Columbia could offer ways to rethink space, to rethink its use, and to turn compression into a virtue.
I have a hard time discussing the Internet in my courses. I teach architecture, and not since the printing press has architecture and space suffered such a strong blow to its cultural relevance. I am young enough not to be a Luddite, but I am constantly reminded by a new crew of unquestioning supporters every year that I practice an art that is viewed as perhaps old-fashioned or even unnecessary. Its challenger is not an invention, per se. It is not a thing. It is basically interconnectedness. (Even the words to describe it seem so awkward and obvious that they almost evade criticism.)
In a climate in which universities are rapidly expanding to online courses, some with registration ranging in the hundreds of thousands, why come to the university at all? The reason is space. It is still relevant. Space houses one egregious detail, the testament to our own feebleness and mortality: our bodies. Whether we like it or not, these celebrated, mourned, perhaps anachronistic burdens are still a vital (if wounded) force in contemporary thought. In the academic world, they are not simply temporary machines to translate wisdom into textual record. The body is a tool of thought, and space is both its home and its medium.
Let us forget about the Internet for a moment and look back at Columbia in 1968. It was not simply the political climate of the late 1960s nor the ties between Columbia and the U.S. Department of Defense that caused the students’ occupation of the campus. Columbia’s proposed expansion into the city-owned Morningside Park also forced students into action. While Harlem residents were to have access to the proposed gymnasium, the spatial metaphor designed into the structure, where Harlem residents and Columbia students were essentially to have separate entrances, proved no less dramatic than the angled slope on which it was to be constructed.
The salient aspect to this reference is not in the details of the gymnasium’s design, but rather in how space plays a double role. The space of Columbia’s campus was, as many universities are, a center for gathering and a platform for public viewing and the dissemination of thought. Yet space (or rather its lack) was also that which instigated the actions of 1968. Space was both a problem and a facilitator of its solution. If the modern value of space is still in question, one need only to look east. Internet-fueled communication precipitated a powerful voice in the political landscape of post-Mubarak Egypt, but this voice culminated in the space of the city. The photographs of the assembled mass of people in Tahrir Square will stay with me far longer than the concept of a massive online communication infrastructure, that’s not to mention the image that will stay with me the longest, the one that I will never see: the powerfully tragic and extremely public act of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.
As populations rise and cities grow, like they have done for millennia, a lack of space will prove more pervasive. It is an obvious, if not boring, statement. Yet there are opportunities here, and Columbia—much to its institutional chagrin—is at its forefront. As an urban institution in one of the most densely populated areas of the world, it suffers from an acute lack of space. While the University undergoes a vast expansion to alleviate its anxieties (against which few protests like those of 1968 have arisen), we can rest assured that despite this effort, Columbia will continue to have fewer places for students to congregate, fewer places to study, and fewer places to be alone. Yet, if all urban institutions may come upon these problems in the centuries to come, Columbia could offer them ways to rethink space, to rethink its use, and to turn compression into a virtue. And, as is clearly evident, it is not the institution that will find the solution to the institution’s problems—it will be its students.
The author is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at Barnard College. He is a graduate of the Columbia College class of 2001 and received a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2005.
Peter Zuspan writes about space for the Columbia Spectator: