Out With the New, In With the Old

Hitting the Benchmark Project Makes Use of the Unused

Debbie So and Thomas Rowlinson find new forms and purposes for abandoned objects. photo courtesy of debbie so
photo courtesy of debbie so
photo courtesy of debbie so

Concordia students already have good reason to be jealous of the McGill campus, with its lush green space and enduring architectural design (sorry, Hall building). But now two urban design students are making McGill just a little bit greener.

Using a grant issued by McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund, Debbie So and Thomas Rowlinson decided to repurpose some of the university’s least-recyclable refuse into public benches.

“We wanted to get people to see campus space in a different light,” said So. “We asked McGill Campus and Space Planning, ‘What aren’t you using? What are you going to throw away?’”

You’d be surprised at the answer.

“There’s one building that McGill had condemned, so they’re just using it as a warehouse for all the stuff they’re either throwing out or in the process of getting rid of,” said Rowlinson. “We spent a few days just going through some of the stuff in there, and it was just filled with all this incredible junk.”

“We found a room that was just a pile of chairs, like a mountain of chairs,” added So. “They can’t get rid of this stuff. They tried to sell it for cheap, they tried to donate it, and no one’s going to take it, so it kind of just goes to the dump. So we just corralled all of this stuff into our friend’s basement and started taking it apart.”

“We tried to get materials that McGill was specifically having a hard time getting rid of, or didn’t really see any way to repurpose already,” said Rowlinson.

One of the benches is a salvaged yellow shipping container for large paint cans, which So and Rowlinson converted into planters. A discarded bookshelf and some broken table legs salvaged from a street curb were then incorporated into the piece to provide a seating area.

“What was fun for us was just imagining what we could do with [what was] essentially garbage,” said Rowlinson.

So explained that a lot of what is produced by the art and design world, whilst beautiful, is still destined for the dump.

“We’re kind of working backwards,” she said. “We’re taking stuff that people are throwing away and not only making it sustainable art but making it functional.”

The two students decided to undertake the project when, after graduating, they found themselves well versed in the theory of sustainable development, but fundamentally lacking in practice.

“We don’t have these practical things that someone like an engineer might have, but we have the heart and we know what we want to do, so we got this grant and just decided to do it on our own,” said So.

Concordia may soon take notice. This summer, Rowlinson will be curating a project sponsored by Éco-quartier Peter-McGill to bring attention to Concordia’s green spaces between Saint Mathieu Street, Saint Marc Street, Sainte Catherine Street and de Maisonneuve Boulevard, with public art installations.

The benches will be unveiled April 8 at 2:00 p.m. on the terrace between Morrice Hall and Leacock (below McTavish Street and Dr. Penfield Avenue). There will be free kombucha tea and nachos.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 28, published March 29, 2011.