A Gullgotia’s Diary – 2, Canadian architecture in rural U. P.

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(See here for A Gullgotia’s Diary – 1)

In my defense, I must point out that I was not the only gull of Galgotias. In their effort to brand themselves as “world-class” institutions, India’s private universities are rushing to fill their websites with the credentials of “international faculty,” and Galgotias University is no exception.  Some twenty-odd professors had been recruited that year from the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t take most of us long to discover that we’d been had.

For there was a yawning gap between image and reality, between what we were promised and what we were given. The place lacked the basic infrastructure of a university. The library, which seemed about the size of a mid-sized Crosswords or Borders bookstore, had a few dozens of copies of engineering textbooks, and that was about it. It had not a single–not one–book of literature. Okay, I know, it’s a new university, so we should give it time to build. But it wasn’t only lacking in what had not yet been built, it was lacking in what had already been built.

Take, for instance, the one semi-completed building that the university was housed in, a bland and uninspired clone of the corporate office buildings that dot the landscape of Indian cities today.  (It was the template for Building #2, which was in the almost-not-yet-finished-but-already-wrecked stage when I left.) It’s a mundane place, an imposing stone-and-glass building with shiny floors, ceiling-to-floor glass walls on the inside, an open, echoing atrium, and large corporate logos splashed across the walls as you enter. “If the university fails, they’ll just convert it into a mall,” we often joked, and we believed it too.

It was supposedly designed by a Canadian architect, because, as we all know, there are no architects in India. This architectural genius seems to have had little regard for the local climate, or for indigenous architectural preferences and practices, or for the ecological footprint of this 21st-century campus. The hermetically sealed classrooms and offices, with heat-trapping glass walls and roofing, necessitate central air-conditioning, while the building’s spatial orientation blocks the cooling breezes that sweep across the flat farmland all around.

The atrium, which creates this greenhouse effect, also echoes the way a mall does. With no shade or shelter outside the building, let alone an adequate canteen, the students had no other space in which to hang out than the hallways. The din was continuous and unrelenting. So while teaching, you had to shut the doors to block the noise, but you couldn’t open the windows because … there weren’t any. Mind you, this isn’t Shimla or Bangalore but Delhi, where 40 degrees celsius is considered balmy. What would it take to centrally air-condition this absurd structure? Shouldn’t a university, in this day and age, build more responsibly, taxing the earth less? Of course, given management’s priorities, there was no air-conditioning installed, so the classrooms simply became saunas; if you will, sweatshops in at least this very narrow sense of the word.

The massive glass windows and the glass roofing came crashing down one day, thanks to a freak hailstorm, flooding the entire building. It was the janitorial staff (referred to at GU as “housekeeping staff” in the jargon of corporate hotels) who got the short end of the stick, as they were made to work extra hard to keep the floors and stairways dry as the rain kept pouring in the following day.

working conditions

This corporate campus gave me a better appreciation for the wonderfully airy buildings that house my alma mater, St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, or the green, leafy campus that houses JNU, or the staid, yet whimsical design of Bangalore University’s Jnanabharati campus. Built in a different time, these campuses reflected a now-passé aesthetic that was pragmatic yet wistful, that offered structure but also space, that felt solid yet malleable. University campuses ought to be welcoming spaces, spaces that take you in, that make you feel both secure and adventurous, spaces that you don’t want to ever leave because you feel creative and imaginative in them, because you feel inspired by them.

The New York-based Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE) points out that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. If so, then by design (if I may be allowed the pun), corporate universities and corporate aesthetics also inculcate corporate values in students; no wonder one often heard students at Galgotia’s refer to their university as a “Good Brand.”

The building is imposing and austere on the outside, like a prison, but also like a badly designed (and poorly constructed) giant replica of a fourth-grader’s drawing of a microchip. If it is imposing on the outside, once you enter, you find yourself in familiar space, in what passes for “public space” in neoliberal India: the mall. Here’s a teeny-weeny glimpse of it on a 4-second video that someone uploaded, titled “Galgotias University like a mall”. While the atrium gives it a sense of space, the offices and classrooms are claustrophobic, with junior faculty crammed into cabins no wider than the chair they’re sitting on, and students seated almost one on top of the other in closely-packed classrooms and lecture halls. These mini-auditoria and gallery-style lecture rooms are, once again, the stuff of corporate “training” arenas: regimented, rigid and cramped. Overhead CCTV cameras, likewise a surveillance device of the age of neoliberal labor management, were a ubiquitous presence, a disciplining force meant for teachers and taught alike. It is clear as day that these buildings, these classrooms, were not designed by educators or by anyone with experience in higher ed.

A constant clamor of students’ “indiscipline” reverberated through the building. For weeks on end, every loud bang from the hammers of construction workers–which will remain the audio backdrop to GU life for the foreseeable future–was greeted by a loud “whooooaaa” from groups of students, each group relaying the call, until it grew to a deafening and, it seemed to me, defiant, roar. By the third or fourth day of the week, each week, the effects of the claustrophobia of this building were visible in the pushing and shoving in elevators, the impatience on the narrow stairways. It fostered a kind of aggression, especially among the male students. Now and then, this aggression broke out into fistfights and brawls, and on at least one occasion a faculty member was involved. It was an adrenalin-charged environment, as young men sought to not only assert their authority over their peers but to give the mall university management the finger.

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(Part memoir, part commentary, part unapologetic rant, A Gullgotia’s Diary hopes to reach you before Galgotias does. Stay tuned for more.)

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