Mapping Campus: The Material Dimensions of Space, Experience, and Urbanization

Campus spaces are one of the most important yet overlooked dimensions of the college experience:  A materially inviting campus can secure a prospective student; a campus with central social spaces produces a very distinctive student consciousness (think about UC-Berkeley, for instance); on commuter campuses, parking can profoundly dominate students’ everyday life; and small touches like public art, consumer spaces, flower beds, and pedestrian and bike-friendly planning can have a radical effect on the university experience.  Universities aspire to fashion some sort of consistent experience, and spatial planning is often as critical to that as reflective pedagogy, stellar faculty, and wired classrooms.  Universities attempt to focus perceptions of campus space through representations like maps and pictures, campus tours, coordinated architectural styles, and spatial mechanisms like decorative features (e.g., fountains), sidewalk layout, or signs.  Inevitably, though, members of a campus community have many different perceptions of the same objective space, and those often-conflicting perceptions of an objective material thing illuminate how and why we see things in a wide range of ways.

A surprising number of maps include the “hot dog lady” who sells dogs in front of Cavanaugh Hall when the weather allows ( click on thumbnail).

Nearly every semester I ask my students to draw maps of campus to represent an objective materiality that they all share, and the maps can be remarkably different.  The only directions are that students’ maps should aesthetically represent the campus in a way that seems true to their experience.  Some of the idiosyncracies reflect that people with different majors know some buildings better than others; some students have been on the campus for years while others are newcomers; and commuter students approach the campus from different sides of town at various times of day (only about 1100 of 30,000 students live on campus).  Others have highly individual perceptions of the space:  for instance, a fire fighter once drew a map charting all the fire hydrants on campus, and disabled students have often pinpointed handicapped parking and complex access and mobility issues.  Yet at another level the maps reflect how consequential spatiality is in student experience and how the campus materially shapes the way students view higher education.  They also stress that campus planning is a critical public process that requires significant input that ranges across an institution and into the surrounding community, and that process should involve ethnographic rigor and material analysis and listen closely to all of us who inhabit these spaces.  Every campus space and coherent landscape has its own specific meanings that are not quite the same as the campus landscape my students draw each semester, but many of the insights could be transported to somewhere other than my little corner of the urban Midwest.

As an archaeologist who works in the neighborhood now occupied by IUPUI (that is, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis), much of my attention revolves around the history of the campus space between the 1850s and 1960s.  Students have no real reason to see the contemporary campus of IUPUI as “historic,” since the University was founded in 1969 and in the process virtually every trace of historic architecture was erased.  IUPUI sits alongside the Indiana University Medical Center, which has been in the neighborhood since the turn of the century, and the hospital built in 1855 was surrounded by a residential neighborhood that had its first European settlers in 1820.  After the turn of the 20th century it became a predominately African-American neighborhood whose heart lay in a business and leisure district on Indiana Avenue.  As in many cities, federal “slum clearance” funding following World War II targeted such overwhelmingly Black communities, and between the 1950’s and 1980’s the community was displaced.

One objective of this particular exercise is to remind students that unseen urban spaces—the parking lots, interstates, and scattered vacant spaces left behind by urban renewal—have a genuine history masked by their prosaic contemporary faces.  Many University campuses have obvious heritage, invoking the institution’s historical depth through architecture and landscape aesthetics.  The University of Virginia’s Lawn, for instance, is ringed by structures planned by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself, and a host of communal rituals have been linked to the University’s central space since 1819.  IUPUI students, in contrast, virtually never draw or refer to historical features on the campus landscape because there are no significant material cues to this heritage.  The landscape around the Indiana University Medical Center has some historical architecture and spaces, including a 1929 Olmsted Brothers garden (which has never appeared on even one of the 2000 student maps I’ve graded in over 10 years), and the 1927 Madame Walker Theatre Center sits across Indiana Avenue (but it very rarely appears on student maps).  Nevertheless, few IUPUI students spend much time on the Medical Campus (despite being immediately across the street), so it rarely appears as more than a rough reference or as the home to a 24-hour McDonalds.  The Walker Theater sits on what was once the central thoroughfare of Black Indianapolis, but that heritage is largely unknown to most Indianapolis residents.  The dilemma of ignoring the landscape’s heritage is that it risks evading the racially motivated displacement that made the University itself possible.  IUPUI has worked to recognize that heritage and the University’s complicity in the neighborhood’s displacement, but much of that story appears to remain unrecognized by the students who draw campus maps in my class.

For many students, the IUPUI campus is simply overwhelmed with cars and no spaces to park them. Almost no academic buildings even appear on the map (thumbnail)

Compare the drivers’ map on the left with this cyclist’s map, which has almost no features at all (thumbnail)

The story of a commuting campus inevitably revolves around parking, and nothing is a more common focus of my map-makers than their apparently endless and universally futile search for convenient, inexpensive, and spacious parking.  To compound students’ consistent displeasure with parking is Indianapolis’ deep affection for car culture, a love personified by the city’s long-term links to auto racing and underscored by its persistent resistance to mass transit, bike commuting, carpooling, and sidewalks and walkable streets.  Some of this celebration of car travel has subsided in the city (for instance, the University has a carpool program and a host of inducements to seek an alternative to car commuting), but most students feel compelled to drive to campus alone and compete for a finite number of parking spots that seem to be grossly over-priced.  So rather than celebrate the rich appreciation of critical thinking and diversity honed in our classrooms, many of them instead appear to associate their University experience with deep-seated anger over parking.  Car culture appears unquestioned and inescapable in these maps, and for suburbanites with irregular schedules, kids, and jobs the vagaries of Indianapolis public transport, carpooling, and sweltering on a bike all are challenging to overcome.  Nevertheless, there are more options than many students seem willing to concede, and few see parking as a privilege or recognize it was won by the historical displacement of a community to make way for asphalt expanses.

This colorful map includes all the essential features of college life: the ATM machine; parking; and the 24-hour McDonalds in the University Medical Center (thumbnail).

University maps are not surprisingly often quite lovely expanses of green that eliminate all the objectionables of real life and underscore the campus’ placement in nature.  Compare the typical maps for Eastern University, Shippensburg University, or Jacksonville University, all oblique images bathed in green just like most rural and urban campus maps alike, including most of the IUPUI maps.  Yet my students rarely depict anything from nature in the IUPUI maps, instead fixating on asphalt parking lots, brutal modernist buildings, and empty expanses in between.  The University is bordered by the White River to the west, but because most students enter campus from the east they rarely depict the river.  Local militias first gathered at the spot now known as Military Park in 1827, but the 14-acre park on the south side of the campus is virtually never depicted on student maps; likewise, the Indiana Central Canal built in 1836-1839 neighbors campus but has almost never appeared on a campus map (though the map on the left is an exception).  The remainder of campus is largely flat stretches of asphalt and open unevenly grassed spaces punctuated by a few modest trees, so much of that open space never gets aesthetically depicted in students’ maps and appears to simply be imperceptible.  Much of that space is left unrendered in drawings, or in the most detailed maps students draw sidewalks but nothing outside their sidewalk trails.

This remarkably detailed map on the left (completed prior to the construction of the Campus Center or the introduction of the smoking ban) illustrates several of the most basic insights of these maps. Penned by a smoker, it reflects how many smokers seem to know the landscape especially clearly. The map complains about parking, as do most student map-makers. This cartographer does not know exactly where the White River is located or what is on the west side of the city, though he illustrated some items from nature and the Lilly Fountain on the left side of this map, and he even notes where he and his dog come to play. His use of the parking decks, though, is not exactly how planners intend these spaces to be used.

This map includes only two academic buildings, acknowledgement that a hospital exists nearby, and the note that Medical Center employees who smoke (i.e., “smoking nurses and doctors”) are compelled to gather along 10th Street (thumbnail).

The best maps nearly always are drawn by smokers.  Where many non-smoking commuter students rush into the classroom buildings and rarely linger outside, smokers spend much of their time clustered along sidewalks where they have been ushered because of smoking bans.  Even before the University smoking ban smokers gathered in specific spots on campus and developed circles of students and staff who actually knew what the landscape looked like and could report on the weather.  Regardless of how we feel about the health effects of smoking, it is hard to deny that it is a social activity made oddly more social by smoking bans that have driven collectives into sequestered spaces together (strangely enough along all the sidewalks coming into campus, which makes it appear that there are now more smokers than there were before the campus ban).  I’ve had several smokers draw campus maps that measure distance based on how long it takes to consume a cigarette between two points, and the estimations of distance made by smokers seem remarkably accurate.

An astounding number of students do not include the University Library on their map or put it in a spot not even close to where it exists in reality.  This may simply be confirmation that increasingly more students encounter scholarship in digital formats and not on dead trees or with the sage advice of skilled librarians.  To some extent it may also reflect that the University Library is a rather non-descript massive cube sitting out in the midst of campus.

This map of campus includes only two of the three L’s in the central space.

The shining L’s on a blazing hot Midwestern summer day. My brutal modernist office building is in the background.

One thing that students do include on many of their campus maps is public art.  The campus includes a surprising number of pieces of public art, and the piece most often recognized is the work Untitled L’s, which sits in the space in front of Cavanaugh Hall, which houses most Anthropology classes.  Installed in 1980, the work is three 55-foot tall steel L-shapes designed by sculptor David Von Schlegell, but student maps sometimes  include anywhere between one and five L’s pointing in any number of directions (though they always get the location right).  There are a variety of origin myths about the work, the most common being that several more sculptures had been commissioned but could not fit in the space; others suggest the work is simply meant to be campus seating, and on a nice day it is true that sitting or reclining on the huge L’s is comfortable.  The work actually is laid out as a Pythagorean triangle and meant to evoke the logic inherent in University life.  No mapper has ever recognized that intended meaning, and many seem to actively dislike the piece, but both responses may be irrelevant since the sculptures are actually seen and evoke genuine responses.

At some level this is simply an exercise in reflecting on how maps represent space in particular ways, but at another level a decade of these maps has provided a very strong sense of how students perceive campus space, and that voice is absolutely critical in any campus planning.  Campus planners have been drafting costly plans for the remodeling of the campus neighborhood continually since the late 1950’s (with some really fabulous scale models of the city) and as recently as February, 2012, but the plans are at best suggestive directions for campus and city planning.  The map exercise actually underscores the significance of ethnographic work with users, something most thoughtful architects already recognize, yet many students and campus community folks have clever and interesting ideas for how the space could be developed that would make the campus experience more pleasant and enriching.


Posted on August 2, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hello, just wanted to tell you, I loved this
    article. It was practical. Keep on posting!

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