Last November, during an episode of my life I now summarize as a “period of extreme distress,” I received in the mail a light therapy lamp from my mother, who had read somewhere online that it might help improve my mood. The lamp is a small, strange thing—about the size and shape of an etch-a-sketch—that shines incredibly bright blue light when turned on. The enclosed instruction manual advised me to sit by the lamp for half an hour each day, while the blue light effectively mimics the “natural energizing power of daylight” and helps to combat the “winter blues.”
This odd phrase—“winter blues”—it would seem, is the marketing team’s euphemistic way of saying “seasonal affective disorder” (appropriately abbreviated SAD) which is a type of depression that typically strikes in the winter months, when people have minimal exposure to daylight. I should clarify that I don’t have SAD—my malaise is more of the year-round, lingering sort—but for a while I was captivated with the idea that I could, with the help of some lights, engineer my way to happiness.
Of course, neither I nor the manufacturers of Philips GoLite Blu are the first people to connect mental health (or lack thereof) to light, or, more generally, to a person’s physical environment. As Alan Lewis, a lecturer in architecture at Manchester University, notes in an interview with The Independent, light “helps to stimulate the body’s production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can reduce the symptoms of depression.”
Lewis is one of many contemporary architects thinking about the field of architecture as it relates to psychology. Though the connection between architecture and neuroscience might seem tenuous at first glance, Americans spend on average 87 percent of their time indoors, meaning that the practical and aesthetic qualities of the spaces we inhabit can have sizeable effects on our moods.
Mark Bearak, an architect and adjunct assistant professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation thinks the effects are especially acute on college campuses. “College is one of those periods in which … you’re feeling this big range of emotions because you’re experiencing all these new things,” he explains. “It’s so easy to think about how your environment can have a direct effect on how you can deal with these changes.”
All of this prompts me to ask, then, is Columbia—architecturally speaking—making me miserable?
I meet Lily Chen, a senior at the School of General Studies, a financial economics student with a passion for architecture, in the lobby of Dodge (the music building, not the gym). The lobby, found on the third floor, in true Columbia fashion, is currently trying its hand at housing a Joe Coffee. Like the lobby of most buildings on Columbia’s Morningside campus, Dodge’s is rather small. It is not a space in which a person is meant to linger while discussing Aristotle’s Politics over cappuccinos with a friend, but instead the kind of room a body should step through quickly before climbing the stairs to a class. Still, I meet Chen here because it is most convenient; today, she is studying in the library on the seventh floor of Dodge, her current favorite on campus.
Chen reveals herself to be a connoisseur of Columbia’s study spaces during our conversation, making note of each library's lighting, furniture, and overall ambiance. She can pinpoint down to an exact feature the cause of architectural miasmas I can only vaguely gesture at.
Chen likes Dodge Library not only for its abundance of natural light, but also for its usage of lamps. “Dodge is still decent [at night], because the roof is really low, and they have large white lights that go across [the room], so everything is really bright,” she says. “It’s not like yellow light that makes you sleepy.”
On the other hand, there are the stacks in the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, which see little to no sunlight. In one of Columbia’s weirder architectural mysteries, the bottom floor of the stacks opens up into a large study space that always seems to be crowded, despite being incredibly well-hidden.
Starr’s main hall, according to Chen, has poor artificial lighting. “On a rainy day, it’s quite depressing,” Chen says. “But on a sunny day, the light comes in through the stained glass window, and it's really nice.”
Just north, Avery Library is an iceberg of a building, descending multiple floors below ground level. In a cruel twist of irony, the mostly underground Avery is actually Columbia’s art history and architecture library.
“Lighting has such a profound effect on making a space work or making a space not work,” Bearak says. “If you’re sitting in a dorm with concrete walls and fluorescent lights, then you’re thinking you’re in prison.”
Regardless of how effective my depression lamp may be at mimicking daylight, there is something inexorably depressing about studying in a space that never sees sunlight. And yet Columbia is full of these spaces.
“It kind of feels like Columbia wants us to be in hostile environments,” Sam Velasquez, a junior in Columbia College and an architecture and art history major, says of Columbia’s study spaces. “It’s funny, because I say this a lot to people: I need the perfect amount of hostility in order to be productive now, because I don’t know how to be comfortable and study.”
Among undergraduates, Butler Library, which is open 24 hours a day, has a frightening reputation for becoming students’ second home. Chen offers an unsettling but unsurprising anecdote: “I remember my freshman year I walked in, and there was a guy with a kettle and a lamp at his cubicle. I was like, ‘Is this guy living here? That’s depressing.’”
Chen’s “depression” is a response to one student’s interaction with the space, but it is also key to note that the space invites this kind of interaction.
Velasquez cringes when I mention Butler Library. “There’s a lot of nooks and crannies,” she says.“I think in college the lack of open space, the lack of windows and fresh air, makes it harder to feel comfortable when you're studying.”
Butler feels, at times, like an elaborate hamster cage: dozens of rooms arranged in a frenetic pattern, winding in and out of each other. And in the library’s bowels are levels upon levels of stacks, none of which ever see any light besides that of the white fluorescent lamps that hang overhead.
“I think Butler breeds enclaves of stress,” Velasquez says. “All of the rooms are very different, and it should be cozy, but then I feel like it makes it easy to isolate yourself in a specific part of Butler and really forget that you need to eat, and you need to go home and sleep.”
The problem with Butler is, in other words, both its design and its culture, with the former contributing to the latter. Butler, with its labyrinthine structure and small café, wants you to spend the whole night there.
“I think what makes a building good is how usable it is and how it can attract different varieties of people,” Velasquez states. “When a building is architecturally depressing, it’s because you feel confined to using the space in a certain way, and you go to the space for the purpose of being solely productive.”
Velasquez cites Butler as the archetypical depressing building. “Butler doesn’t lend itself to like, ‘Oh, let’s go get a cup of coffee,’ even though they have a café,” she points out. “You get coffee in Butler because you're about to be up for a while.”
But Butler isn’t necessarily a poorly designed building; photos of its grand neoclassical columns and beautiful embossed ceilings make frequent appearances in Columbia’s promotional materials. Rather, Butler demonstrates how our architectural understanding changes as our personal relationships to a space evolve. Velasquez, who works in the architecture studio in Lewisohn Hall, understands this phenomenon acutely.
“It’s hard to feel good when you’re spending 60-plus hours there a week,” Velasquez says about Lewisohn. “The studio is this completely white room with bays that separate students. There’s no natural light that ever gets in because it’s in the basement. There are two windows that face a brick wall. You can see the grids on Broadway, and you can see people’s feet passing by.”
The windows may let in light, but they also highlight the discord between the interior and exterior realms. The basement of Lewisohn provides a workspace with an obstructed view of the wider world (the outdoors). Velasquez sees the specters of life in motion, but simultaneously lacks any reference point to acknowledge the humanity of these bodies.
“It’s very difficult to be creative in that space,” Velasquez admits.
Given Columbia’s track record with modern architecture on its campus, though, creativity can sometimes breed disaster.
“When you build on a campus,” Bearak says, “you also really have to think about the historic relevance of what’s been built on the campus before and make sure you’re contributing to the ongoing dialogue and the evolution of the campus aesthetically and functionally.”
Attempts to “evolve” Columbia’s campus with buildings in modern styles have not always been successful. Bearak uses Mudd as an example: “As soon as it was built, it was dated,” he says of Columbia’s engineering building. “It’s still not a really well-integrated piece of the campus.”
Chen (who studies financial economics but describes herself as “in the wrong major”)echoes these sentiments. “If you ask any architecture major, they’ll tell you Lerner sucks,”she says. (Bearak, for the record, considers Lerner “a success.”)
Designed by then-GSAPP dean Bernard Tschumi in 1999, Alfred Lerner Hall is Columbia’s undergraduate student center. The only building visible from College Walk that is not in the neoclassical style, Lerner is notable for its deconstructivist architecture, represented in the sloping ramps and massive glass wall that make up the building’s north façade.
It is, without a doubt, the ugliest building I’ve ever encountered in my life.
A New York Times article from the time of Lerner’s construction sheds light on the University’s intentions for the building: “A student center, they [Columbia officials] say, should be a giant campus crossroads where students can encounter others they might not otherwise meet, and trade ideas.”
But, like Butler, Lerner Hall is heavily compartmentalized. “I think Lerner’s primary issue is that there’s no space,” says Velasquez. “All of the rooms are secondary to the ramps, but the rooms are the usable space.”
Rather than a crossroad, Lerner has become a kind of maze students must navigate like lab rats in search of one specific, secluded corner. The effect is not one of unification but instead one that highlights how disconnected we are. Lerner is meant to house our undergraduate student life activities, yet the building’s open spaces—the ramps—are dominated by the figures of people studying.
What is most jarring about Lerner Hall is that its design suggests a certain sense of whimsy—the floors are slanted—but there is nothing whimsical about the way students interact with the space. And because Lerner never seems to foster that kind of lightheartedness, at least in me (though, to be fair, I apparently need light therapy), the design itself loses its sense of whimsy.
Ultimately, all of Columbia’s buildings project an air of seriousness and permanence, creating a separate environment that exists separate from the New York City around it.
“Everyone always talks about the Columbia bubble and how you feel mentally contained, but people don’t think about how it physically contains you,” Velasquez says. “We’re a walled campus with very specific entrances and gates.”
Columbia’s architecture seems to communicate that the University wants to be an island on the island. That—coupled with the impressiveness of Columbia’s neoclassical design—makes Columbia seem like a monument to institution, rather than a lived-in space.
The brick and limestone façades of buildings like Kent and Furnald are certainly beautiful, but beauty is not enough. Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, argues that the happiest city block in New York City tends to be “kind of ugly and messy,” because that messiness gestures at the bustle of human activity.
But at Columbia, most of our buildings look more or less similar, and “neat” to a fault. And that doesn’t just make Columbia’s architecture boring—it makes it confining.
Columbia seems to me a school so obsessed with its own self-image that it fences off the grass. When I feel like my entire life is falling apart, College Walk only ever makes me feel worse. It offers me the suggestion that if I keep up external appearances, few people will realize that I am, actually, a total disaster on the inside.
This is, of course, the architectural philosophy I’ve projected onto Low Library.
Low Library is Columbia’s most iconic building, its once-library, and site of its current administrative offices. Situated on the highest hill on campus, Low is, as Bearak puts it, “a node or a hub for the rest of the campus to radiate around.”
Most undergraduates, however, do not go inside Low on a regular basis. Velasquez argues that this disconnect impacts students’ relationship to the administration that Low Library represents.
“It feels like Columbia imposed an architecture of authority on its students,” she says. “[Low uses] an architecture that is intended to recall Athens and democracy, but it is a form of architecture that many structures of authority have used.”
At Columbia, the University administration literally, architecturally looks down on its students as they walk across campus.
But, as Bearak points out, “the building extends beyond the Rotunda down the stairs.” In this way, the architectural technique used to suggest the authoritative power of Low also created Low Steps, the site of most of the biggest protests on campus. Every protest on Low Steps is arguably, in addition to its immediate political mission, an attempt to morph the power implications of architecture, to have the Steps eclipse the building. In this way, we strive to find peace through our perpetual distress with Columbia’s fraught architecture.
It is, of course, an uphill battle.
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