Montreal is quite possibly the largest college town in North America: our four universities, concentrated in the centre of the city, bustle with more than 150,000 students every day. Add tens of thousands more faculty and staff in the mix and you have an enormous number of people who spend most of their lives at these cities-within-the-city. Each campus is, in many ways, a self-contained society with its own culture and sense of identity. Often enough, it’s the public spaces within these universities that shape that identity. For instance, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Concordia’s atmosphere differs considerably from that of McGill because its campus is so resolutely urban, in contrast to McGill’s aloof, more traditional setting on the side of the mountain.
So what happens when those public spaces are degraded or taken away? When a gathering space that brings together students and faculty from across the campus is closed, part of a university’s spirit must surely die with it.
That’s what is happening right now at McGill: the Architecture Café, a non-profit, student-run space in the basement of the School of Architecture, has been ordered closed by the university administration. The justification is that these kinds of student cafés are a liability; one incident and McGill finds itself in untold amounts of legal trouble. (Of course, this begs the question: isn’t everything about the university a liability? What happens if a student breaks his neck on the marble steps of the Arts Building?) Naturally enough, students aren’t giving up without a fight, so the café’s management has launched a campaign to prevent this student space from closing.
The Architecture Café, however, does operate far differently from McGill’s other cafeterias. Its 40 employees, including six managers, are all architecture students who otherwise tend to spend their time sequestered in studios.
“This café allows us to interact with the entire student body,” said Aurore Paluel-Marmont, the café’s food manager. “We have exhibitions of our work and we also get a lot of business experience from working here.”
The café also collaborates with campus environmental groups, including Gorilla Composting, to which it donates its used coffee grounds. Customers who bring their own mug get a 50-per-cent discount on coffee.
If the Architecture Café closes, Dan said, the outside community will also feel the impact. All of its suppliers are based near McGill: The organic, fair-trade coffee comes from Santropol; the muffins come from Café Rencontre on Park Ave. and the churros and quesadillas come from a local cook.
But the biggest shock would be to the student community. A large part of the Architecture Café’s appeal lies in its low prices: Its coffee and food is roughly half as costly as the fare at McGill’s licensed cafeterias. The most expensive cup of coffee, for instance, is $1, tax included. Under McGill’s proposal to covert the space into a centrally operated cafeteria, Starbucks coffee would be sold for $1.92 plus tax.
Also be sure to check out a sidebar on student café’s at UQAM. It wasn’t published on the Gazette’s website but it’s available at Urbanphoto.
The Architecture Café, which is located in the basement of the Macdonald-Harrington Building at McGill, will be open today to give away free coffee. Remember to bring your own mug. For McGill students, it’s possibly the last chance to experience the last student-run public space at school. For everyone else, it’s a good lunchtime excuse to explore one of the prettiest buildings at McGill. Go check it out.
Photo by John Kenney of the Gazette