End of an era? Musings on the closure of Chamberlain

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The University has just confirmed that Chamberlain Halls will be “out of use” from summer 2011.

Chamberlain, as the university accommodation website proudly states, was designed by Basil Spence, a Scottish architect responsible for several bizarre, radical and visually striking buildings, including Hyde Park Barracks, Coventry Cathedral, the New Zealand Parliament’s ‘Beehive’, and a nuclear power plant in North Wales. (They all sound dull, but it’s worth taking a moment to Google any of the above: they’re all very weird buildings indeed.)

I lived in Chamberlain last year, and its debatable architectural value was the least of my priorities! But thinking back through the mists of time and the fog of beer, some of my personal experiences in the depths of ‘Chambers’ actually support the case for its closure.

When I first met my flatmates, we were all painfully aware that our grim-looking Hall wasn’t as pleasant as near neighbours South Hill and Hartley Grove. We consoled ourselves with the fact that when we drew back our curtains in the morning (or afternoon!) we got a lovely view of South Hill, whereas everyone else’s panorama was blighted by Chamberlain!

Our Hall had its flaws. We were left without hot water for weeks, making cold showers a necessity in the middle of November. In summer, we were invaded by pigeons that nested in the roof and then flew into the corridor through gaps in the ceiling. We also had the surreal experience of repeated visits from men in suits, carrying clipboards (presumably surveyors and not the FBI). Alarmingly, our door-frames needed emergency maintenance, as they were visibly crumbling!

So Chamberlain may have gone into terminal structural decline. However, the main value of Chambers has always been its atmosphere. I know that every single hall in Southampton considers itself the most united, the most sociable, the loudest and so on… but even though I’ve never been a wild party animal, I could appreciate the spirit of sociability and togetherness in Chambers. Having our own bar certainly helped, and its importance seems to have grown this year. As Jess Staff pointed out during the SUSU elections, Chamberlain had a hugely profitable Freshers’ Week: the takings on several individual nights were especially massive, which normally indicates that people are having a good time and want to stay put.

The demise of Chamberlain will also influence Southampton’s student politics. Six of the past eight SUSU Presidents have been former residents of Chamberlain, so clearly living there gives wannabe politicians some sort of advantage. Once it closes, our voting patterns in future SUSU elections may change. We shall see.

Along with the rooms, Chamberlain’s dining hall will also be closing. While never likely to earn the praise of Michel Roux, the food is varied and provides the necessary stodge to line the stomach ahead of a night out. The whole of Glen Eyre will be self-catered next year; South Hill’s kitchens are large enough to survive being self-catered, but it is likely that J-Block’s kitchens will be enlarged by knocking them through into adjacent bedrooms. This will further reduce the number of places in Halls for 2011-12.

What will spring up in Chamberlain’s place? Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be small. Student numbers are set to rise and rise, so my money’s on a giant accommodation block, probably taller than the current Hall. If there’s one thing senior management like, it’s a big shiny building that they can point out proudly on visit days. I suspect a few of them thought Derek Mallinson’s plan for a ‘Burj Highfield’ wasn’t such a bad idea.

The vast majority of graduates will tell you that university halls and houses have always tended to have tiny rooms, dubious kitchens and creaky plumbing. It has even been said that the best atmosphere can be found in the worst halls!

However, the cost of a university education is rising, and the experience is set to become less of a rite-of-passage and more of a business investment. Put plainly, university will be like any other commodity: the more we pay, the better we want it to be. However, most of us get by at home without an en-suite bathroom, for example.

What quality of accommodation is satisfactory, and what quality we have the right to expect, are questions yet to be answered. But whatever replaces it, I know I’ll miss Chamberlain.

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