Good to the last drop

The corporatization of McGill University continues unabated, threatening the future of the successful student-run architecture café.

In the early ’90s, for a senior studio course entitled Design and Construction, graduating McGill architecture students installed the furnishings for a café in an abandoned, semi- basement space in the Macdonald-Harrington building. The following year, with the addition of secondhand couches, tables, chairs, and a lunch counter made from recouped materials, the café sprang to life.

Canadian Interiors, October/November 2007

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The Architecture Café, a clandestine canteen run by architecture students, has fed an entire generational cohort at McGill. Since 1993, students from all faculties flocked to this cozy 600-square-foot den. It’s an informal hangout and grassroots café hawking Fair Trade coffee and light snacks.

This year, the Architecture Café has become a victim of its own success. Clutching their own mugs, the long lines of students snaking up the stairs in the Macdonald-Harrington building may have been the last straw. McGill’s administration wants the café closed–now. It’s favouring big-business food service contractors and squeezing out the most successful of the few student-run businesses on campus.

“The biggest issue is that the university didn’t contact the students at the School of Architecture. We only found out because our faculty is fully in favour of us using the space as we wish,” said Jessica Dan, President of the Architecture Students’ Association (ASA). “This is completely out of the blue.”

On July 18, David Covo, former Director and current faculty member of McGill’s School of Architecture received an e-mail ultimatum from McGill’s Ancillary Services about the fate of Room G6. There’s a future meeting arranged, but it looks like McGill will pull the plug on the ramshackle, bric-a-brac and much-loved Architecture Café.

“Previously, our best shot at staying alive was no advertising or publicity. Now it’s the exact opposite. Public awareness about the Architecture Café is our best hope of saving it,” explained Ms. Dan. There’s even a group dedicated to this new cause on Facebook, a social networking Internet site popular among university students. She’s hoping the ASA’s awareness campaign will result in widespread public pressure on university administrators to reverse their decision.

Perhaps this showdown is in part due to the price of coffee. The Architecture Café sells their blend of organic, Fair Trade beans for a mere $1 a cup–50 cents if students bring their own reusable mugs. Elsewhere on campus, run-of-the-mill, pesticide-laced, free-market, Styrofoam-cupped coffee costs almost $2.

For nearly 15 years, university officials turned a blind eye, allowing the Architecture Café to fly under the radar. The small-scale café coexisted with the food service conglomerates, like the multinational Chartwells, which runs all the other cafeterias on campus.

Can you be too successful? Apparently so. Across campus, in the economics department, they can’t help but wonder. How much did the Architecture Café’s soaring market share and dumping of coffee at low prices contribute to it landing in hot water?

“The nice thing about the Architecture Café is how it was ad hoc, low-key and independent,” said McGill Architecture’s Professor Pieter Sijpkes, whose Design and Construction students built the original café. “The university’s going in the wrong direction on this. It doesn’t have to do anything–just let the café happen.”

About mmcontentatlarge journalist | copywriter | producer/editor

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