Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In the City of New York

The first time I came to Columbia was for a mock trial tournament when I was an undergraduate. It was an immediately intimidating campus: I remember entering through the gates at 116th and Broadway and ambling down College Walk feeling very dwarfed, very aware of being on a campus. Coming from the George Washington University in D.C.-- a university whose campus feels seamlessly integrated into the city—walking through a true collegiate campus smack in the middle of a huge city felt very strange. In this blog post I will be reflecting beyond Broadway and Amsterdam and thinking about the university’s full name: Columbia University in the City of New York.

Reading Dolkart’s history and looking at old maps of Columbia caused me to think about the impact of the southern half of campus on its feeling of integration into the city. For a campus definitively within city limits, Columbia in many ways feels like a very isolated segment of the city. Early designs for campus show Low Library looking downtown with a view of the city unimpeded by Butler Library. Would this design-- the absence of Butler and the other southern buildings-- have changed the feel of campus? I believe it would have. As it is, the Columbia campus feels like an island in the surrounding landscape. If someone were to magically appear outside of Butler Library and walk inside the perimeter of campus, they would never even glimpse the skyscrapers of downtown. Looking out from either end of College Walk, they would see the street dip out of sight but would not grasp the breadth of the city in which they stood.

Without the southern section of campus, sitting on the steps at Low Library would have (at least at the time of construction, when the intervening buildings would have been much smaller) afforded a view of downtown Manhattan. Students and faculty would see the skyscrapers of midtown rather than the face of Butler. It would be a subtle but frequent reminder of where the school is seated and would have expanded, in a psychological sense, the “boundaries” of campus. Sitting on the steps at Low, one sees Butler and mentally draws the boundary there. With a farther vantage point, I believe people would internalize the cityscape as a part of campus, not something outside of it.

I currently work at SIPA, and until recently my office was on the 15th floor. Every day, I would come out of the elevators and instantly be greeted by a panoramic of downtown Manhattan: everything from the more immediately close parts of campus down to the distant buildings on Wall Street. I walked past this view dozens of times a day and it was always a subtle but powerful reminder of where exactly I was: not just Columbia University, but Columbia University in the City of New York.

When I look at the old designs of campus without that southern section, I believe it was this sense of scale the designers intended. The presence of the southern buildings, to me, boxes campus in and dwarfs those within it instead of broadening the scale of campus to visually include the city. Without those southern buildings, to be fair, I believe Columbia would feel less like a campus than it does, and that feeling of “campus-ness” is very important to the atmosphere of the university. Whether the addition of those buildings is good or bad is entirely a matter of personal perspective, but this alteration to campus’s original design had a definitive effect on the perceived landscape of Columbia’s campus.

1 comment:

Emma said...

I definitely agree with the sense that campus feels isolated from the city. Whenever I travel elsewhere in the city, or even when I spend a weekend without stepping foot on campus, it always feels slightly surreal to come back. Pretty much every Monday I get a feeling similar to the first day back at school in September- a familiar but new experience. That "campus-ness" makes you either on- or off-campus, one or the other. I was at NYU for part of last spring (as was Jenn) and that experience mostly confirmed for me the stereotype that NYU doesn't have a campus. I lived in Union Square and walking out of the dormitory I was immediately bombarded with pedestrians, tourists, Trader Joe's shoppers, and traffic. The 10 minute walk to the center of campus in Washington Square Park did feel like I was part of the city. The buildings around the park fostered a sense of community in that most of the pedestrians were students. It was a porous enclave, the streets full of students but the park used by non-students as well. Weirdly, people were friendlier in Washington Square Park than walking around Columbia. I think we transpose some of the "don't acknowledge strangers" feeling of the city streets to our campus, which makes it feel anonymous. In contrast, Washington Square Park brings a college-y feel to the city streets. I like both experiences for different reasons, but it's interesting that each university embodies different components of college life.