Who might stage a highly visible protest on campus? The Dean and senior staff of the Faculty of Commerce don’t seem the most likely candidates, but that is just what happened in 1986. The faculty needed a large venue for course approval at the beginning of the year, but their booking for a suitable space was cancelled, bringing frustration over a lack of suitable accommodation to a head. In a highly practical protest, Michael Fay, the Dean, hired a large marquee for the lawn next to the Arts Building. Lyall McLean, Chair of the Department of Accounting and Finance, undertook the decoration, using helium balloons and a large banner labelling the tent the “new commerce building.” McLean, who succeeded Fay as Dean the following year, recalls that “it was good fun the first day but it rained the next and the lawn in front of the Arts Building became quite muddy.”
By 1986 the Commerce Faculty had been campaigning for a new building for over twenty years. Commerce had slow beginnings at Otago. Although economics was taught from the university’s outset, it was part of the Faculty of Arts until 1989. Teaching of other commerce subjects began in 1912 but remained for many years a part-time enterprise (for both students and staff). Full-time teaching began in the 1960s and student numbers increased rapidly over the following decades. Staff outgrew one of the old professorial houses (Black House) and moved in 1963 to the Zoology/Commerce Building (formerly the Dental School). They soon outgrew that space as well, and moved back to Black House and an additional five houses in Castle Street in 1970. Ten years later, the faculty moved into the eastern end of the library building, but soon had additional staff and facilities spread around the campus, including parts of the Archway Building and various buildings in Union Place, Albany Street and Castle Street. Student growth was particularly strong in the 1980s: while just over 700 students enrolled in the Faculty of Commerce in 1979, the number had doubled just six years later, in 1985, and almost doubled again by 1990.
Getting approval for an expensive new building was never easy, especially when decisions about capital projects were made on a national basis by the University Grants Committee. Once funding and operating costs were devolved to individual universities in 1989, the Commerce Division was finally able to convince the Otago authorities of the desperate need for a new building to house its expanding enterprise. Some, perhaps, recalled that 1986 tent. In 1989 planning for a new building began, construction commenced in 1990, some departments moved into their new premises at the end of 1991 and work was complete by the end of 1992.
Unfortunately, the choice of a tent to represent the new building proved somewhat prophetic. A major design feature of the building – a large central atrium with a partial glass cover – immediately became a major problem. Wind and rain entered the atrium through the gaps in the roof at rates far beyond the architects’ expectations. The supposedly non-slip atrium floor tiles did not meet expectations either, leading to numerous minor accidents and a more serious one in 1996 where a student broke their jaw. In 1997 the atrium’s glass cover was extended. Although this was a big improvement, the building remained somewhat vulnerable to the elements; further modifications took place in subsequent years. Not all the problems were due to design flaws: in 2004 earthquakes caused the atrium structure to move, leading to yet more repairs. Still, during a major downpour in 2005 water poured into the atrium and caused major damage to the adjacent computer room and teaching spaces.
The Commerce Building has many great features and was an enormous improvement on the facilities previously endured by commerce staff and students. I can’t help thinking, though, that the big tent was tempting fate!