The doom and gloom of Robarts Library

Efficient and impersonal — the U of T experience in a nutshell

Tired, stooped, and seemingly unimpressed by it all, the towering Robarts Library dutifully watches over the intersection of St. George Street and Harbord Street. Its brutalist design and the contrasting stream of fresh-faced scholars pouring out of it make guests feel as if they’ve stumbled into a sad, strange, Soviet Hogwarts.

The library puts a spell on you: its gloomy character seems to seep right into you, whether you’re just slipping by or trudging through. Pedestrians passing by the cold, hard concrete tend to drop their gaze, grind their teeth, and dash away. Upstairs, between ancient bookshelves and dark, dingy corners, students hunch over desks and silently labour away — mirroring their equally dull surroundings.

Serving 60,595 UTSG students, storing millions of books, and soaring 14 storeys high, Robarts embodies U of T: big, efficient, and impersonal. Slowly, Robarts attacks your mood, your energy, your productivity.

Yet ‘Robarts syndrome’ isn’t an isolated phenomenon. There are pages upon pages of research that show how physical space and architecture affect our mental state.

‘Boring’ architecture has been shown to imbue feelings of fear and sadness. In one study, when participants quickened their pace while passing by dull-looking buildings, their mood levels took a dive.

Inside Robarts, its effects become even more pronounced. The combination of high ceilings and blue walls, which Robarts has, have been shown to boost creativity, but otherwise Robarts has a gloomy library interior severely lacking in natural light.

Dr. Alan Lewis, an architecture lecturer at Manchester University, has said that “visible light… helps to stimulate the body’s production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can reduce the symptoms of depression.” Visible light also “helps the human body to regulate the production of the hormone melatonin, which in turn helps to regulate our body clock, affecting sleep patterns and digestion.”

Sarah Goldhagen, an architecture critic, has also reported that when workers are exposed to natural light, they become 25 per cent more productive. Therefore, proximity to windows and what you can see through them matters to how productive your studying is.

In 1984, Roger Ulrich and his colleagues discovered that when hospital patients had a view of nature through their bedside window, they recovered an average of one day quicker, had fewer ‘post-surgical complications,’ and required fewer painkillers when compared to patients with a view of a brick wall.

While the context of busy students studying in Robarts is quite different from that of a hospital, most Robarts dwellers are subjected to an uninspiring panorama of bookshelves, the backs of necks, or just brick. The views from Robarts’ higher floors are breathtaking: skyscrapers and busy streets, dotted with tiny trees and pockets of green — but due to limited spaces in those areas, they’re hogged by a privileged few.

Taken together, these factors make up one bizarre, intimidating, yet awe-inspiring building. By understanding how ‘Robarts syndrome’ affects your mood, energy, and productivity, you can sidestep its pitfalls and try to lead a healthier, happier academic career.

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