading that might usually be applied to that of urban space. This opens up a space that challenges dominant modes of operating in the institution, abstractly and concretely, and shows that Readings’ motif of negotiating the ruins is already taking place in the campus.

Please click here to read my thesis which takes the term excellence and looks at how it can become material via the use of campus space:
The Unseen University: A Schizocartography of a Redbrick.

Related Links:
Performativity and Excellence in the Institution
The Corporate University

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