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How Architecture Made SFU Vancouver’s University

For those unfamiliar with Vancouver, it is a city that enjoys a healthy one way rivalry between two university: the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Growing up here I didn't think much of Simon Fraser. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, I mean it literally. SFU was simply never on my radar. UBC I knew. As high school students we would sneak out to its libraries to study for finals and pretend we were mature than we were. But SFU? It was far away. Too remote. Too inaccessible by public transit. Heck, too inaccessible by car(!).

And yet today when I think of Vancouver's two universities UBC is the one that is never on my radar. After noticing that several friends will be on a panel tonight on How Social Media is Changing Politics at UBC's downtown campus I was reminded of the fact that UBC has a downtown campus. It may be the most underutilized and unloved space in the University. This despite the fact it sits in the heart of Vancouver and under some of the most prime real estate in the city. In fact I don't think I've actually ever been to UBC's downtown campus.

In contrast I can't count the number of time's I've been to SFU's downtown campus. And the reason is simple: architecture. It's not that SFU simple invests in its downtown campus making it part of the university, it's that it invested in Vancouver by building one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. If you are in Vancouver, go visit The Wosk Centre for Dialogue. It is amazing. Indeed, I feel so strongly about it, I included it in my top ten favourite places when Google Maps added me to their list of Lat/Long experts for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Photo by Bryan Hughes

What makes the Wosk Centre so fantastic? It seats 180 or so people in concentric circles, each with their own a mic. It may be the only place where I've felt a genuine conversation can take place with such a large group. I've seen professors lecture, drug addicts share stories, environmentalists argue among one another and friends debate one another, and it has always been eye opening. Here, in the heart of the city, is a disarming space where stakeholders, experts, citizens or anyone, can be gathered to share ideas and explore their differences in a respectful manner. Moreover, the place just looks beautiful.

The building is a testament to how architecture and design can fundamentally alter the relationship between an institution and the city within which it resides. Without the Wosk Centre I'm confident SFU's downtown presence would have meant much less to me. Moreover, I'm fully willing to agree that UBC is the better university. It ranks better in virtually ever survey, it has global ambitions that even achievable and likely does not want to be involved in the city. That's a strategic choice I can, on one level, respect. But on a basic level, the Wosk Centre makes SFU relevant to Vancouverites and in doing so, allows the University to punch above its weight, at least locally. And that has real impact, at least for the city's residents. But I think for the university as well.

Reading the always excellent Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From I can't help but think the UBC is missing out on something larger. As Johnson observers, good ideas arise from tensions, from the remixing of other ideas, particularly those from disparate places. They rarely come from the deep thinker isolated out in the woods (UBC lies at the edge of Vancouver beyond a large park) or meditating on a mountain top (SFU's core campus is atop a small mountain) but out of dense networks where ideas, hunches and thoughts can find one another. Quiet meditation is important. But so to is engagement. Being in the heart of a bustling city is perhaps a distraction, but that may be the point. Those distractions create opportunities, new avenues for exploration and, for universities concerned with raising money from their intellectual capital, to find problems in search of solutions. So raising a structure that is designed to explicitly allow tensions and conflicts to play out... I can't help but feel that is a real commitment to growth and innovation in a manner that not only gives back to its host community, but positions one to innovate in a manner and pace the 21st century demands.

As such, the Wosk Centre, while maybe a shade formal, is a feat of architecture and design, a building that I hope enables a university to rethink itself, but that has definitely become a core part of the social infrastructure of the city and redrawn at least my own relationship with SFU.

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