When these buildings speak to us, what do we hear?

Presented by Bill Millard 5/27/05 at Amherst Reunion panel, "Hey, That Wasn't Here When We Were Here: The Present and Future of the Amherst Campus," sponsored by the Class of 1980 and featuring Jim Brassord, director of facilities planning and management, and architects Jenny Aliber, Tim McKenna, Le Ann Shelton, and Bruce Becker (chair).

As the panel's designated layman-slash-scribe, I'll try to pose a few broad questions (and perhaps a provocation or two) for the practitioners. One general principle I should offer up for consideration is that physical construction is always also social engineering. It can't be otherwise, and it might as well be overt and purposeful. The term "social engineering" gets a bad press in this country, often from beneficiaries of forms of it that masquerade as somehow "natural" or transparent. This isn't the place for digressions into Althusserian ideological theory, but I hope it's constructive to stipulate at the outset that social engineering is a large, legitimate part of any college's mission; that a college is a uniquely appropriate laboratory for it; and that physical design is a powerful instrument of it.

Spaces and structures speak to us; they interpellate us or hail us with messages about who we are, why we do or don't belong here. When we're of undergraduate age, we're exquisitely responsive to these hailings by forces that engineer our attitudes and our being. So, in building or adapting the components of the Amherst campus, Jim and other capable planners are not only solving the practical problems of the institution; they're engineering vital aspects of the messages that students come here to hear.

Identifiable social consequences flow from decisions about space -- for example, to centralize library resources in one building rather than scatter them through a network of specialty libraries; or to group first-year students around a central quad rather than disperse them among upperclassmen; or to house faculty and students either apart (as at Amherst) or together (as at the Oxbridge-style residential colleges of Harvard or Yale). When housing is spartan, as in the freezing Harvard dorm where Faulkner's Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! recounts for his roommate a family history burdened with the strangeness of the old South, the setting makes the culture clash between the American North and South all the more glaring; in that fictional but all-too-real space, that college communicates something to its different students: perhaps a message about rigor and endurance, perhaps assumptions about their expected geographic and cultural backgrounds. In contrast, when special athletic housing and perks are lavish, as we learn in practically Trimalchian detail every time a university's football or basketball program breaks NCAA rules or civil laws and provokes a journalistic exposé, that institution, too, says something about how it regards different students -- the relative rewards it considers the just deserts of its mighty linebackers and its mere scholars.

When a student walks onto an idyllic campus, that space speaks to her about the harmonious and ecologically integrated life of the mind; when she walks onto a campus with imposing, iconic buildings (say, Columbia's, with its pantheon of dead Greeks and Romans on the facade of Butler Library), it speaks more of the rarefied, intimidating life of the mind. When she drives across the paved campus of Ohio State, whose salient features are its stadium and vast parking lots, it speaks of a life of the mind that can be as impersonal as any other experience in traffic. When she approaches the Illinois Institute of Technology's McCormick Center, whose tubular structure integrates public transit with a heavily wired student facility, she'll hear that the life of the mind can and perhaps must coexist on practical terms with the speed and hyperstimulation of contemporary urbanity. And when she approaches the arresting new Frank Gehry and Steven Holl buildings at MIT, the gods only know what messages she'll receive about the life of the mind, but she probably intuits quickly that they'll require theoretical decoder rings, and that her room may soon leak.

In any built environment, conduciveness to community and personal growth is not a given, not a mystery, but a dependent variable. Our buildings can speak variously of intellectual stimulation, access to experience, environmental sustainability, cultural inclusion or exclusion, social and recreational opportunities, interpersonal respect. These are not all messages we're accustomed to hearing at 18, and the environment of any residential college, which implicitly regards its activities as important enough to warrant a four-year separation from most of the rest of life, creates a reaction that many call culture shock. The shocks inseparable from entry into such an environment can be offputting, bracing, cleansing, disorienting, reorienting, or all of the above.

Some shocks occur as rapidly as a Malcolm Gladwell "blink" when a prospective student first sees the campus and makes snap decisions about whether it might become home. Others accumulate steadily through our full exposure to Amherst's energies and messages, finally shocking us into the community of educated citizens. In that light, I'd like to offer all panelists the question of whether, and how, spatial design can help make the common experience of culture shock a constructive one, plus a few corollary questions. Does this campus, this strange and separate and privileged place, have properties that make the most of our individual and collective culture shock? Can these buildings speak of both challenge and welcome to an increasingly varied population? How can controllable design variables -- scale, density, verticality, creature comforts, integration into landscape, incorporation of information technologies, relations to transportation, visual harmony or surprise -- best transmit the messages this community believes are worth sending?

I'd like to juxtapose our assessments of Amherst's spaces with an observation based on some of the writings on the Class of `80 listserv, expressions of striking loyalty and often alarming openness. Why does Amherst foster such a sense of community, intangible yet undeniable? One obvious answer is "it's the people," but impressive, diverse, and likable people populate the other competitive colleges -- arguably even Williams. At Rutgers and at Columbia, I haven't observed the same kind of bonding we find here. Friendships and communities in those places are no less strong, but they more often arise within departments, disciplines, residences, or other relatively narrow substructures. At Amherst, it's unusually common to connect lastingly with people far outside your field, with faculty mentors, or with people whose shocks of acculturation have been quite dissimilar to your own. The whole college is, or at least can be, someone's functional social unit. Perhaps this breadth and strength of bonding across artificial borders has something to do with the way the place is built.

A college campus is a kind of city. Campuses on the scale of Amherst's -- a walkable human scale, like a New Urbanist mixed-use development, with centers and grids and patterns of pedestrian traffic that maximize chance encounters, and with the transforming but disfiguring technology known as the automobile, that rolling personal prison that holds too many Americans in undeserved thralldom, relegated to its sane role as our occasional servant, not our king -- are in a position to test the principles of New Urbanism as instruments of human development. I'd be willing to bet that a version of New Urbanism informed by an understanding of this place would do well at replacing the atomization of most contemporary spaces with a more intelligently engineered structure of life, one where we find our essential resources at a reasonable distance and our peers likewise, in buildings that vary in style but flaunt no huge disparities of privilege, and on fields that are purposefully level. Public life here can resemble the democratic ballet of Jane Jacobs's street, not the hyperprivatized life of a Robert Moses road. More importantly, planners of other spaces can look to Amherst as proof that such environments can help us recalibrate our receptivity to the messages that make us most intriguingly human.

cultural writings