First Person / Designed for learning
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This summer I promised myself I would rediscover my city. Among several enjoyable outings was a conducted tour of the Nationality Rooms. I had classes in some of those rooms when I was a student at Pitt, and my memories of them were accurate: The rooms are beautiful, and some of them are beyond beautiful, capturing what is truly timeless and universal in the best folk art.
But the big rediscovery in my tour of the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning was the Commons Room, around which the classrooms are set. As I entered the great space from the stone plaza outside, through the heavy revolving doors, I saw that the Commons Room was just as it had been when I was there as a student: high, vaulted, Gothic, stone-floored, stone-walled, shadowy, with the same long oak tables and unpadded oak chairs and weighty pendant lights. In fact, it was just the same as it had been when Chancellor John Bowman's vision became a reality: the skyscraper cathedral with its medieval interior, stone and oak and somber, just there and just right.
I remembered how we students used that vast, mysterious space to study, to whisper and laugh, to pass love notes, to weep alone in a corner. The Commons Room welcomed us and held us and made us feel different, more grown-up, not high school students anymore. I believe we sensed that the materials that had gone into making the intricate series of spaces of the great Commons Room were solid and strong, and that they would last to welcome many more generations of students.
Last fall I returned to teach at Point Park University Downtown. As many Pittsburghers know, Point Park has embarked on an ambitious project of creating an academic "village" by expanding along Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies, buying and renovating buildings and making small parks.
In an early phase of the creation of the village the lower floors of Lawrence Hall, a former hotel, got a facelift. Lawrence Hall wasn't savaged the way the beautiful interior of the Schenley Hotel had been at Pitt. Still, given the richly colored stone, the broad staircase, the grandeur of the lobby, the renovated space was a disappointment. It looked like a bank. Little elevated tables with uncomfortable seats might be fine for the amount of time it takes to write a deposit slip, but they did nothing to promote conversation. Upholstered chairs scattered randomly were comfortable enough, but they'd be soiled and used up in no time. The trendy multicolored stone floor would be dated in no time, too; that's in the nature of trends.
Why was I surprised? As someone who worked for more than 20 years as a residential interior decorator, I knew exactly how the process worked. Lawrence Hall looked like a bank because it was almost certainly designed by people who design banks. A committee of the institution -- the bank, the corporate headquarters, the branch office, the college -- works with a design firm to come up with a plan. We all know what happens when committees design things, so the design team makes it easy by preparing color boards, which include bits and pieces of all the furnishings and finishes. Your choice is Board A or Board B, all the choices already made. No eccentric, temperamental (or visionary) designer to deal with; on the university side, no eccentric Dr. Bowman, either.
I was even more disappointed when the "village" park was unveiled at the corner of the Boulevard and Wood Street. "What's wrong with it?" one of my students challenged when I voiced my dismay. "Almost everything," I shot back, not having considered my answer.
To my own surprise, I ticked off the points: no barrier to traffic, no defining work of art, no intimacy in seating, a clever water feature on the exposed wall of a building that did not allow the water to play and therefore to delight the senses. The park looked like a plaza outside a ... bank. This was no village square (a sign reminds outsiders that it isn't a public space at all), nor was it the sort of outdoor room that artists created as love letters to their cities (and their patrons) in Europe.
Point Park is hardly alone in this drift into corporate style. Most colleges and universities now reflect the reality of a business model not just for buildings and grounds but for everything else. But the model for educational institutions, the ones so many of us dreamed about attending, was never business.
Early European universities and their later American counterparts were founded as ecclesiastical institutions, of course, which is one reason Gothic architecture seems so natural to seats of learning. My own favorites are the small colleges that grew up around large houses, like the original campus of Chatham.
Too "elitist" a model? Well, I remember visiting the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the democratic style of the Bauhaus. Its library is a marvel of light-catching tranquility, a space created by an artist, not a committee.
As for me, I've become less apologetic about being out of step with trends in higher education. I believe my students are entitled to spaces that make them feel respected, that envelop them in beauty and quiet. In fact, I've started to talk to them about my ideal of following a model even more ancient than the great universities of Bologna and Paris and Heidelberg. I ask them to imagine all of us in Athens in the 5th century BC, walking through our small city's beautifully defined public spaces, listening to Socrates, stopping to address each other and to answer his challenges in the shade of a tree.
We have a beautiful small city here in Pittsburgh, too. So I picture walking in one of our real, municipal parks with a handful of students, "professing" what knowledge I've gained and helping them to become proficient enough to "profess" right along with me. That is the old model of education. My students, some of them hearing about the method for the first time, seem to be enchanted by it. And the decor will do very nicely.
First Published September 15, 2012 12:00 am