As an ex-resident of David Russell Apartments, I can tell you first-hand how energy-sapping an environment can be. Don’t get me wrong, as far as student accommodation goes, DRA is fantastic: own room, own bathroom, own flat, all three (relatively) clean and (relatively) modern. However, one would be hard-pressed to find much to compliment about its architectural style, which can only be described as an original mixture of an Alpine chalet and a Soviet housing block—the Stalingstaadt style if you will. How gloomy it is to walk back from class when it is cold and dark at 4pm, to have to meander through a complex of identical white buildings to find your own, to get into your white cube of a room and into bed, all to wake up in the morning to dark skies and repeat the previous day.
I found myself wondering why it is that so many of our university buildings are so objectively ugly and drab. It seems logical that being in such environments would foster unease rather than productivity, depression rather than studiousness. Would students not be more inspired and creative in a prettier environment, is it not better for their well-being to be there? There’s a reason why finding a spot in King James’ Library is a near impossible task: people wish to work in beautiful, human buildings, because it makes them feel better. Conversely, all those who have spent late nights working in the Main Library will understand how awful it can be to spend hours in brutalist buildings with no soul. Why is it that our post-war University buildings are just so ugly; why is it that we can’t have human buildings?
The University of St Andrews is a great and venerable institution, founded in 1413 and a very proud member of the ‘Stoxbridge’ club, for all those who somehow might have missed the memos. However, for all its greatness, the historical size of the school means that a great deal of its buildings and accommodation are modern. Now, modern does not mean bad—this is not some reactionary treaty for making buildings the ‘good old way’—but older buildings do have the advantage of feeling so much more human; they don’t feel prefabricated or purely functional. However, it often seems as if that human element has been sacrificed on the altar of simplicity, modernism, and cost-efficiency.
What we need, not only in the world at large but specifically as a university whose architectural focus should be on creating an environment which promotes concentration, study, and, (one would hope) well-being, is human architecture. By this I mean buildings with a soul, with useless decoration, with small cosy rooms as well as large grand ones, with light which isn’t that cold blue LED hue, with natural materials, and especially with colour (other than blue and grey, I beg). We need buildings which we like to be in today, and which two-hundred years from now people will still like. Sadly, for all of the Science buildings’ charm, DRA’s beauty, or Andrew Melville Hall’s homey feel, I doubt there will be much more appreciation for them down the line than there is now.
It would be unfair and unreasonable to be demanding all University buildings to be refitted and redesigned to a human scale, and one must see that there isn’t unlimited money to do so either. However, in new buildings being constructed, and those due for refurbishment, I do hope the University will give more weight to the question of aesthetic beauty and the human scale. Let St Andrews be a bastion of buildings its students want to be in, rather than a collection of grey bunkers its students can’t escape.
Illustration by Magdalena Yiacoumi