Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Interiority and Exteriority at Columbia

In my last blog post, I took a walking tour around Columbia’s Morningside Heights Campus with the intention of understanding more about its relationship not only with the surrounding area, but also with us, its daily inhabitants. My journey around campus that day allowed me view the university from a fresh perspective wherein I was able to observe and feel the rhythms of campus divorced from the daily intentions that I normally carry. Because of this, several aspects of our campus struck me anew, and have spurred me to ponder them further in the present entry.
First, there seemed to be a strong sense of exteriority and interiority exuded by the layout of the buildings on campus; a fact that I had noted upon my initial arrival, but to which I had not given much thought since. However, the fact that when one is standing outside of the university’s gates, one is looking at largely the backsides of buildings should not be lost on anyone. This lead me to wonder about the impetus behind constructing a campus in this way. Why would the architects and planners of the campus wish to arrange Columbia’s campus in such a way when it projects exclusivity in such a clearly negative way? What does this design suggest about the relationship between the university and the surrounding area both during the campus’ early occupation and in more recent times? What visual impact was the campus supposed to have on the Morningside Heights area and how has that impact changed over the years?
Dolkart’s article on the construction of Columbia and the subsequent transformation of the surrounding region helped to illuminate some of these questions. According to Dolkart, the selection of Morningside Heights, a neighborhood that was quite far removed from the rest of the city in the 1890s, was meant to provide the university not only with space to expand if need be, but also as a place where a lasting visual impression, a symbol of the academic quality, societal prominence and identity of Columbia could be established.[1] Indeed, Seth Low, Columbia’s then president, states in an official statement regarding the construction of the Morningside campus that, “it’s surroundings are among the most beautiful which the City affords, and its position the most commanding, so that the College buildings would there be seen to the greatest advantage, and might be made to typify the importance to New York of a great university…”[2] Looking at some of the images taken from Dolkart’s article, it is clear that upon the new campus’s construction, Seth Low’s vision was largely achieved.

(Image taken from Dolkart, “Building for the Mind I," 154)

(Image taken from Dolkart, “Building for the Mind I," 132)

What is interesting to note, however, is the relationship between the campus and the then rather uncultivated and empty Morningside Heights neighborhood. Part of what allowed Columbia, especially Low Library, to create such a strong visual on the landscape at this time was that it was one of the only major pieces of architecture in the area. Obviously, that visual impact has changed a lot since then. But how did that change come about? In order to find out the answer to this question, I rooted around in the Building and Grounds Collection of the Rare Book Library here at Columbia, and was able to create a composite image of the progression of the campus’s expansion in Morningside Heights.

(Composite Image created from maps belonging to the Building and Grounds Collection of Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library).

One of the most important changes to campus layout that fundamentally altered its visual impact on the surrounding neighborhood was the decision to expand into South Field in the early 1900s. Before the expansion, the front edge of Columbia extended only to 116th street, present-day College Walk. From there, someone standing on Low Plaza had a unimpeded view of the expanding city. Nowadays, however, this view has been blocked off by the inward facing facades of Butler Library, John Jay Hall, Lerner, etc. Certainly a major drive behind the expansion was the need for more space, specifically for student dormitories. In addition, expansion of the rest of New York City upward into the Morningside area must have prompted Columbia’s desire to grab up as much real estate as possible in the event of further need. However, looking at the progression of construction of South Field buildings over the years, one can’t help but feel as though the university was slowly closing itself off from the very city that Seth Low so ardently wanted to remain a part of.
Recall that initially, Seth Low envisioned Columbia as a bastion of genteel and educated New York society, a monument that would serve as a lasting symbol of the ideal of the great American university; a monument that was meant to be encapsulated by the strong visual impact of Low Library and its accompanying plaza. With the construction the South Field campus, however, the visibility of and from Low was greatly diminished and a monumentality of a different sort emerged. Nowadays, one can only get a sense of what Low had envisioned for Columbia if one is standing on campus; but to get there, one has to penetrate the somewhat unwelcoming outer facade of the many backsides of buildings one is faced with out on the street. For someone who has no personal connection to the university, this is task that could be considered daunting.
This situation can, however, be viewed in a different light. In many ways, New York City itself seems to have made a valiant attempt to overtake the several acres of land that Columbia has staked out for itself, yet the closing off of campus seems to have prevented most of the hustle and bustle of the city from corrupting the tranquil air of scholarship within campus. Perhaps then, it can be said that much of Seth Low’s initial intention for what Columbia was supposed to mean to the city and its residents as a part of the city’s landscape has been preserved by the act of physically closing itself off.

Dolkart, Andrew W. “Building for the Mind I: Columbia University and the Transformation of Morningside Heights,” in Morningside Heights :A History of its Architecture & Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pgs. 103-155.

Low, Seth. Statement of the Committee on Site, Columbia College in the City of New York (January, 1892), 6.

[1] Andrew S. Dolkart, “Building for the Mind I: Columbia University and the Transformation of Morningside Heights,” in Morningside Heights :A History of its Architecture & Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 115-116.
[2] Seth Low, Statement of the Committee on Site, Columbia College in the City of New York (January, 1892), 6.

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