FeatureLetters

New York City Buildings Were My Education

How campus architecture shaped an academic life

On my way to teach each morning at The New School, I always say a prayer to my two spirit animals: a gargoyle and a steam pipe. Fraternal twins, they adorn a building on the corner of 14th Street and University Place, guarding Union Square. The gargoyle — like a brooch reaching across a thick neck — grabs the building by the collar. His claws dig deep into the rustications, yank up all the columns into taut verticality. His wings flutter over the dentils, letting the whole edifice take flight. The gargoyle’s sister, meanwhile, slithers above and behind, up and over and up and over. Unstudied but elegant — with a kind of trashy sprezzatura — she shrugs at the Baroque edifice, juts from the cornice and spumes pollution, making no apologies for her brazen functionality. They are, for me, the emblems of my academic life.

My mind has taken shape in three universities whose campuses have each exemplified different architectural styles — three different aesthetics, three different curricula — mashing up my intellectual development against the chronology of art-historical periods:

  • an Internationalist masterpiece (B.A., Liberal Arts, 2008)
  • a Gothic castle (M.A., Medieval Studies, 2012)
  • a Brutalist box (Ph.D., English, 2017).

But then again, I should begin with my intellectual stepfather, neo-Classical Columbia.

Columbia’s 1893 campus plan belongs to the City Beautiful movement, an attempt to use the Beaux-Art style to assimilate unruly urban masses — new immigrants — into American society.

Idealized, hierarchical, manicured, Columbia’s layout enshrines temple-like libraries within enclosures of subsidiary teaching buildings.

On the street side, granite bases raise these buildings into towers, a cloistering wall that guards Columbia’s ideal republic of straight lines — of students with straight As and straight teeth.

In 1919, Columbia fired several professors, because they refused to subordinate intellectual inquiry to what the university perceived as its proper place in the social order. Those renegades went on to found The New School: the school that — from 2004 to 2008 — was my first academic home.

In 1929, Joseph Urban designed The New School’s 12th Street Building — part of the university’s political, pedagogical, and aesthetic protest.

A functional sculpture, 12th Street opens unto the Italian row-house neighborhood through seven bands of windows. Transparency runs through the black-brick façade.

Inside, Urban’s theater thrusts into the audience. Orozco’s murals jut history perpetually into the present.

In later additions to the complex (also in the Internationalist style), classrooms are made of glass — an invitation to participate in the social construction of knowledge.

As an undergraduate, I experienced these glass walls as brutal exposure. At 18, disheveled and often drunk — occasionally mistaken on Fifth Avenue for a homeless man — I bumbled in and out of class, torn apart by hormones, adolescent nihilism, and — second-hand — by The New School’s traumatic Modernism. Contrary to Urban’s vision, later designers had added blinds to all the windows, and drawing the shades always put me more at ease.

In my undergrad days — before The New School’s several attempts at ‘re-branding’ — Bob Kerrey was president, and history had been officially over for fifteen years: malaise of a lack of identity, with Theory already passé, and we hadn’t yet invented Identity to replace the class struggle.

Aimless, I spent most of my B.A. stowing away at other universities. Registering for a calculus course at Cooper Union, I used my Cooper ID to set up a painting studio (in a Cooper building since demolished and replaced — by the same boom that produced The New School’s University Center, and in the same style.)

And I often read at NYU’s Bobst Library (designed in 1973 by one of Urban’s rivals, Philip Johnson.) I cruised the stacks, often sitting down at a carrel after some graduate student had departed, gleaning whatever sundry books left behind.

Johnson — Nazi sympathizer — had mocked Urban’s New School as a ‘Renaissance palace.’ Johnson’s Bobst perverts Modernism’s transparency into a totalitarian panopticon. The empty atrium, twelve stories high, sucks into its black hole the cellular stacks, a hive of anonymous worry.

In 2012, NYU covered Johnson’s nihilism with giant curtains to prevent further suicides. But by then, I had retreated uptown.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, who in 1846 tried to save his ailing wife by moving to the Bronx (then a rural farming community), I sought refuge in the Gothicism of Fordham: the blue granite, the stained-glass windows, and the campus church, which Poe celebrated for its ‘bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.’

My classes at Fordham (on medieval codicology, paleography, and ecclesiastical Latin) took place in a building now known as Dealy Hall, which Fordham erected during a crucial turning point in American academic life. Planned before the Civil War, but not constructed until 1867, Dealy hearkens back to a curriculum that, even then, was falling out of fashion.

During the last decades of the nineteenth-century, I said, liberal arts colleges were morphing into research universities. Columbia had emphasized this translation with a campus plan that denigrated practical teaching over pure knowledge. And Columbia’s layout testified to how the new ethos of research subordinated the earlier mission of the liberal arts college. But other universities sought architecturally to deny this conversion. Yale, for instance, razed most of its colonial structures and, like Fordham and Princeton, built in the Collegiate Gothic mode. These institutions took inspiration from medieval Oxbridge — an aesthetic ruse that elided academia’s modernization and secularization.

In 1869, students plotted to destroy Fordham property and to defect en masse to a competing college. The Jesuits restored order. But students increasingly rebelled against the traditional Classics program in favor of commercial courses.

In my own way, I had turned to the Middle Ages as a way to reach around the post-modern crisis. I figured that, if the leftist tradition were exhausted — or, if it had exhausted the hell out of me — then, I might find sustenance in a world before the Enlightenment had ever made its many broken promises. Mainly, I just wanted to learn about medieval English so that I could write more interesting poems.

But my advisors — lay professionals with a stodgy taste for official titles — seemed stuck not in the Middle Ages but in an uncomplicated devotion to the modern. The New School had weighed me down with post-modern disillusion, but Fordham seemed oblivious to the pervasive disaffection — the collapse of Big Ideas — and just wanted to continue in the model of Cold War-era research.

Meanwhile, a heavy iron fence bracketed off the Gothic campus, keeping out the rowdy Bronx streets. Hustling pawnshops, megaphone barkers with gold to buy or sell, occasional murders by the Mob. Downtown, students and workers were camping out at Wall Street. I cynically joked that I was going to wait until Occupy came out on DVD. Indeed, I had attended some of the first organizing meetings at The New School and felt that they were rudderless — and now have come and gone with no effect — and only a symptom of the left’s lack of a positive plan. But my angst against the Fordham establishment was hypocritical, then, because while I complained about the disengagement of medievalism, I was cloistered off myself, trying to be somehow post-political. I often took refuge to pray between my classes in Dealy’s little chapel. Sterile, well-lit, non-Gothic: post-Vatican, an architectural emblem of how even the Church had become enmeshed in the age of anxiety.

A short subway ride brought me to the Upper East Side, where, after my M.A. at Fordham, I taught during my Ph.D. In 1913, the publicly-funded Normal College of the City of New York (now Hunter College, CUNY) constructed a new building in the Tudor-Gothic style — with bunches of stone-work finials (vegetal, like Brussels sprouts still on the stalk) and hordes of hideous gargoyles (contorted, like the faces of administrators). As a doctoral student at CUNY, I taught Old English in Hunter’s run-down castle, Thomas Hunter Hall, ideal for reading Dark Age elegies — poems like Beowulf, which laments bygone glories.

But the medieval-ish Hall is overshadowed by giants: two Brutalist fortresses by Johnson’s colleague, Ulrich Franzen. During New York’s financial crisis of the 1970s — when Hispanic and black enrollment at CUNY tripled, throwing the establishment into a tizzy — Franzen built bunkers against unrest.

Below the College, the subway lets out, with no room to breathe, directly into these seventeen-story concrete monoliths. And the skywalks — interconnecting the towers — block out what little is left of the sky, protecting, once again, against the streets.

State-sponsored, Brutalist schools may look like prisons. But they are prisons that promise liberation. And Franzen believed in harnessing these contradictions by creating architecture as collage — combinations that capture the ambiguities between form and function. Hunter’s skywalks (like kitschy costume jewelry stuck into soulless concrete) insinuate higher education’s antagonisms. Passing through those skywalks from Brutalist tower to Gothic hall, Hunter bridges the poetical and the professional, the bureaucratic and the liberal.

The liberal arts originated in the Middle Ages, but I studied the liberal arts progressively in a building of I undertook a kind of medieval, liberal arts curriculum in a Modernist building during the post-modern period; then undertook a kind of modern, empirical study of the Middle Ages in a neo-Gothic edifice emptied out and renovated in the nineteen fifties, seemingly as the Catholic Church had renovated; and I tried, as a doctoral student, to bridge these impulses as I traversed between CUNY’s Gothic hall and late-Modern boxes. And now, I although I once studied at The New School, I teach at The New School again — the decline of twentieth century state subsidies for academia reinstituting the old order, before Darwinism made academic incest a taboo, when universities trained students to become their own instructors.

Returning to The New School, I am educated from a wayward journey through other periods and disciplines and buildings, and now, I always draw up the curtains in the fishbowls, unafraid of exposure to the wider world, perhaps — like the old Modernist cliché — arriving where I started and knowing the place at last; vexed, in any case, by the medieval and the contemporary, incarcerated or freed (by the buildings that have shaped me, that have shaped higher education), where time and space — for me — warp, as I try, now and retrospectively, to resituate the various points of my intellectual life into some private, chronological history — a history, however dissonant, at least given — by our buildings — a structure, a shape, a home: razed and rebuilt with ideals and disillusions, pastiche and appropriation, nostalgia, tradition, reversals, gargoyles and steam pipes.

A.W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at The New School.

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