Robarts and Brutalism

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how design conveys intention. Of course, one of the best examples we’ve read so far is The Zimbabwe Bush Pump (de Laet & Mol, 2000). And, of course, one of the best examples we’ve heard is the doorknob. As Galey and Rucker (2010) describe: “even doorknobs have politics in that they may be round, requiring a human hand to turn them, or shaped as levers, such that a person with a prosthetic limb or an armload of groceries with one free elbow can still successfully use them” (p. 3). Let’s apply the method to a familiar building:


Robarts exemplifies how the U of T administration envisioned the function of a university library. Designed in the style of architecture known as “brutalism,” the John P. Robarts Library, U of T’s largest individual library, came into existence as a graduate-only zone. In other words, the so-called Fort Book permitted MA and PhD researchers to enter the stacks (floors 9 through 13) but forced undergraduates to recall items from below. For reasons of exclusivity, therefore, the architects designed two elevator systems for the building, incorporated study carols right into the walls of each floor, and commissioned furniture intended to promote intense learning (e.g., desks incorporating high sides to block peripheral vision). To promote controlled movement of the academic researchers at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the librarians at the Faculty of Information, the designers connected the buildings via a mezzanine fourth floor. However, early on in Robarts’ history, undergraduate protests led to the building being repurposed.

Since U of T’s undergraduates managed to get access to the stacks, U of T’s administration has since renovated Robarts to make it user friendly. For example, although they’ve left intact the elaborate conveyor belt system originally conceived to facilitate staff retrievals, they’ve removed a considerable number of books. Now the library has large open spaces, with wide tables, in the apexes. Once solid, the walls of the study rooms are now made of glass. And of course, just a year ago much of floor two was outside!


Gayley, A. & Ruecker, S. (2010). How a prototype argues. Literary and Linguistic Computing Advance 25 (4), 405–424.

de Laet, M. & Mol, A. (2000). The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology. Social Studies of Science 30 (2), 225–263.

One thought on “Robarts and Brutalism

  1. Hi Josh,
    Great post. I’ve definitely seen that picture around, and it always struck me as funny, because I really cannot imagine a reason why anyone would want to tattoo Robarts on their arm. I’ve always thought Robarts was a very distinctive building, but I’ve never been a fan of it’s design. It looks like a prison, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so, as it was actually used to film parts of the prison scenes in Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010). I’m not sure if that says something about the intention of Robarts, or how I see Robarts.

    In terms of design conveying intention, I assume like me, you’ve been thinking about this in relation to your research design. I know in my case, I’ve been struggling with making sure my research design can be justified by my theoretical framework. I understand the purpose of utilizing the theory in terms of “…showing that the research practice ahas been disciplined and offers a reasonable way of getting information that allows claims to be plausibly made” (Knight 2002, p. 125). However, I feel like I’m going backwards. I’ve had an idea of what my design would be from Assignment 2, but trying to find a theoretical framework that falls magically into place with it doesn’t seem to be working – which is why I’ve been reassessing my design. Maybe others have been having the same problem?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s