Board member news

The Poetry of the Centre for Student Life

The columns of the Centre for Student Life

It’s been a learning curve far steeper than the gracious curvature of the colonnaded building along Park Place or even the raking angle of its lecture theatre (one enters on the first floor but exits on the third – you do the geometry).

Taking on the role of Executive Sponsor for the Centre for Student Life and overseeing the last major phase of the construction and of what’s called the ‘Service Redesign’ (involving the internal day-to-day services, operational dynamics and all-important student-centred culture of the building) have meant upskilling (fast) and learning new technical languages in order fully to understand how such a sector-leading building is designed, constructed and populated for the benefit of our students, present and future.

As Executive Sponsor also of the sbarc I spark building, I thankfully had a head start, and the superb colleague-and-student teams delivering both enterprises were there from the beginning to answer my questions, respond to my challenges and illuminate the myriad complex histories, stakeholder relationships, contracts, sub-contracts, networks and supply chains out of which these people-focused buildings have risen. Still, being on top of the detail – from the design of the soap dispensers and the precise nature of the cladding, glazing and ‘acoustic finishing’ – while retaining hold of the guiding vision for the building is often testing. One might think that a career researching English literature in the age of the French Revolution, and publishing collections of poetry, do not represent the most practical preparations for such a role. Possibly; and yet, my fascination with the effects of language has been at the heart of my great enjoyment of this project. What I’d like to offer here (I very much hope from left field) are some remarks on the poetry – or poetries – of the Centre for Student Life.

Each month I chair the project’s Overarching Steering Board. The latest ‘Construction Update’ began with the gloriously forthright and unvarnished statement ‘No accidents have occurred in the last month’ before immersing us all, bracingly, in the layered technical vocabulary of ‘commuted sums’, ‘beneficial access’, ‘A/20/00093MNR’ and ‘Public Realm works’. The discourse of the Centre for Student Life never allows you to remain in a single linguistic groove: you yo-yo, energisingly, between the technical and the more demotic – between ‘storage pond drainage’ and shower cubicles; between the ‘Service Redesign Transition Plan’ and high winds; between ‘snagging’ and ‘You’re on Mute, Damian’; between ‘Contingency Drawdown’ and toasters; between ‘road surface scarification’ and student consultation rooms.

The name of our constructor is BAM. The name comes round in the papers and in our zoom discussions like the multicoloured bat-fight words from the 1960s Batman (Biff! Bam! Pow!). (Our furniture supplier is called BOF.) The metaphorical life of the enterprise is also endlessly fascinating: we are currently ‘mid-flight’, and discussions and decisions need to ‘land’. I am asked for my view of ‘Pantone 555, softened to 80%’ for the workshop rooms and the student and public space on the second floor, and how suited ‘Pantone 527’ is to the Wellbeing waiting area (for 121 student appointments) on the fourth floor. I like them very much, I say, given that the former is a classy shade of olive and the latter a distinguished tint of purple. And the poetry of acronyms! – CCC, DMA, NWR, TFW, AKIL, NPV – all part of the pared-down, shorthand lexis that is both specialist and co-owned.

Often, I spot a found poem in our colleague Richard Clement’s excellent Construction Updates; all one has to do is lineate them (the following from this month’s):

Glazed screens
            have been installed
to the office area
                        along with
and window

The final coat
            of decorations
has commenced
and the atrium scaffolding

Beautiful that, like the building. Even ‘Completed IPS cubicles to main toilet areas’ has a rhythm I like, and what’s not to admire in the formulation ‘Lecture theatre belly has been boarded’? Then there are words like ‘screeded’ (made smooth and true through the application of a specialised aluminum tool); phrases to conjure with such as ‘waved ceilings’ and ‘gravity and syphonic drainage’; and again those uncanny moments in the verbal and aural experience of a meeting where one doesn’t know whether what’s being reported on is the material building itself or what will be sold by Greggs on the ground floor: ‘thermacoustic wrap’ and ‘hot melt works’.

And so I see no difference between the Centre for Student Life and a good poem – the latter, for me, being a carefully assembled ecology in which a new perception is articulated by means of a verbal construction where every element is tightly bound, working together to change the reader’s perception of the world. ‘A good poem,’ Dylan Thomas said, ‘is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe’. Good poem, note. The Centre for Student Life is a good poem; its intelligently designed spaces and holistic interconnected services are a material (in all senses) contribution to the shape of our students’ (poetic, we trust) futures.