Postmodern Collegiate Architecture

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It is a time of great change on US collegiate campuses. The crushing effect of debt accrued by the average undergraduate hinders a college’s ability to maintain or attract enrollment. The lack of vocational training, attractive job market, and alternative choices beyond military service leave little options for most 18-22 year olds who find themselves almost by default, sitting in a college classroom. Increased competition, a decrease in state funding or endowment dollars, a nagging disconnect between the purpose of higher education and market logics, and the rise of informational, social media-based technologies leaves most institutions grasping for solutions. Unfortunately, for many, those solutions include a customer, rather than student, mentality that attempts to emulate products the “customer” is already familiar with, in order to narrowly prepare them for more of the same in the job market. This trend is problematic. It has been discussed within articles and most notably, recently, in the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower. One small, but nonetheless symbolic representation of this trend is contemporary collegiate architecture and building projects.

Postmodern as a term, can be a tricky concept, especially when applied to architecture. Architects understand postmodern architecture as a reaction to modernist or the International style of architecture that privileged formalism and function. Postmodern architecture incorporates ornamentation, wears its references on its sleeve, and has some fun too. While I will be applying this definition of postmodernism to the subject at hand, for the most part, I will instead be relying upon Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of postmodernism, and then applying it to building practices and architecture. For Baudrillard, early modernity occurred between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution (IR), followed by modernity at the start of the IR, and postmodernity that is ruled by mass mediated (motion pictures and still photography) images that work to build simulations.

Baudrillard uses three orders of simulacra to convey his point. The first order (pre-modernity) is when the image is understood to be a poor imitation of the real; it is not authentic. During the IR, we have the second-order simulacra this distinction begins to crumble due to the mass production and distribution of copies. Here though still remains a reality masked or hidden by convincing copies.  In the postmodern third-order of simulacra, there exists a precession of simulacra; the roles have reversed. Now the simulacra precedes and determines the real. For Baudrillard, reality and its previous representation have now meshed together leaving only the simulacrum.

Traditionally, and admittedly somewhat crudely, we can make a distinction between college campus layouts. We usually have a campus built on a large piece of undeveloped land that is relatively set apart from an established community or we have a campus that has developed immersed within an urban landscape. Dartmouth, Ithaca College, and UC Santa Barbara would be examples of the former while NYU, Temple, and USC each examples of the latter. Of course, these are ideal types, so examples that fit a middle ground or overlap, also exist. The set-apart campus footprints of the former faces challenges related to isolation, a persistent issue for sure, but one exacerbated by today’s social-media connected, experiential consumption based generation. The latter’s urban footprint brings challenges of “different” cultures and perceptions of safety and danger – some based in confirmed police statistics while others are based in unsubstantiated fear.

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When we combine the previously mentioned challenges facing today’s colleges with my introduction of Baudrillard’s understanding of postmodernism, we can begin to understand some choices made on the part of university administrators in regards to particular building strategies. For the administrator of the rural or isolated campus, her choice increasingly is to replicate the suburban commercial zone replete with recognizable branded coffee, donuts, fast food, and banking options for students. It is argued that “these retail centers enhance campus security, improve community relations and revive neighborhoods — and give schools another source of revenue” (Karlin, 2003, para. 1). The urban administrator, attempting to balance parental perceptions of safety with high city commercial rents, increasingly rely upon national franchises or franchises to deliver dependable rents and products.

These recognizable service brands are often made available within new campus construction projects that are tasked with mimicking a downtown – either a mixed use urban variety or suburbanish small town aesthetic – that is recognizable to many undergraduates, whose safety and prestige is aspirational for non-traditional first-generational students, and that acts as a disciplining structure for future urban mixed use consumers / workers in the increasingly neo-liberal tourist urban centers. Local Chambers of Commerce feel they have an understanding of what younger citizens / workers are looking for: “housing close to work, close to restaurants, close to shops, close to cultural venues” (McGrath, 2014, para. 13). However, what such projects do is to create smaller-scaled planned communities, not allowing for an organic process of community and development to occur. Many projects begun by colleges, both to ensure safety as well as provide added value and thus incentive for prospective students to attend, are thus not fully integrated into the surrounding community. At best, lower-income workers from the surrounding community may acquire jobs as fast food workers and various other service positions. Some benefit is provided to the small mom-and-pop franchise owner hoping to gain a somewhat captive customer base via his location on campus. However, larger franchisees who own multiple outlets could potentially build a business plan by building a network of franchises across various campus sites, adding to the malling of higher education. In addition, the pragmatic developments of building materials and design augments this adventure into construction and simulation.

So as to decrease costs in both materials and labor, as well as increase durability and efficiency, many commercial building material manufacturers are increasingly evolving their products into pre-configured or systematic components. Beyond the practical benefits of this shift is the feeling that these pieces increasingly resemble a macro-scale LEGO building system. Rather than discrete and disparate forms, through design ingenuity and physical force and training, coming together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, today’s construction more and more resembles a large snap-together project of plastics stronger than steel. Additionally, older techniques such as using half-bricks for facades rather than a more expensive full brick, postmodern ornamentation at the top of otherwise boring boxish buildings to invoke previous forms, add to this feeling of simulation.

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What you might see then today at a college or university is some new building project involving possibly mixed use design, and definitely some version of new store fronts. These projects are extensions of the planned communities with their simulated downtowns seen in such areas as developments in Central New Jersey or Valencia, CA. The better ones attempt some sort of pedestrian space within a small grid so consumers can walk the mini-blocks and flow through the space. They typically supply a new, or compete with an older and perceived to be “dangerous,” college town for undergraduates and possibly visiting parents. We’ve seen this previously when Universal Studios created its own Hollywood Walk of Fame that more people visited than the real one only approximately one mile away due to concerns in part over safety. This connects to another strategy by certain larger state institutions to transform their physical footprint from a college campus to a recreational, branded, tourist space anchored by their professional television football or basketball team and its stadium.

We’ve begun to see some campuses install bike-sharing programs similar to New York City’s Citibike program. Of course, students certainly use these convenient bicycles. However, it also allows for both campus and tourist city to blur as one of the main points of interaction between visitor and site (bicycle) situates the visitor predominantly as a recreational tourist. Other campuses are contemplating re-designing older campus configurations and the placement of student centers so as to design a focus and flow around their professional television football stadium. Previous campus construction conceptions placed the library or president as the heart of the landscape as practically possible.

Additional outcomes from these design choices include the increased commercialization of the collegiate space. The liberal arts tradition of thinking, reading, writing, and discussing ideas that existed prior to you and that are new to you receives little institutional support when the physical infrastructure apes the familiar and the expected. Second, due to the increased competition and increase in tuition due to increased number of administrators and their salaries as well as investment in capital investment projects, we see colleges building non-academic enticements to draw in the consumer rather than the student. The list is long, various, and ever-changing, but contains staples such as professional class fitness centers, rock-walls, high-end dorms, state of the art movie theaters, and the as before mentioned hosting branded national products and services. This is not to mention the contracts signed with major soda manufacturers to blanket the campus in their particular version of caramel-colored sugar water. Obviously, the emphasis on these activities draws focus away from learning for learning’s sake.

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Third, institutional affiliation and long-term feelings of loyalty are key to both a college’s mission and today’s language of branding. One key component of collective memory – that your memory is always moored within the social groups you are a part of – is the role physical structures and monuments play in inhabiting and perpetuating that memory. Simply put, the undergraduate may remember their college via USC’s Tommy Trojan, their library, their chemistry building or Ithaca College graduates may remember the Textor Ball or the Dillingham Fountain. Any of these choices moor the memory within the unique and specific physical reference point of their distinct college. Today, we are greatly in danger of only remembering another Dunkin Donuts, another Starbucks, another Barnes & Noble, another branded piece of apparel from college.

My final point comes from Kendzior’s insight that in today’s social-media based digital economy risk is shifted away from those with capital and power, and the economy has less spaces for older notions of prestige. We see this with our poor undergraduate forced to work for free at an unpaid internship for an old prestige name that will ultimately not provide her much advantage in a fast-paced, digitally networked economy. This is Kendzior’s point, but I want to work backward to the intern’s time in college and these postmodern construction projects. Everything I have mentioned up until this point leads the cynical component inside of me to ask: “why are college’s investing in such large-scale capital-investment projects that trade in reproduction and simulation in order to attract meal-plan buying freshman, when the prestige and social-networks they once solely could bestow upon the graduate, can no longer keep up with the advantages provided by the smartphone in that undergraduate’s palm?”

It may be that the recent cries that the Internet and high college debt will do to higher education what the iPod and mp3 did to the recording industry. However, a more interesting question to me is what does all this physical infrastructure add up to? Will it all become the last bunker for an prestige-seeking middle class? Will much of it become an academic version of housing projects? Or will it become already-paid for office space available to the monthly start-up or corporate renter who signs a lease / contract with the University for a cut of any potential profits from research conducted on the prestigious landlord’s premises? I hope it continues to be a space for alternative perspectives and critical insight rather than an incubation chamber for the next neo-liberal entrepreneurs who equate progress only with technology.

References

Bakkila, Sam. (June 14, 2013). Why you should never have taken that prestigious internship. Policy.Mic. Retrieved from https://mic.com/articles/48829/why-you-should-never-have-taken-that-prestigious-internship#.yzlDNc6kR

Baudrillard, Jean. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Braun, J. (Producer), & Rossi, A. (Director). (2014). Ivory tower [motion picture]. United States: Participant Media.

Karlin, Beth. (June 1, 2003). Registering at mall u. National Real Estate Investor. Retrieved from http://m.nreionline.com/mag/registering-mall-u

McGrath, Brendan. (August 11, 2014). College of New Jersey looks for more retail tenants to fill ‘Campus Town’. Times of Trenton. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2014/08/college_of_new_jersey_looks_for_more_tenants_to_fill_campus_town.html

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