These propositions are put to the test in examining the streets and pathways of Columbia University. As the university campus sits in a sometimes uneasy grey area of being both (and neither) public and (nor) private space, the nature of its spaces of passage and access are likewise ambiguous. I set out to discover something of the history of these spaces – the streets, walks, portals and pathways – of Columbia, and found that the tension of the street has not been lost on those interacting with it throughout the years. I offer some scattered examples around which to contemplate these ideas:
Space and confinement
In some of the earliest discussions of the relative navigability of the campus, Julius Pine wrote on behalf of the Trustees of the university to the architects at McKim, Mead and White. The subject was their plans for developing the southern quadrangle, part of the land between 116th and 114th acquired by the university in 1903. He wrote:
“All of these designs contemplate flights of steps or terraces open to the street and without any enclosure, and we have reached the conclusion that this method of treatment is open to serious practical objections. With the increase in population in the neighborhood of the University there is an increasing tendency to use our grounds as a public park and to make a thoroughfare across our property, so that some form of gate at the points mentioned has become highly desirable, if not necessary.” (Sept 29, 1913 letter to McKim, Mead and White from Julius Pine on behalf of the CU Trustees)
And so plans for wrought iron gates to keep Columbia in and the street out were developed. At the time, there was no proposal to cut off 116th Street to through traffic, so the gates in question were envisioned stretching east-west along the sides of that street. It would not be until 1954 that the street itself became pedestrianized and fenced-in by the current gates at each of its ends. And it was not until 1968 that the university acquired the street itself. At that time it issued a statement including the following:
“[116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam] is now owned by the University, just as any piece of property is owned by any private person. The only stipulation in the agreement […] is that the University must provide access to police and fire equipment in an emergency. Because the University usually allows its neighbors to traverse College Walk, Columbia does need to close it to the public at least once a year to protect its status as private property” (Columbia University Office of Public Information, May 9, 1968, emphasis added).
The boundaries of public and private are, then, not simply the domain of the university/property owner to decide; the city itself mandates how such property must be bounded in order to regulate its status. The experience of public and private space on the city street is an exercise in power relationships both explicit and hidden.
Texture and appearance
The pathways on Columbia campus are not just designed to channel movement and facilitate spatial conveyances, but through their very material composition they were designed to influence the nature of intellectual movement and facilitate scholarly conveyances. The herringbone-patterned, red brick layout of the walkways was intended to “emulate paving patterns found in the Roman forum,” and thereby bolster the “notion of the exchange of ideas in a classroom, a basis of a Columbia education” (undated early correspondence from the CU Trustees to McKim, Mead, and White).
This argument was brought up again when the walkways underwent renovations and refurbishments in the 1990s, as an objection posed by faculty members (mostly from the Departments of Art History and Architecture) to replacing the bricks with more durable materials (Columbia University Spectator Vol CXVIII No 104, Oct 14, 1994). Leaving aside the potential problematics of such an assumed semiotic leap between brick patterning and didactic exchange, particularly in the late 20th century, one has to imagine that any resonance it did have would only have been felt by a fairly well circumscribed, elite, Western and classically-trained academic community. Was the argument, then, that the streets were only intended for the passage of particular categories of people? That the meanings of such street passage were in fact embodied in its architecture in such a way that changing it would fundamentally change the street’s ability to function as it had before? Latour might tell us that the whole uproar is simply us coming to remember and recognize our relationships to the bricks as actors on the campus landscape and our lives because they have broken down and need attention (Latour 1999: 183). If so, what does a choice to maintain or relinquish our relationship with the materials of public street spaces say? Particularly if the relationship to the materials is a private one, do those materials allow the space to be public, or do they create non-traversable boundaries of the aesthetic, the emotional, and the mind?
Jacobs, Jane, 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.
Latour, Bruno, 1999. Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
All other cited material and photographs are courtesy of the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library