Archives for posts with tag: mcgill

Law Libe

The Law Library at McGill University in Montreal, commissioned for Mr. Edward Brook by his mother for Christmas. 

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The city can be abstracted to be understood.

I have lived in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, three cities with comparable old-school style Institutional Universities.

I have noted that each of these universities, the University of Toronto, McGill and Dalhousie though very similar in overall design (a main quad, tower/front steps buildings, institutional architecture), their relationship with the city differs immensely.

Let me convey this visually with some abstract maps.

UofT sits in the middle of Toronto, and though a distinct entity, the city filters through it effortlessly. The effect is a university-city soup — space punctured by normal flows and spaces of city-life, with distinct areas of UofT inbetween.

McGill, also in the heart of downtown Montreal, too is surrounded by city, but keeps it at bay — is a special entity amongst an otherwise flowing urban fabric. But it stands open to the city of Montreal, it’s arms wide open, inviting passersby to use it as a shortcut between downtown and the Plateau.

Halifax’s Dalhousie University is less open to the city that surrounds it. It sits in a quiet corner, it’s back turned to the streetscapes it disrupts. Rock walls and inconsistent street patterns lend to the effect that Dalhousie stands apart from the city, providing only slightly permeable space to those passing through. 

In my last year of my undergrad degree in geography, I was all excited to write a thesis based on some radical geographic theory: a body of literature called Urban Political Ecology.

But, because my prof adopted a baby, she couldn’t be my supervisor, and I didn’t end up writing my thesis. And i’m glad I didn’t — because if i did i would have spent a year wading through some pretty inaccessible academic jargon — prose, that through a body of technical language had seemed to lost its connection to the very subject matter it was dealing with.

And since i’m a pretty impressionable guy, after a year of research and study, I probably would have started speaking like this and lost my ability to genuinely engage with the content. But there was definitely some good stuff in there – so this post, first presented as a part of the Fuller Terrace Lecture Series, is inspired by what my thesis was going to be on, presented, in what I hope to be a more accessible, and poetic way.

But instead of calling it was going to be the many-subtitled name of my thesis:

Urban Political Ecology:

The Politics of Urban Nature and Urban Metabolism:

Urban Agriculture in Montreal:

The Politics of Food, Nature and Community

I’m going to go ahead and call it:

Even though it often doesn’t feel like it, it’s important to remember that cities are natural things.

Our popular culture has a very specific definition of the word natural, and, as a result, we tend to think of cities as the polar opposite of nature: which is to mean nature as pristine, untouched, isolated wilderness.

But, human activity cannot be viewed as external to the earth’s ecosystem, and cities are the natural outgrowths, physical manifestations of human energy and culture.

Put simply, cities are built out of natural elements from the earth, transformed through socially mediated processes into resources like building material and electricity.

As we can see from this brief history, there is nothing unnatural about halifax —

The city, atop a rock

which used to be covered in a natural forest of trees

the trees felled by human activity

and made into lumber

a forest of houses sprouted where there used to be a forest of trees,

houses built out of the wood of those trees

and though from farther away — the cranes that were erected

and the buildings of glass, concrete and steel that followed,

they too are built out of natural elements from the earth, used as building materials by humans.

Many branches of contemporary human geography seem to be in a conundrum. Maps and models of reality continue to be produced in immense quantities, conclusions are made that the maps and models are ineffective since they fail to capture certain non-quantifiable elements of reality, yet these maps and models continue to be made. In response to the relatively-made-up quality I have noticed in efforts to quantify geographic phenomena, for my GIS (Geographic Information Systems, essentially computerized maps), final project I decided to instead explore cognitive geography – something that could never be rendered accurately on a computer – with the intention of creating beautiful maps that evoked questions and stimulated reflection, rather than tricking myself into thinking that the maps I made were accurate or representative of reality.

Here are some of my final maps. They don’t really mean anything…but the idea that we all have a different city in our heads, yet can function perfectly well with each other is a lovely thought.