Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rochdale College Remembered

Most Torontonians in their forties and up remember the social experiment that was Rochdale College, they might even have a good story to tell, but to those too young or new to the city it's just another concrete monolith. The eighteen-story-high brutalist structure at St. George and Bloor is the subject of Ron Mann's documentary, Dream Tower, and is also the result of a group of idealistic students in the late sixties who hoped to challenge reigning educational models.

They believed that students should have more control over curriculum, design and teach their own courses, as well as run the administration. Young people rallied behind the idea and its popularity grew, but space became a concern. There had been no central location for the school, so the feds gave them seed money - 5 million dollars - for the construction of a building for the college which would include a residence. The Rochdale dream was becoming a reality.

The design by architects Tampold and Wells was unique, accommodating for communal living and areas that were known as ashrams, each unit of which was independent and responsible for its own welfare. The free college accepted many kinds of people into the fray from hippies and homeless to drug-dealers and draft-dodgers, however the lack of regulation and direction resulted in chaos. Rochdale's student body soon couldn't reach consensus on anything, like what to do about their open door policy, and the school quickly became a haven for biker gangs, dealers and their clientele. Cops' visits then became so frequent some students would welcome them with freshly baked cakes.

Seven years later, in 1975, the Rochdale dream lost steam. Political pressure led to the school's closure. Police carried the last of the students out and welded the doors shut. Today a monument called the Unknown Student rests outside the building, now named the Senator David A. Croll Apartments. Not all of Rochdale's creativity went up in smoke however, the Rochdale movement helped propel the creative minds behind Toronto cultural institutions Coach House Press, House of Anansi Press and Theatre Passe Muraille.


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