Photos: University of St Andrews

Why Are Science Buildings So Ugly?

The North Haugh is a stain on the historic beauty of St Andrews.

A part of me feels for International Relations students in second year. After what the module coordinator confessed was the “shit show” of last semester’s exams, the survivors of this ordeal faced yet another daunting challenge on entering this one. Instead of scheduling our lectures in the familiar Buchanan theatre, the administrators, in their infinite wisdom, chose a slightly different venue. The quad? The Arts building? A course as popular as IR deserves something a bit grander than that. As a result, on a dreary Tuesday afternoon, I found myself going to a place I associated only with exams and those irritating students who somehow find time to exercise: The North Haugh.

It’s no secret that different subjects attract different crowds. But one of the greatest divides there is, is between the students who choose to pursue arts and those pursuing sciences. One reason could be the curriculum in St Andrews in which the majority of us are unable to study arts and science subjects simultaneously. However, the divide is perhaps best illustrated in the locations of our respective buildings. While arts students have the historic quads, the smart Arts Building and the somewhat rusty Buchanan theatre, science students seem to occupy their own concrete fortress: a string of vast, brutalist bastions staring down the sea. The two locations aren’t even that far away. But the difference couldn’t be starker.

Photo: University of St Andrews

Every time I used to pass through the North Haugh, I felt a kind of patronising pity for the students who spent their days there. What was the use in being in such a beautiful town if they surrounded themselves with buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in an Orwellian dystopia? But now, thanks to a karmic quirk of fate, I myself had become one of those them. Along with three hundred other IR students, we walked into the heart of the North Haugh, checking occasionally to make sure this was indeed the correct venue.

The inside of the building, in fairness, wasn’t too bad. The lecture hall had handy hangers outside, though not many were in use. It was warm, very necessary for the onslaught of a Scottish January. But the inside, if not as offensive as its exterior, was just a little strange. First, the steep angle of the theatre gave an imposing, almost galactic vibe. Then there were the cumbersome wooden tables that slid out of the seat in front with as much silence and subtlety you would expect, perfect for the latecomers trying not to attract attention. A particular highlight was the projector that jutted at such an angle so that the lecture slides were no match for the silhouettes of incoming students, replacing the module outlines with outlines of disembodied heads and rucksacks for a short while.

Photo: Geograph

I don’t want to be overly-critical of the North Haugh. Venues in the centre of town can be far from perfect themselves. And there may be some individuals who feel quite at home in their concrete bastions, comfortably detached from the posturing and pontification of the less scientifically inclined. However, I don’t think many of us can honestly say that the science buildings are anything other than ugly. And I don’t think there’s much that we can realistically expect to be done about it.

We arts students may have a more difficulty getting a job and convincing employers that understanding Guinean trade policies from a Marxist perspective counts as a transferable skill. But one thing’s for sure. We should be glad we don’t have to put up with the bleak, soviet-style abyss that is the North Haugh. So while I do feel for the IR students in second year, I can’t help but feel even sorrier for our scientific cousins who spend their days so close yet so very, very far from the historic beauty of the town we share. At least I will until they get a job. Then it may be their turn to regard us with a patronising pity all of their own.

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