Thursday, February 16, 2012

Touring the Mornginside Heights Campus

Earlier this week, I did something that I am guessing students at Columbia do not often consider doing – I took a tour of the Morningside Heights Campus with the aid of an audio guide. You can access this guide here (, if you are interested in doing the same. The audio tour is narrated by Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian; the tour itself therefore focuses primarily on the history and architectural features of some of the campus’ buildings. It begins inside Low Memorial Library, proceeding clockwise behind it, and ending at Lerner hall at the southwest end of campus. As I took this tour, I was interested not only in what the tour revealed about the campus itself, but also in how tourism provides unique narratives of spaces. Therefore, I was particularly interested in what strategies the tour utilized to describe the campus, how it was organized, and what it emphasized and left out.

Professor Dolkart’s guide describes many of the ways in which the layout of the campus, at the time of its construction in the late 19th and early 20th century, reflected a specific functional differentiation. Regarding the plaza in front of Low Memorial Library, for example, Dolkart points out that the areas below the stairs were intended as public spaces, where the university community and the public could interact, whereas the area above the stairs was intended only for the former, as suggested by the increasing steepness of the stairs themselves and the walls located to its sides. I also felt that it was significant that Low Memorial Library is flanked on other side by two buildings which played an important role in the religious life of the campus – Earl Hall, which housed “all the religious organizations of the student body,” and St. Paul’s Chapel, which is featured very prominently in the tour.

The tour is also places a great deal of emphasis on the aesthetic merits of many of some of the campus’ buildings. These descriptions not only cultivate an appreciation of these merits, but also suggest the manner in which the campus utilizes modes of representation in order to signify its importance as a place of learning and as belonging to a specific intellectual tradition. Thus, from Dolkart’s guide, we learn many of the features of Low Library, such as the paving immediately outside it and its large dome, were modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the exterior of St. Paul’s chapel was intended to evoke Italian Renaissance architecture, and the vestibule of the East Asian library in Kent Hall was modeled after Trinity College, Cambridge. Two prominent sculptures located in the center of the campus also serve to signify its overall purpose – that of Athena, described in the tour as the “goddess of wisdom” within Low Memorial Library, and that of Alma Mater, prominently featured on the plaza. Regarding the latter, Dolkart says “her arms reach out and welcome students, and laurel wreaths, open books, flaming torches, all symbolize knowledge, and hidden in her robes is an owl, symbol of wisdom, but you have to search for it, because knowledge doesn’t come easily” (rather ominously, I could not find this owl).

The tour places a great emphasis on the history of each building, specifically mentioning who sponsored its construction, and which architect designed it. Thus, we hear much about Charles McKim, whose firm McKim, Meade and White was responsible for most of the original Morningside Heights campus, as well as Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who designed St. Paul’s chapel at the behest of his relatives, who funded its construction. The tour thus creates a narrative of each building’s genesis, containing facts which, save for the names of some of the buildings, are not otherwise apparent.

While the majority of the tour focuses on the area immediately surrounding Low Memorial Library, it concludes with a slightly more brief description of “South Campus,” or the area south of the plaza. Dolkart points out that in Seth Low’s (the president of the University at the time of the Morningside Heights campus’ construction) original vision, students and faculty would have to “go back out back into the city” between classes, but the demand for dormitories on the part of Low’s successor prompted the construction of this section of campus. It is in this section of the tour that one of the campus’ most prominent buildings, Butler Library, is described. The library was apparently intended to echo that of Low Library, with its similar exterior columns, although the roofline of Butler Library is slightly lower than the top of the Low Library dome, suggesting the continued prominence of the latter in the larger vision of the campus. Dolkart also notes that prior to the construction of Butler Library, one would have had a large scale view of the city while starting southward from the campus.

It is details such as these that reflect what seems to be one of the purposes of this tour – to provide a description of the campus as it existed at the turn of the century and what life might have been like there, and thus, as a site of historical significance. It is therefore interesting to consider that the only classroom on the tour is Havemeyer 309 – “the only intact 19th century lecture hall at Columbia” where “you can get a feel for the way classes were run in the 19th century” (it is also worth noting that Dolkart mentions the fact that this room is featured in films such as “Spiderman 2” and “Kinsey”). It is also significant that the only modern building noted on the tour is Lerner hall, which is briefly described at the tour’s end.

The tour therefore represents a specific manner in which a space can be discursively produced. This discursive production as represented by the tour can be conceived on two levels. First, the tour highlights many of the ways in which the central section of the Morningside Heights campus, through its architectural features and overall layout, reflects a kind of intention on the part of its architects to create a space of classical learning – the Greco-Roman influence on the campus’ design is seen in the design of Low Library and Butler Library, in its sculptures, and in what we might consider “textual” elements, such as the list of names featured prominently at the top of Butler Library. Second, the tour appears predominantly concerned with representing this section of campus as a site of historical significance. Thus we are not only told about its aesthetics, but also about the history of each building (who designed it and who funded it), about the history of the campus itself, and about what student life might have been like in its early years. It is perhaps for this reason that the tour is mostly concerned with the central nucleus of the Morningside Heights campus, and places less emphasis on its later additions. This emphasis on historicity is perhaps what renders the campus as a place of tourist interest, rather than simply being a functional space of university life.

- Jay Ramesh

1 comment:

Mariko Yoshida said...

I was impressed by this post as you explored the unknown perspective of embodied leisure and tourism practice of landscapes.Tourist spots have developed various interpretive aids such as brochures and audio guides, and it would be quite interesting to examine them as non-human agents interacting with human perception. How do they generate our experiences and senses of being there?
What is the perceptual difference between audial narratives and textual narratives? I don't usually borrow audio guides at these kinds of spots, but I will try this tour of the Morningside Heights Campus during this summer!