“That is the most complicated building at UVic,” warns a lanky guide leading a half-dozen incoming students on a campus orientation tour in late August. He’s pointing at—what else?—the infamously labyrinthine Cornett Building, bane of students for over 40 years. In a delicious coincidence I’ve eavesdropped on this comment while walking towards the Cornett to begin researching the history, myths, and reality of a building whose perverse layout has given many psychology students their first inkling of what madness surely feels like.
My Sherpa is Psychology Prof. Robert Gifford, who has had an office here since the late 1970s. An environmental psychologist, Gifford also specializes in what is sometimes referred to as the psychology of buildings. “I’m interested in the ‘human’ side of building design, what’s known as ‘social design,’” explains the affable Gifford. “The idea is to talk to a building’s prospective users first, and get their input into how the building needs to function.” Gifford trots out a well-polished quotation to further make his point: “The best person to design the next building is the janitor who knows the last building really well.”
It sure doesn’t take an expert to spot numerous quirks while stumbling through the Cornett. On some floors you can only access the floor below, and not the one above. There are the elevator buttons on the first floor that only show that the elevator goes down. And staggered corridors mean that there’s not a clear line of sight. According to secretaries who work there, it’s common for a visitor to ask for directions, and then show up 10 minutes later, more lost than ever. “Some of them are embarrassed, and a few are literally in tears,” adds Gifford. Even veteran employees still find that’s it’s best to enter through the closest door if they want to get to their destination without any hiccups. And woe betide anyone who attempts a “shortcut” through the basement: parts of the building simply do not connect with each other underground.
According to Cheryl Gonnason, who worked in the Psychology office for 15 years, there’s a story about a late-working professor who could not find his way out of the building and so slept on a couch till morning. “That one’s probably apocryphal,” admits Gonnason. “But what I know for sure is that a prof (from) another building on campus told me the way he found his way up to a third-floor seminar room in Cornett, where he had a class, was to follow one of his students.”
A common urban myth is that the Cornett’s design was derived from the human brain. “Some of the guides used to repeat that one to incoming students,” recalls Gifford. “When I found out about it I asked them to stop, because it’s a complete fabrication.”
Possibly the strangest episode in the Cornett’s history occurred in the mid-1970s. UBC Engineering students raided the building late one night and literally bricked up a couple of corridors with concrete blocks. Although outright vandalism, it was also a satirical comment on the building’s reputation for impenetrability.
Officially opened in 1967, the Cornett was dedicated to the social sciences such as psychology, geography, and anthropology. Originally named the Social Sciences Complex, it was rechristened in honour of Thomas Warren Cornett, a gifted professor of history at Victoria College who drowned in Shawnigan Lake in 1924. The building was designed by noted local architect John Di Castri, who died three years ago. According to fellow architect Chris Gower, BA ’77, “Di Castri was one of Victoria’s most original and creative architects and his preference for detail over modernist minimalism can be seen in the Cornett’s decorative complexity.” Gower contends that the Cornett is a true ‘60s architectural showpiece: “Although it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s one of the few buildings that really defines UVic.”
Some critics waggishly point out that members of the psychology and geography faculties gave considerable input to Di Castri—implying they contributed to the building’s maze-like failings. The truth, according to Gifford, is very different. Several years ago, Di Castri spoke to one of Gifford’s classes about the Cornett and said the building had originally been four related but distinct structures—“Like three-storey townhouses, with the different faculties each contained discretely in separate buildings.” But UVic was growing rapidly back then, and it wasn’t long before those buildings were merged, with offices and classrooms scattered about with little thought to the integrity of the original design. “I guess you can fault Di Castri for not foreseeing the future,” Gifford insists, “but that future wasn’t his vision for the building.”
Gifford clearly has a lot of affection for the Cornett. Although he’s a possible victim of Stockholm Syndrome, many of his comments are persuasive. “The Cornett’s ‘difficulties’ have obscured the fact that this is one of the most architecturally interesting buildings on campus,” he claims. “There is an attractively monastic feel to it, especially the courtyard with its heavy columns that evoke Oxford’s medieval buildings.” He also praises the Cornett’s varied façade and how the building utilized several different building materials, including local metamorphic rock. That the stairwells have windows giving attractive views outside to the campus is, in Gifford’s view, further evidence of Di Castri’s sensitivity as a designer. “Plus the Cornett has windows that actually open,” he smiles. “These days, that’s one of the first things that people ask for.”
Even with the prodigious spate of building that’s happening on campus, the Cornett is likely to remain a star. Always destined to be a challenge—Gifford admits that even now he only has a firm grasp of no more than half the building—the Cornett continues to perplex all who venture there. But motivation is a great teacher, and it is worth remembering that, many years ago, The Martlet revealed that the Psychology Reading Room was rated one of the top 10 places on campus to make love. Quick, now! What floor was that on again?