By Verena Tay
You stand before the new teaching block. Concrete, glass and steel elongated and shaped at sharply, an architectural fantasy, a beast of engineering, a bold statement for the century ahead, a glamorous monument to inspire creativity. You shake your head and think otherwise. Why are buildings designed on a grand, unliveable scale and make people seem puny by comparison? Why is everything in lines and angles that contradict the curves of the human form? Just because this building is shaped irregularly does it really encourage people to think outside of a box?
As you contemplate the building, you realise that your hesitation to enter can be construed as homage and admiration for the monstrous edifice. You refuse to be pigeon-holed in such a manner. You no longer delay the inevitable. You take a deep breath in and step forward to enter the future of education.
For something that looks so big and imposing on the outside, the atrium is small and dark, a mere blank space to redirect you to where you need to go. There are no seats or warm nooks inviting you to meet with others, gather and discuss ideas. More worrisome are the profusion of overhead surveillance bubbles, badly disguised as ceiling ornamentation. You wonder what their functions are: to safeguard intellectual property, or to prevent undesirable intruders of a physical or metaphysical nature?
Quickly, you move away from the many eyes of Big Brother towards the lifts. You breathe a sigh of relief. At least these elevators are not the modern type you have encountered elsewhere, such that the controls to choose which floor you want to go to are located only in the lift lobbies and there are no buttons within the elevators themselves, reinforcing the notion that every time you enter such elevators you place your life totally in the control of an anonymous computer somewhere.
However despite being built with the latest technology, the lifts in this new teaching block move at a stately pace of a century ago and you grow impatient. So you decide to be healthy and do some cardiovascular exercise by using the stairs instead. As you walk up, you shake your head again. The staircase extends vertically in a peculiarly formed parallelogramatic white spiral, another silly design conceit supposedly to stimulate your creativity, but really makes no sense at all.
The fourth floor classrooms of disproportionate widths and heights have ceilings that are non-existent, exposing noisy air-con and miscellaneous other utility ducts. Along the floors, coffin-like long black metallic structures lie in regular rows forming writing tops that rigidly define where students and facilitators should sit for their tutorials. How are such fixed seated positions supposed to encourage teacher-student interaction and creative exploration, you speculate, as you sit trying your best to focus on what your teacher and fellow classmates are discussing across the divide and straining to hear them above the combined hums of the air-conditioning and the ubiquitous overhead projector? As if to punctuate the high point of the ensuing discussion, the automatic lights of the classroom suddenly shut off, jolting you, your classmates and your facilitator and reminding all of you that you co-exist with an incomprehensible, technological fiend.
During the break, you seek some personal relief. You go in search of the lavatory. When finally you find the room, enter a vacant cubicle, and sit on the toilet, you cannot even do your business in peace for every slight movement of your body induces the automatic censor to flush the loo. Your bum becomes wet from the spray of water and you are forced to use toilet paper to dry yourself. But in vain, for every time you twist your body to reach your bum, you set off more water cascades from the automatic flush. And when you turn your torso to the right, you notice an emergency call button at the same level as the manual flush and you wonder with niggling alarm why such a knob needs to be located at that spot.
At last you exit the cubicle and are ready to wash your hands. For a new building, you think that the liquid soap dispenser would work fine. You press the piston once and a thin dribble of soap falls into your waiting fingers. It is not enough. You try to press the dispenser once more, but fail, because the piston is stuck at its end point and you have to manually dislodge it in order to free more liquid soap. In a similar and yet different fashion to the loo, the automatic tap in the sink is ultra-efficient. Only when your hands are in a certain position will the water flow freely.
After washing your hands, you dry them with a thankfully low-tech option: paper towels. However as you pull at one towel, you displace a whole wad that you quickly catch. As you try to stuff the extra towels back into their container, you at last notice one more thing about the toilet. It shudders, vibrates, heaves. Violently. Possibly because it sits next to some room that contains the mechanical viscera of the building that keeps it functioning on its own logic. You feel the room, the building, can collapse at any moment. Memories of the 1986 Hotel New World disaster flood through your mind. You do not want to be trapped by falling concrete and steel beams. So you rush out of the toilet, away from the belly of the beast, away from your apprehensions. And though you want to leave the building, you stay, for your purpose there is not over yet.
It is time for your lecture. Not just any old lecture, the recording of which you can download and watch from the comfort of your home. You gather with your peers in a huge hall, eager to benefit from top gurus simultaneously discussing the finer points of your area of interest through a special international 'webinar' or webcam conference linking four cities around the globe. Oh, the wonders of technology allowing you to connect with people all over the world cheaply and effectively without the hassle and expense and wasted time of physical travel!
But you wait… and wait… and wait… for the web links to come online and stabilise. Finally you stare at the large projection screen in the lecture hall and strain to hear the scratchy audio pick up and transmission from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away that interferes with the gurus delivering their speeches and arguing out their points. So you grow frustrated because you are not learning anything new, and you become even more upset when the webinar overruns in time and your attention drifts towards figuring how you are going to negotiate peak hour traffic to reach home. Then you wonder why in the first place couldn't you have stayed at home to tune into the webinar from there? Why have you spent a precious afternoon in this overrated building filled with fancy gadgetry that is being paid for out of your expensive school fees which could have been better used to fly in those gurus for a more productive face-to-face conference in the first place...
At last the webinar is over and you rush along with thousands of others to catch the train home. The crush of bodies within the train carriage increases your ill humour. When at last you arrive home, you behave stupidly out of habit: you immediately check your email and find within your inbox something that boggles your mind and sends your anger to the roof because it is utter proof that Big Brother has been watching your every move during the entire day. There is an e-mail from the student administration asking you to rate the quality of the new teaching block (including the toilets) so that service can be improved. You delete the offending document and then execute the only thing you can do effectively at the end of a long and trying day. You march into your bathroom, strip away the costume of academia, cool down under the low-tech shower, close your eyes and dream of white beaches and green mountains.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013