Monday, September 30, 2013

Columbia University as an Agentive Landscape

The gates on Broadway.
In 1896, Columbia University moved from Madison Avenue to its current campus in Morningside Heights. It occupies approximately 32 acres, which, although small for a campus, is remarkable given its location within Manhattan, famous for its limited real estate and corresponding ridiculous prices. Architecturally, with its red brick and columnar architecture, Columbia more closely resembles Harvard and other college campuses than what is typical of New York City. Even the high cost of living is mitigated to some extent; dormitories are less expensive per square foot than the surrounding apartment complexes, and some faculty have access to rent-controlled apartments near campus. These differences result in a completely different ambience within these six city blocks; the city effectively falls away. As soon as one enters the majestic gates from either Broadway or Amsterdam, the feeling of pulsating energy and grit symptomatic of New York City dissipates in favor of a calm, idyllic atmosphere removed from reality.

In his article “Material Culture after Test: Re-Membering Things,” Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen writes, “Think how the routines, movements, and social arrangements of our daily lives are increasingly prescribed, defined and disciplined, as well as helped or encouraged, by networks of material agents. Acting increasingly imperatively, these agents tacitly demand certain behaviours, impose certain socio-spatial configurations” (2003:97). He then includes a university campus in a list of prescriptive environments. Columbia’s artificiality and controlled environment certainly support Olsen’s statement.

Unoccupied lawns.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the campus’s explicitly delineated paths, which direct movement and thus have agency to influence the university’s human population. Along with physical barricades, they often forbid people from making use of the grassy lawn areas around Columbia. When I first toured Columbia, I remember the guide drawing my attention to the extensive green space, so rare in New York City, and telling me that I would be able to read, play guitar, or just lounge about. However, since arriving this has not been the case. In a profound case of circular argument, using the grass would result in losing its embodiment of all that grass is – green, verdant, lush. Therefore, it seems as though according to the administration it is more important to SIGNIFY a lawn and its characteristics than to actually BE an active lawn space.

Another instance in which objects or, rather, collections of objects comprising spaces acquire agency at the university can be observed within the many libraries. Within each, the various rooms are assigned categories according to the degree of strictness in terms of both consumption and noise. This ranking system utilizes the same sign system as stoplights: green represents areas in which beverages can be consumed and cell phones can be used; yellow signs delineate spaces in which noise must be limited and only certain cups are allowed; and red prohibits all such activities.

Of course, many of these rules are often broken. To some extent, the degree to which violations occur corresponds to how strictly they are enforced. In other cases, though, it seems as though location also plays a role. The Nicholas Murray Butler Library, for example, the largest of Columbia’s libraries and one of the most prominent buildings on campus, technically forbids food from being brought into the library. Yet once inside, there is a café that serves not only beverages but also a variety of victuals. This evident contradiction between policy and spatial relationship has resulted in, based on my personal behavior and observations of others, excessive rule violations. While there is an area set aside for eating, many people consume food from both the library café and elsewhere in the study rooms themselves. While in other libraries I have gotten disapproving looks from other students for food consumption, in Butler there seems to be an unwritten agreement that it is acceptable to break this rule.

Butler Library.
This minor transgression pales in comparison to other acts of dissent that have taken place on Columbia’s landscape. Butler Library was the site of student protests resulting from the 18 renowned authors and philosophers inscribed around its exterior. With the exception of one, Demosthenes, works by all of these scholars have been required reading in Columbia’s Core Curriculum. They are also, significantly, all white men. Students have used the paradigmatic association between these inscriptions and Columbia’s curriculum to raise objections to the predominantly Western male perspective of the Core, unfurling banners from the roof displaying the names of female and black writers instead. In this way, the signification and definition of the established order within the landscape affected behavior of those acting within it, not by complying with its rules but by reacting against them.

David Shapiro.
This negotiation between landscapes/object collectives and human actors was perhaps most dramatically played out through the famous Vietnam War protests that took place on Columbia’s campus. These defiant acts not only disrupted the university’s day to day functioning but also its projected image of beautiful but sterile symmetry and perfection. One of the most quintessential photographs from that student occupation of campus portrays David Shapiro, then a senior at Columbia College, smoking a cigar and wearing sunglasses in President Grayson L. Kirk’s office. This overt transgression of landscape parallels the attempted transgression of dominant paradigms during the 1960s.

The ROTC program at Columbia, a longstanding symbol of order and tradition, was abolished cotemporally to the Vietnam Protests. It is interesting to examine the pronounced difference in the way humans interacted with the same landscape in these situations. Columbia University is just one example of an environment that is prescribed but whose configurations can be violated, resulting in a constant dialogue between the campus and its human occupants.

Lucy Gill

Student protestors occupying Columbia.
ROTC members performing a drill.

Olsen, B. 2003. Material culture after text: Re-membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2), 87-104. 

1 comment:

Katie Bennett said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially about the signs around Columbia (the paths, the library's colored "zones", the green space) that are in place to restrict certain behaviors and movements. It made me think of last class, when we were talking about the subway system, and how archaeologists of the future will interpret the yellow lines, or warning signs to keep away from the edge of the tracks. How will archaeologists of the future interpret the library zones? Will they assume that everyone obeyed, or rather, that they were in place because students continuously broke the rules? And what then can they infer about our society? Will we be seen as rebellious, or will the rules themselves be interpreted as unreasonable or unpractical? I tried to think about the paths as well, as many archaeological sites have similar designated areas. I've never considered that such paths may, in fact, constrain people from walking on lawns (for example), especially since we so value green space in this city and modern world. I thought this post also tied in nicely to the other about Central Park, and our need to create green space in our urban areas - maybe not for daily use, but to create a certain expected environment or space.