Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For "Campus Level", Please Press "Four".

Columbia University campus in New York City seems like a regular urban campus to the naked eye, but its decipherment is inevitably connected to several rites of passage. Surely, we all have friends who want to see the scenic ivy league campus when visiting the city and then call you from 116th and 8th Ave. to let you know that they don’t see campus although they used your directions to take “the red line.” Some of us actually can read subway maps and manage to reach the dreaded campus, but then fail to find any books in the library. As if it is not enough that it is called the Low Library when it is actually higher than street level, but the books are missing there, too. And then even if you are a true Ivy League material and have not been deceived by my first examples, surely you have searched for the exit of any campus building deep in their basements. I know that campus level is duly noted in the elevators (as it never is on the first floor), but my lifelong habit of pressing “1” when I want to get out is not to be erased in an instant by a mere star symbol. Was yours?
And just when you get used to pressing “4” in school and “1” at home and other worldly locations, you decide to diversify your university experience and go into a campus building where your department is not housed. And then you’re in the basement again… The elusive “campus level” ranges from floors one to four depending on your location. The spread is due to the topography of the site. The campus is built on a hill peaking at Low Library. As much as the planners of this campus envisioned a fortress on the hill (you can read more about the Acropolis of America in previous blog posts), they decided to flatten it at the top. And indeed one only gets a sense of the topography while on campus through the comparison of the height of the leveled campus and street level embodied in the campus level floor number. The northernmost side of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus is the farthest from the pinnacle point and the drop on the northern side of the hill is more dramatic than on the southern side and so the northernmost buildings have higher campus level floor, namely fourth floor. Such is the case in Schemerhorn, Shapiro, Mudd, Pupin, and the Northwest Corner Building. As the terrain rises gradually south, buildings such as Fayerweather, Kent, Avery, Philosophy have their campus level at the third floor. The drop on the southern side is less dramatic, so Butler Library, for example, has only a floor under the campus level.
A view east to campus level from the NW Corner Building
A view north to 120th St from the same spot in the NW Corner Building
The sense of topography that one gets from the variability of the campus level floor (not only that of confusion) is a valuable one, but the idea of the flattening seems to be more of separation, elevation, and alienation from the surrounding rather than celebrating the site. It is true that campus level could have been named first floor in all buildings and they could have varied in the number of basement floors. That could have been more useful, but certainly less democratic. At any rate, it seems that the flattening of the campus was done in a way in order to set a stage. The Low Library crowns the artificially leveled campus behind it, looking down upon the city in a clear symbolism not only of superiority but also of theatricality. Columbia campus is in a way like the Mesoamerican temples, which were built tall in order to instill awe and to project superiority, but also in order to allow for ceremonies to be performed for large audiences. The large steps in front of the Low Library boost the theatricality of the campus through the creation of a physical, as well as symbolic, ascent from street level to campus level. And somewhere along the path there is Alma Mater to greet you and reassure you the path you’ve chosen is the correct one.
The ascent stars here. Disregard the basking college students. They are not to stop you.

Some say Columbia campus is unwelcoming and elitist (you can also read more on the subject in previous blog posts). Others find it quite open mainly due to its urban location. It is, however, worth going into slightly higher level of detail and “read” what the campus level organisation has to say about visitors. There is the ascent to it already discussed, which might be daunting, but I wouldn’t call it “unwelcoming.” Another feature of the campus level is that it is in fact on the second, third or even fourth floor of its building if looking from street level. The buildings all look into campus, though. Their outside facades resemble simple brick walls and are in sharp contrast with the inner facades, as if the buildings have turned their backs to the outside world. Many do not even have entrances on street level and while their first floors are technically above ground, they do have the feeling of basements. Moreover, the facades portray that feeling through the use of different material and spare usage of windows.
Small, barred windows enclosed in stone in the basement-like levels under the campus level.
There is no point in presenting a verdict here. Some will like the exclusiveness and will deem this shielding from the outside world safe or even proud. Others will despise it for its elitism or simply on aesthetic grounds. What is more important is that the flattened campus level on top of Morningside Heights represents both the power of man over nature and of educated man over the jungle of urban life. No matter if this inspires positive or negative responses, it most definitely shapes the way people experience the campus – both by making them climb stairs Sisyphus-style and looking for stars in elevators. Both are quite educational after all…

1 comment:

Cassandra said...

This post was a lot of fun because of its well-written narrative approach. Certainly every Columbia student finds a way to experience rites of passage (I'm writing from a computer room I "discovered" as the hideout of the truly late night hardcore), and that erases any projections we may have about who belongs here, whether we belong, and what others think of "our" space.

In a way, every Columbia student is producing a sense of place here, because as we go out into the world, each of us brings with us that capsule of experience on campus we regard as our university-based story. We can link to these shared stories everywhere around the world, or keep it as a token of New York City ownership. The layers of the Columbia experience overlap as new classes graduate and recreate their memories endlessly as they recall their time here. These memories produce the idea of Columbia that seems to intimidate so many people--would they really have such strong feelings about a hill of red brick buildings and leafy shrubs if graduates' memories were not generating new ideas about the school wherever they go? That is one of the school's primary sources of sustained value.