Tuesday, April 17, 2012

College Walk and the Acropolis of America

Since visiting the archives, my mind has continually been drawn back to the description of Columbia as the “acropolis of America.” This phrase is perhaps over enthusiastic (the acropolis of America? Not an acropolis-- the acropolis!) but nonetheless it has resonated with me and I think about it often as I wander about the campus. Having been to the Acropolis and many other ancient Roman or Greek places of discourse, scholarship and culture, I want to explore the ways in which Columbia’s campus compares this model. Most of us traverse College Walk at least once a day, and so it’s there I would like to focus.

As we are now well aware, Columbia’s campus was not designed with the south lawn in mind. Low was supposed to look down on the city. Yet, as we are again well aware, Butler and the other buildings of the southern campus were built, thus transforming campus into a box. But it wasn’t always a box-- until the early 20th century, 116th street continued directly through campus as an active motorway. Cars zipped past (undoubtedly dodging graduate students who meandered in the street fascinated by springtime sunlight, like children in a toy store) cars parked, people waited to cross the street, people looked both ways before doing so. Now, it is different. You could essentially cartwheel across College Walk with no real threat of being run over, and the old road’s median has become a lounge.

It is curious to me, in a way, that the notion of Columbia as being the “Acropolis of America” originated closer to the time that College Walk was a road than the time it was not. As Dolkart showed in his writings, Columbia’s campus was designed with ancient Greece and Rome in mind. In modern times, this illusion comes across strongly-- campus IS secluded, a little intellectual island in the midst of the city. But having an active motorway rip through the center of campus-- right between the Pantheon and a Greek-fascaded library-- would have a profound impact on this idea of Columbia as an intellectual forum in the style of the ancients. When I see photos like the one I’ve posted in this entry, campus seems immediately different: more included in the city, but separate from the design that had been intended for it.

The closure of the 116th street motorway through campus seems to me a major transition point in the landscape of Columbia’s campus. It didn’t change a whole lot physically, but that closure changed the ways in which we perceive that space and, resultingly, in how the north and south campuses are tied together into the unit we consider “campus.” Instead of two halves bisected by the outside world, Columbia is now an acropolis of sorts-- a sort of secluded place of cultural and intellectual exchange unimpinged by outside influences.

Photo credit: Columbia University Archives

1 comment:

nasser said...

really good point about the subtle change in the physical, that can have more radical effect on perceptual experiences (really interesting given the tilley reading this week!).