There is something exciting about seeing the mundane turned into spectacle. Glass House Rocks, an annual event sponsored by the undergraduate councils, transforms Lerner Hall into a space for student group performing art showcases, free food, and giveaways.
Two Thursday nights ago, I headed over to Lerner for the event, an hour late. I entered from the Broadway entrance, far beneath the flashing lights of the upper levels, where everything but the bassline of the music had warped beyond recognition. The ramps were, for the most part, closed off and converted into stages.
At Glass House Rocks, students momentarily forget all their usual gripes with the building, crowding the ramps and craning their heads over better-positioned peers to watch the dance performances that take place every fifteen minutes, punctuated by the booming voice of the MC. Every ramp opposite the glass façade is as besieged as the one leading up to Ferris during peak dining hours.
When then-CCSC president Matthew Harrison first organized Glass House Rocks in 2005, he did so as a way to spark school spirit in a way that involves coaxing out the unused potential of a building so ill-suited for its function. So, despite the fact that the space proves challenging for performers, this reclamation of ignored potential makes Glass House Rocks perhaps the only good thing about Lerner Hall.
Glass House Rocks has continually been a runaway success since it attracted an estimated 2,000 attendees in its first year, and Columbia administrators have basked in the limelight: All of the links on the Lerner Hall website’s navigation sidebar lead to pages with banners featuring photos from Glass House Rocks—the one night the ramps are in active use. There seems to be little hesitation on Columbia’s part to promote Lerner as a nucleus of powerful student dynamism—to propagandize a student-run event, if it means rescuing Lerner from its bad press.
Lerner Hall has become an infamous symbol of how the meeting of tradition and modernity sometimes means the forfeiture of something arguably much more integral to the school’s mission: the everyday student experience.
Bernard Tschumi, the accomplished French-Swiss architect of Lerner Hall, has described the building “an operatic battle between good and evil elements.”
But Lerner Hall is meant to be a house of resources for undergraduate students, not a Renaissance painting by Pieter Bruegel. When we place something ideological over something purely functional, we risk sacrificing substance for style and end up missing the point entirely.
From an architectural standpoint, Lerner is as remarkable a feat of physics as any Gothic cathedral, with its massive middle chamber of full, echoing sound, like a high-ceilinged nave. These open spaces make ordinary buildings with enclosed hallways feel subterranean by comparison. Just like the buttresses of the 12th century replaced heavy Romanesque walls to evoke the impression of divine forces at work, Lerner’s expansive glass façade was built to inspire awe—the University’s first step into the 21st century.
But here is where the similarities end. After all, St. John the Divine was not meant to provide student life and psychological resources, computer labs, study spaces, lounges, a dining hall, and an academic advising center, among many other functions.
If Lerner “was meant to serve as a ‘hi-tech version of Low Library steps on a Spring day,’” then technology was the force that pulled us apart. On warmer days, students flood the steps to enjoy, for a few daylight hours, a beautifully uncomplicated and yet transiently available space.
Lerner Hall’s winding ramps and small, scattered lounges take that gathering and, with all the pulp sci-fi calculus of plausibility versus style versus imagination, disperse it to estranged peripheries. Lerner itself is consistently unexciting and needlessly complex—but for one night in early spring.
It is true that, as past student group leaders have praised, Glass House Rocks has provided much-coveted space for student groups to promote their activities and create a broader sense of community. But it is only available for a couple hours every year. At every other point, Lerner remains tragically underused, and the rest of campus, oversaturated: business as usual.
Could Glass House Rocks be a short-term solution—one reliant on student ingenuity, as a staff editorial from 2014 points out—to long-term problems of administrative neglect of undergraduates, a lack of campus unity, and a chronic shortage of space?
I left at midnight, when the programming had ended and almost everyone had gone home. If I felt spirit that night, I don’t know where it went when they turned the lights off, and the students filed out the doors, and the waft of pizza and empanadas dissipated. When I looked up at the ramps I imagined that if students walked alongside me, elevated multiple stories above, I would not have seen where they were headed, nor they, me. If I glanced back as I approached the gate on 115th Street, the transparent façade would bend and become reflective and then vanish, along with all the people inside. The tragedy of Lerner is that all those you might care to observe tread on paths far beyond your reach.
The windows gradually darkened, then, and Lerner seemed to shrink back into its ordinary still life. For one night, it had become a site of colorful and elaborate fantasy, charming hundreds. Unlike Cinderella, however, Lerner kept its glass adornments—and still holds dearly its woes.