Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Views from Columbia's Campus

Slowly Broadway -- the old main thoroughfare of the New Netherland colony to the City -- rises up along the hilly backbone of Manhattan toward Columbia University's campus (and then onward). Nowadays, walking along Broadway, the elevation is barely noticeable in the man-made canyons of New York City; so many of the original natural landscape features have been erased in this City..

The current Columbia campus is a bit like a castle, a prison, or an oasis, depending on your mood. A series of high buildings  surround and enclose a space that is open, sometimes green, sometimes claustrophobic. A fortress from the outside.

Depending on one's approach to the Campus, this castle-like quality of the campus may not be the first thing one notices. The Campus' entrance is in fact quite open: high open gates and trees welcome the visitor. In New York City, high imposing walls of buildings are nothing new and so are easily filtered out. Coming to this open space, one becomes aware that one has indeed reached the Columbia Campus. The University announces it presence. The visitor sees before her a straight path -- the College Walk -- leading straight into the clouds.

Following the path one comes to a great open plaza, where the highest point is taken up by a building marked "The Library of Columbia University". Although ironically this building now houses the university's administration, which looks down from its high point on the current main library  -- Butler Library -- on the other side of the main square. A cynic may say that Power goes over Knowledge here.

It should be noted that the point taken up by Low Library may not be the highest point in Manhattan as a whole (it is in fact in Bennett Park), but it is clearly one of the highest points on the island and certainly in the neighbourhood. The elevation of the point is only accentuated by the steep decline into the valley that has its lowest point around 125th Street. However, none of this is clear when gazing upon Low Library from College Walk, or even walking around Campus. As I said, the Campus shields off most of the city with its wall of high buildings. From the campus grounds there are only a few cracks in the wall; one instance being between the Schermerhorn and Fayerweather buildings.

Apart from this little alcove and the view from College Walk, there is another point where Columbia's elevated position in the city is made clear and this is at the The Charles Revson Plaza, that strange space that hoveres over Amsterdam Avenue in front of the Law School.

If it wasn't already, a strange eye-like statue makes clear what this place is about: looking out over the city -- on either side. Even though, the view toward the north (into the 125th Street valley) may be more spectacular, in fact the eye looks toward the south, toward the city, gazing down.

In conclusion, the campus of Columbia University appears to provide only two views: 1) as an enclosed space, buildings keeping the outside world out. Or 2) it provides vistas from above, such as Revson Plaza and College Walk. The campus appears to say: we are not really in New York City, we are in the sky! When we are on campus, we are sky-(wo)men, indeed: god-like - like De Certeau looking down on Downtown Manhattan, Wordsworth gazing on his favourite valleys, or Dante reaching heaven.

1 comment:

South Carolina college said...

I asked a friend that just finished there about that castle/cloud/seclusion feel they have going on there, she said something like: "You feel like you're being cultivated inside an oyster that in itself is its own world, and then you step outside into the jungle that is New York City"
Sounds grand actually.