Building is an act of world-creation. The result of architectural construction is space, and not just space in the physical sense. Space is social, and its nature is determined by how people use it — something fundamentally influenced by the vision an architect has for the space. If one wants to change the social culture in a given built environment, then, they need only change how it is made.
The process of changing how the built environment produces the nature of social gathering is apparent across campus. The ballroom in Mayo-Smith House was once the greatest of many elegant open spaces that facilitated events from sports parties to formal events to dance lessons from off-campus instructors. The college’s 2001 Residential Master Plan, which was carried out extensively across campus for the following two decades, demolished those spaces which were once the primary expression of social gathering at the college. Now, the grandeur of Mayo’s intricate fireplace is disproportionately confined, and there seems to be a dirty neon veneer pasted over historic living spaces that, perhaps because of the lack of respect afforded to them by the college, aren’t respected by their students either. Plimpton House’s gorgeous Newton Library is an empty box which feels sad, a shadow of what it once must have been. Our fireplaces are disused, our wallpaper is incongruous, and our furniture is dissonant. Nothing is more strange than sitting at an orange table in a plastic chair in Plimpton’s first-floor common space, bathing in a wash of artificial light glaring off of century-old hardwood and a historic fireplace. Except maybe sitting in a neon-yellow “couch” on the floor of Newton Library, chilled by a breeze coming through the shattered window.
These changes in social space on campus came for many reasons, from preventing large-scale parties to making up for the loss of the social dorms and, ultimately, finding some kind of replacement for the social structure defined by Greek life. Losing the social hierarchy that was produced by fraternities on campus has driven attempts by both students and administration to find new ways to gather. Keefe Campus Center and its 2013 renovation tried to shift the center of student activities, and the Powerhouse’s redesign was centered around replacing party and event space that had been inconsistent since fraternity-built social spaces began undergoing changes.
But at every turn, the shrinking of social space and lack of consideration for informal student-driven events (be they parties or, indeed, dance practices) speaks of a disconnect between space-creation and its use, between the vision for the space and the reality of it. Sometimes, spaces at Amherst feels like they were built to impose a vision of student organization onto a population which would not naturally conform. But how could an administration build with the intention of controlling its students — and what would such a building look like?
The first thing I noticed upon entering Cohan Dormitory was the floor plan mounted to the wall. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only building on campus with a copy of its floor plan prominently displayed so near its main entrance. The second thing I noticed was that this floor plan was for the second floor. To enter a building at what appears to be ground level and walk into the second floor is off-putting at first, but could be written off as a fun idiosyncrasy — if not for the rest of the building. To the right of the entrance is a staircase leading down into a wide common room, and every floor opens out into an open shaft to a skylight in the roof above that staircase. However, the stairs that appear to be central to social space in the building are about three-quarters the size of an average person’s foot — the adjective “ladder-like” comes to mind. The interior thereby feels both somehow open and labyrinthine, with its tall vertical spaces and deceptively short sight-lines. Without the ability to even see very far in front of you without a corner or some odd geometry messing with your conception of location, just getting from room to room feels almost dream-like. One quickly loses track of where they are or how they got there, and even if they can see to another vaguely-pleasant social space from where they are, its spatial relationship with the wanderer is utterly inscrutable. Social spaces in Cohan can certainly hold plenty of people, but any gathering would have zero means of organizing itself, simply because no one would be able to see anything not in their immediate vicinity.
As anyone who has lived in Cohan will certainly tell you, the dorm was built sometime after the Vietnam War with the explicit intention of preventing student riots. It is the primary example of an architect’s vision for the use of a space being exactly antithetical to its users’ vision. Cohan’s architecture, through its anti-gathering design, makes it harder for students to live in a positive social environment, forcing students who live there to either conform to the lifestyle prescribed to them or somehow work around the construction of the space they’re living in. Students in Cohan are forced to use “social spaces” that are designed to be antisocial. In terms of hostile and controlling architecture, it doesn’t get much more hostile than actively inhibiting organized gatherings. Moreover, while the confusing maze of the building’s interior might be fun to explore, it’s completely and totally inaccessible — not to mention dangerous.
Cohan is much more extreme than other attempts at building social spaces all over campus in the last half-century. Its construction isn’t representative of the administration’s attitude towards students, and even if it was wrong to build a dorm that is antagonistic toward its inhabitants, the climate that produced Cohan isn’t predominant anymore. Cohan’s design, by its extraordinarily obvious intention, simply calls attention to the constructed nature of all social spaces at the college. Every room on campus is designed with a purpose, and how “good” it is in the eyes of the students is often a measure of how harmonious its design is with how it is used. Harmony in architecture is often strived for — harmony with the natural environment, symmetry in a building’s forms, and harmony in textures and materials all elevate a building above being just a box, devoid of humanity. Harmony in design and use, therefore, is something the college should always strive for as it assigns spaces for students to live in. Especially as the college moves into the future, with a new student center and new academic facilities on the horizon, it should think about how its students like to live. Instead of prescribing how we should use campus, space should respond to how it is actually used.