Friday, October 7 2022

Many would agree that the Humanities Center is the worst building on campus.

Littered with mousetraps and dated, broken, assorted chairs and desks, this is a building that has clearly been left behind. But the problems are much deeper than the superficial level. The building is the epitome of “deferred maintenance” – the term the university uses to describe the ever-growing list of needed repairs and renovations that have been deferred.

The possibility of removing or even demolishing the building without replacing it is devastating for the arts community on campus. Despite being rough around the edges, the Humanities Center is well worth saving.

A comment provided by the university said the building’s current deferred maintenance is $7.7 million, which is expected to increase over the next five years to $16.2 million. The building’s annual operating costs are $700,000.

Deferred maintenance for this building includes a asbestos issue – something common for buildings on campus that were constructed between the 1930s and 70s. The university’s comment also noted that minor asbestos work was done on this building in 2020. This included repairs to a wall in the atrium and window work. “The project was completed without any issues,” the statement said.

While the future of the building remains to be determined, plans are in place to relocate the groups currently housed there. Steve Patten, acting dean of the arts faculty, said they were working on a plan to move these departments and groups to “another space within the next two to three years.” This planning includes consultation with faculty of arts and facilities and operations leaders to “ensure that people and units currently in the building are moved to the most appropriate available spaces.”

However, this relocation may not be an improvement, as these departments will lose the dedicated space in which they have been housed for nearly 50 years.

For me and many others, our first college class was at the Humanities Center – English 101. The building is a source of many smaller classrooms that facilitate discussion and friendship building for language lessons and first-year English course required for arts students. There is no clear replacement on campus in terms of a building with many intimate 30-person classrooms in one location that is in the arts hallway.

Perhaps with the university’s plans to add another 2,400 students by 2025, those more intimate discussion-based classes are a thing of the past. Perhaps departments like English and Film Studies will be crammed into other buildings, with larger classrooms and no permanent building in which to reside.

The Humanities Center also houses the arts consultancy offices. Going there confused and in need of guidance was another hallmark freshman year college experience.

In addition to these, the building also houses the Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies Student Organization (OASIS) and the Parkland Institute. It serves as a support and opportunity center for arts students. Each of these will now be relocated, but likely to multiple buildings, leaving arts students homeless.

It should also be noted that the building is not very old. In 1973 after three years of construction, the building was over budget and behind schedule, but eventually completed. It wasn’t easy either. In addition to the delays, construction saw both a contractor strike and the death of a worker after falling three stories.

Not only is the building less than 50 years old, but it is also a distinct architectural style that is part of the history of Edmonton and the University of Alberta. It’s an example of brutalism, with the structure of each story cantilevered over the one below it. Inside, the unique skylight with colored ceiling tiles is also striking and present banners directed by Canadian artist Takao Tanabe.

Although this building is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a distinct and important historical architectural style.

It seems unlikely that everything the Humanities Center currently holds will fit into an existing building. The result will be that humanities and arts departments will be spread across campus, creating physical barriers that will leave the arts more disconnected, less supported, and with a weaker sense of community.

The science and engineering buildings are all very close physically, with a central building connecting them. It creates a sense of belonging and community. However, the arts without the Humanities Center will have no central building or heart.

The Dental Pharmacy building was another old building on campus that needed major renovations. Deferred maintenance for the building was estimated at $80 million in 2018, far less than the $7.7 million estimated for the Center for Human Sciences.

The Dentistry Pharmacy Building renewal project received $239 million in funding from the New Democratic Party government. The renovation project retained the historic exterior of the building while adding a modern interior and expansion. The project also received an additional $56 million from the United Conservative Party government in the 2022 budget.

The Dentistry Pharmacy Building is an example of how an old building can be saved on campus when it is valued and defended.

Plans for the future of the Center for Humanities fuel the perception that arts students are not valued and left behind in the future of this university. We may not be a “high demand” program in the eyes of the university and the provincial government, but our place on campus is important and must be valued and protected.

Although the building is in poor condition, the university can try to save it. They have neglected and ignored the condition of this one for too many years while restoring and renovating other buildings on campus. Arts students should be valued and feel at home on this campus and both are threatened by the decision to ax the Center for Humanities.

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