By Silvia Ecclesia
On the 4th of January 2021, after great delay, the Graduate Institute’s new student residence, Grand Morillon, opened its doors. An endeavour spearheaded by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma for the cost of more than a 120million CHF, the project had the admirable aim of providing “a room for every student”. The building is located in Petit-Saconnex, not far from the Nations neighbourhood, and it offers a total of 678 beds that add to the 231 already available at the Edgar and Danielle de Picciotto student residence. 2,000 square meters are dedicated to communal spaces, in fact, the modern building hosts a grocery store, a restaurant, a coffee shop, indoor sports facilities, a fitness centre, and a multifunctional hall as well as numerous meeting and study rooms.
But these are things you probably already know. As you probably already know, the residence was supposed to open in Autumn but was delayed because of COVID-19 and after its delayed opening in January, the Institute engaged in a persistent promotional campaign for it. My inbox received several emails reminding me that the new residence was open and waiting for applications. When opening the IHEID’s web page, for quite a long time the first event to pop-up was Grand Morillon’s inauguration. The Director praised the venture, and I challenge you to find a single person at the Institute that at this point doesn’t know about “the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma”.
However, if we look behind all of this promotion and praise, what are we left with?
Geneva has faced a housing shortage for several years that particularly affects students. The international nature of the city, characterized by a continuous flow of diplomats, interns, students and academics, makes Geneva’s housing market quite unique. Finding affordable long-term accommodation coming to the international city is rather challenging for a student.
Before coming here, I spent more than three months looking for a place; I applied to around ten different places including different student residences, hostels, foyers, and private apartments, ending up with nine rejections and one lucky positive answer.
Camille, who was so kind as to accept to release an interview for this article, spent her first two weeks in Geneva hopping from hotel to hotel every two nights. She found out about the “Geneva gift card”, a promotion that gives a 100CHF voucher to whoever spends two nights in an affiliated structure1. “Two nights in a place cost around 150CHF, so changing hotels every two nights was convenient in the end” but extremely stressful and psychologically challenging. Contacting a private housing agency didn’t bring Camille much luck, and she ended up finding her accommodation on Glocals. According to another source, personal networks are key to finding housing in the city, a dynamic which greatly disadvantages international students. Similar stories were reported to me through a survey I circulated among students some time ago. “I went through months of Facebook groups. I emailed multiple student residences. I was regularly rejected by them all with no reason provided”. This comment might ring a bell for a lot of you that had to undergo the same treatment before finding housing. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to find housing in Geneva, but one often needs to renounce either affordability or comfort.
In this difficult picture, where are IHEID student residences positioned?
Compared to other residences or hostels in the city, Picciotto remains quite expensive with rents ranging between 700 and 2,600CHF. According to the aforementioned survey, 77% of respondents agree that the Edgar and Danielle de Picciotto student residence is expensive. Despite this fact, many IHEID newcomers this year relied on it and had to change plans at the last minute as the building, with its 231 beds, is not even remotely near to welcome all the Institute’s students.
When I heard about the construction of a new student residence for the IHEID community I believed that it was going to solve the problem, at least for Graduate Institute students, providing more affordability and more places. My hopes were sadly shattered when the prices for the new residence came out.
After the opening of Grand Morillon on the 4th of January, around 60 people moved in, joined by another 100 people in February. Out of 678 beds, about 160 are filled. If 77% agreed that Picciotto was expensive, around 89% of survey respondents agreed on the same about Grand Morillon. Transparency in the locating process has also been a concern. Students were not informed about the impossibility to sublet their place during summer, provoking discontent among the tenants. There is still confusion around the subject. An anonymous source found in the contract a mention of the fact that subletting is possible upon approval from the administration, but when asked about it they denied this possibility. The same source found confusion around the recycling system, and uncertainty about inventory lists. The fact that the complex is still under construction and the administration’s slight disorganization has created a number of logistical problems.
However, the aim of this article is not to point out the flaws of Grand Morillon. The delayed opening wasn’t an event that the Institute could control in any way and the still trembling management is probably due to the rushed welcome in January, which was a recognizable effort to help students. The aim is also not to accuse the Institute of asking too high rents.
Our Graduate Institute is facing an economic deficit that worsened during the pandemic. The construction of this massive, all-equipped, super functional structure cost a fortune. Behind their insistent promotion there is the need to raise money for the university, our university.
However, the administration failed to listen to students’ concerns. In a 2019 interview that Philippe Burrin released for Le Temps, talking about the work in progress for the new residence, he states that “En tant qu’institut privé, nous possédions une vulnérabilité intrinsèque, il était donc nécessaire d’assurer la pérennité de nos activités en diversifiant nos sources de revenus”2 [“As a private Institute, we are intrinsically vulnerable, therefore, it was necessary to ensure the continuity of our activities by diversifying our sources of revenue”]. Also at the Residence inauguration on 23rd February, Rolf Soiron, chairman of the foundation board, reinforced this idea affirming that “[…]ce projet à été aussi un investissement qui nous a aidé pour la poursuite des objectif bien pragmatiques comme le revenue de cette maison vont générer de sources qui renforcent notre indépendance institutionnelle”3 [“this project is also an investment that has helped us in the pursuit of very pragmatic objectives because income from this residence will generate resources that will strengthen our institutional independence”]. That students are the “source de revenus” of the Institute wasn’t a mystery. However, even students, or better, especially students, have a limit to how much they can pay for a flat.
The for-profit, “business” side of the Institute prevailed and motivated it to build an almost luxurious structure, with a nice terrace, a wonderful view, and amazing architecture, near the UN with a lot of services. What your students were asking for, however, was a simple room for a more affordable price. “We don’t need luxury, we need affordability” is a comment I received from the survey’s respondents. Dear Institute, you shot yourself in the foot and now you’ve ended up with a 120million CHF building that is ¾ empty.
Next year, hopefully, once the pandemic is over, the situation will be different. But how different? Will 678 students really be willing and able to afford to live in Grand Morillon? That I don’t know. Nevertheless, for me, the only way out of this is through compromise. We, as students, should try and do our best to help our Institute, which is facing economic difficulties and whoever can afford to should go and move to Grand Morillon; it does look amazing. However, on the other side, the Graduate Institute should know that there are also students who can’t afford to go there, and if they need us as a “source de revenus” they should also consider our needs. Every time you say “a room for every student,” a little invisible asterisk appears at the top end of the sentence adding “a room for every student *who can afford it”.