Contemporary planners, developers, and proponents of 21st-century city life routinely celebrate cities’ historicity. Urban boosters extol the appeals of historical architecture, and where that historic built environment has been destroyed those urban champions applaud new designs inspired by local architectural heritage. Few neighborhoods would seem to lay a stronger claim on such history than Indianapolis’ Indiana Avenue. Home to residences as early as the 1820s, the Avenue became a predominately African-American business and leisure district at the outset of the 20th century only to witness postwar urban renewal projects that razed nearly all of the stores, clubs, and homes along the Avenue.
Last week a Development Project Manager for Buckingham Companies enthused about the developer’s proposal to build a 345-unit five-story apartment complex in the 700 block of Indiana Avenue, calling the site a “blank slate.” The parking lot and an undistinguished 1989 office building on the site indeed reflect none of the Avenue’s rich heritage. The asphalt parking lots and a functional but forgettable office building are yet more evidence of the city’s historical uneasiness with appearing to deter development after they had been vocal advocates for extensive urban displacement projects, Indiana University’s establishment and growth, and highway construction that collectively depopulated the predominately African-American near-Westside. American urban planners launched numerous similar projects after World War II that targeted African-American communities under the guide of slum clearance or community renewal, uprooting residents and then razing much of the Black urban landscape. These postwar planners hoped to build new cities, launching a host of ideologues’ fantasies for a reimagined city that would serve segregated White suburbanites who would work, play, and shop in the urban core. Read the rest of this entry
In June 1973 attorney Charles Walton wrote Indiana Governor Otis Bowen on behalf of his client Mary Brame. Brame’s home sat on West 15th Street in the shadow of the recently constructed Interstate-65, which had razed virtually all of the surrounding structures and cut off West 15th Street, leaving the widow alone on a newly closed dead-end street. Walton implored the Governor to purchase Brame’s home, which he argued was “falling apart” because of the interstate’s “noise and vibrations.” The State had built a “fence up against Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home and closed down all the street leading to Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home accept [sic] one narrow extremely short street.” Walton complained that Brame “cannot sleep at night because of the noises from the highway, and as a result of this, her health is failing.”
Thousands of Indianapolis residents were uprooted when the state purchased their homes for interstate construction. Mary Brame was simply one of scores of people who were left to live in the shadow of newly built highways. I-65 and I-70 have legacies of displacing vast swaths of residents in the heart of Indianapolis, but they also left in their wake gutted communities compelled to negotiate a radically transformed streetscape, pollution, and noise from the newly constructed highways. A half-century after most of these interstates were constructed, planners are now once again fantasizing over new highway designs that threaten to once more destabilize many of the same neighborhoods destabilized by 1960s and 1970s highway projects.
As Mary Brame’s lawyers attempted to convince the state to purchase her home, residents of the near-Southside were likewise negotiating a radically transformed streetscape. An April 1972 story in the Indianapolis News characterized the near-Southside neighborhood around the Concord Center as once being “a city-within-a-city, with neighborhood stores and entertainment and a great deal of kinship among the residents.” But the arrival of the interstate bisected the community that been settled on the city’s southern edges for well over a century, and much of the existing streetscape was turned into dead ends at the foot of the massive earth pile holding the elevated interstate. The News admitted that “Now that the interstate is being constructed, a physical wall is being built. … There is no overpass on 1-70, and between 400 and 500 persons who live north of the interstate are isolated” (for background on the community, see the 1974 study The Near Southside Community: As it Was and As It Is and the 2012 The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side). Read the rest of this entry
In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core. Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city. A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people. Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms. It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.
The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869. The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad. Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement. Read the rest of this entry
In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel. The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms. Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century. On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.
That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end. Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark: in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building. His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975. When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.” Read the rest of this entry
Observers who doubt marketers’ capacity to package nearly any concept may be impressed by the ambition of Urban Outfitters’ “Urban Renewal” line. Urban Outfitters aspires to make the notion of urban renewal a desirable style that signifies a “totally one-of-a-kind” vintage aesthetic disconnected from urban displacement and decline. The branding is perhaps an irreverent or innocent play on Urban Renewal’s symbolic link to urban youth culture, invoking “streetstyle” in the strained ironic juxtaposition of “new one-of-a-kind vintage.” Yet Urban Outfitters is a carefully constructed “lifestyle” brand consciously selling a caricature of urban decline to a youth demographic that their CEO described in 2012 as “the upscale homeless person” with “a slight degree of angst.” Urban Outfitters aspires to evoke the authenticity of urbanity by linking urban decline and displacement to a style embodied in its “vintage condition” wear.
Urban Outfitters has a reputation for appealing to hipster chic, catering to the consumer who is indifferent to being labeled a hipster. Most consumers accused of being hipsters are raiding thrift stores and flea markets, constructing makeshift assemblages of mixed styles and old things and typically skirting the charge of being labeled “hipster,” but the Urban Renewal line promises genuine vintage (or a persuasive reformulation of it) without descending into the flea market. Nevertheless, because the vintage shopping experience occurs in “real” places outside consumer space, the Urban Renewal line often refers to its garments’ spatial or social roots. Urban Outfitters’ British web site, for instance, invokes the garments’ ambiguous American origins by touting the Urban Renewal line as a “vintage destination” that offers everything from “one-off finds in LA warehouses to awesome pieces from the world’s most obscure flea markets.” The Urban Renewal line’s “vintage mechanic shirts” do not come from a specific place, but they secure some origins by implying class roots that evoke their salvage from proletarian closets. The Urban Renewal garment descriptions on its American web page routinely herald their “handcrafted” production in Philadelphia, where the chain was established near the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1970. Ironically, the neighborhood was transformed by genuine urban renewal that a University archival exhibit refers to as “a lasting public relations disaster” addressed by the 1990’s introduction of local retailing that included Urban Outfitters. Read the rest of this entry
Some buildings are not especially satisfying, plagued by unsightly aesthetics that lead architectural critics and self-styled aesthetes to debate the merits of such structures and spaces. These discourses sometimes reduce buildings to aesthetic props decorating the landscape, important for their stylistic merits or lack thereof, even if they are implicitly understood to have ambiguous social effects. Each Wednesday, the Historic Indianapolis web page features one of these unsightly structures in Indiana’s capital city chosen for its dissatisfying preservation or architectural modifications often concealing the fabric of a historic structure. The examples in the What-the-Hell (WTH) Wednesday column include some truly unique buildings, many that may well qualify as utter eyesores or demoralizing preservation failures. The tongue-in-cheek assessment of the buildings and in some cases remedies for their restoration are all well-intentioned and thoughtful, and the column’s lamentations over these buildings does indeed raise the question of how such structures are seen by their designers, residents, and neighbors. The more consequential question, though, is how such an aesthetic analysis of buildings can be extended to become an analysis of the social and moral weight of buildings and architectural spaces and link style to the structural conditions that produce “ugly” buildings.
At some level assessing architectural aesthetics is simply an individual and idiosyncratic interpretation of a building or space: one person’s experience of an oppressive brutal modernist office building may well liberate another occupant; a neighborhood derided as a “slum” may well be a welcoming home to a community despite its aesthetic and material shortcomings; and a preservationist’s “architectural disaster” may belie concrete spatial inequalities that drove impoverished and marginalized people into “historic” neighborhoods without the material resources to craft the buildings into the stylish historic homes preservationists champion from the distance. Purely aesthetic analysis risks failing to acknowledge that built landscapes are living entities connected to concrete structural inequalities with roots as deep as the buildings themselves, and even the most aesthetically unsightly buildings may have profound social and moral consequence.
This week the WTH Wednesday column took as its subject the Upper Room Apostolic Church on Indianapolis’ eastside. The modest church sits on Broadway Street, nestled in the curve of the massive junction of Interstates 65 and 70 that was carved into the community in the 1960’s (view it on Google maps). In 1958, the city’s Redevelopment Commission described the northeastern Indianapolis neighborhood where Upper Room Church sits today as “a vast blighted area.” As in many other American cities, historic neighborhoods that declined during and after the war were targeted by a state eager to dispossess the people who had made their homes in such communities, many of whom were Black, often-impoverished, and powerful voting blocks. In 1965 and 1966 alone, over 5000 households were displaced in Indianapolis for highway construction. A complex mix of federal and state authorities cut a looping interstate highway swath through the heart of Indianapolis that sliced through a series of predominately Black neighborhoods, razing scores of homes, displacing many long-term residents, and leaving the de-populated shell of historic neighborhoods declining even more rapidly.
The little Broadway Street church sits in a neighborhood known as Chatham Arch, which was platted between 1836 and 1871. Many of the smaller homes in and around the community were razed in the aftermath of World War II, and as in many other Indianapolis neighborhoods larger structures were subdivided into exponentially more makeshift rental spaces for residents desperate for work, which included many African Americans in a wave of migration out of the South. The neighborhood was placed on the National Register in 1980, and in 2000 Indianapolis Monthly dramatically proclaimed that “Once a stagnant neighborhood populated by mostly ramshackle collapsing homes, Chatham Arch now offers downtown living with a small town feel.” Of course, Chatham Arch and neighboring communities were populated by people, and not simply buildings, and the tendency to write those residents out of the analysis and history risks rationalizing displacement and simply allowing it to march on into the future. In 2006 an Indianapolis Monthly article described homeowners in the revitalized Chatham Arch as “very sophisticated buyers, and the houses are quite high dollar.” An optimistic local realtor indicated that “It used to be that there was Lockerbie and the Old Northside, and a war zone in between,” a space now occupied by Chatham Arch in the midst of the similarly gentrified Lockerbie and Old Northside communities.
Yet today many surrounding structures like the church on Broadway remain part of a landscape that is still visibly dismembered by urban renewal forces, and that story of urban inequality materialized in the Upper Room Apostolic Church may well be more important than the fancifully renovated Chatham Arch homes or the preservation shortcomings of the church itself. In August, 1866 Allen Chapel AME (i.e., African-Methodist-Episcopal) was formed on Broadway Street with eight founding members, with the church described in 1870 as being a 36 X 44 foot frame structure first occupied in Christmas, 1866. An “African” church was in the city directory in that spot in 1867, and in 1870 the congregation was identified in the city directory as “Allen Chapel (African).” In 1875 W.R. Revels was identified as the Church’s Pastor. Born in North Carolina in 1817, Willis R. Revels appeared in 1862 Indianapolis tax records as a physician; he served as a Pastor of the Bethel AME congregation in Indianapolis as well as the Bethel AME congregation in Baltimore; his brother Hiram Rhodes Revels was ordained in 1845 and was the first person of color to serve in the US Congress, elected as a US State Senator from Mississippi in 1870-1871; and Willis served as an advocate for the 28th United States Colored Troops regiment that formed in Indiana in 1863. Revels sat for his picture shortly before his death in March, 1879, and in 1887 the church appeared on a Sanborn Insurance map as a brick building sitting exactly where the Upper Room Apostolic Church sits today.
The Allen Chapel congregation built a church facing 11th Street that had its cornerstone laid in July, 1927 and the new church was dedicated in March, 1928. The building that eventually became the Upper Room Apostolic Church remained where it sits today, serving one fraternal organization and least two congregations: In 1930 the building appeared in the city directory as Allen Chapel as well as the Indiana chapter of the young men’s fraternal society the Order of DeMolay, and the fraternal remained at that address in 1940, 1951, and 1960 city directories; in 1970, it was home to Pentecostal Apostolic Church; and in 1980, it appeared in the city directory as the home of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church. In the meantime, the building certainly declined, and in 2006 a city planning document for the neighborhood characterized the Broadway Street structure’s exterior as having “major deterioration.”
Many of the Historic Indianapolis buildings that grace its Wednesday feature are truly vernacular architecture outside the pale of style and difficult to accommodate to the aesthetic and historical codes championed by preservationists. Vernacular architecture is intensely local, shaped by contextually specific environmental, cultural, market, and social influences, and many of the little homes dotting cities like Indianapolis transported a variety of ethnic and regional styles that were modified to meet the financial challenges of their makers, the ways their households changed over time, the spatial size of lots, and similar local if not personal factors. The intent of designers is not irrelevant, and some buildings are truly poorly conceived, but in an analysis of vernacular structures buildings matter as living entities with evolving stories whose aesthetics are material reflections of broader social processes. The Upper Room Apostolic Church’s story is certainly far more complicated than its momentary appearance as a preservation nightmare, and in fact the church’s aesthetics are a direct reflection of the concrete social and material processes that ravaged this and many other inner-city American communities. The story of the little church on Broadway—one with heroic figures, genuine achievement, state inequalities, and crushing decline—is by no means unique, and it might be told of any number of buildings in Indianapolis and nearly any other American (if not global) city.
Assessments of architectural style are always partial at best if they fail to embed the structures in broader social, cultural, and material context. The 31-story Trellick Tower in London, for instance, has rather polarizing aesthetic effects, a massive shaft of concrete that The Guardian recognized was long seen as a “scar [on] the west London skyline.” Completed in 1972, the brutal modernist tower was designed by Emo Goldfinger. In 1939, Goldfinger built a modernist terrace home at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, London that razed several cottages, a move opposed by some residents that included Ian Fleming, who subsequently immortalized Goldfinger as James Bond adversary Auric Goldfinger. Emo Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower was described by The Guardian in 1999 as an example of “pure geometry, of beauty, a perfect resolution of horizontal and vertical elements,” but it was widely reviled, and Goldfinger’s career never recovered from the stigmatizating commentary that dogged Trellick Tower. Like many high-density tower blocks the building became a haven for criminals and exceptionally run-down by the early 1980s. Such buildings were moral as well as aesthetic productions meant to fashion community, though much of the high-density public housing in the United States such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago was fatally undone by racist housing administration practices. Trellick Tower, in contrast, rebounded in the 1980’s and was listed as a Grade II protected property in 1998.
The WTH Wednesday case studies include quite a few buildings in similar neighborhoods whose current condition and aesthetics are powerful stories about displacement and racially and class-based urban renewal. Preserving such structures is laudable, and the Historic Indianapolis pages have been an important advocate for grassroots history and preservation. Every community deserves to be so lucky to have thoughtful preservation voices in our midst, and in the face of a city in danger of losing much of its built heritage many buildings like this church can be demoralizing to preservationists. Yet as material culture scholars we risk writing the complicated histories of urban landscapes out of the story if we fixate on dormers, ornamental woodwork, and aesthetics and forget to link them to broader social and material processes.
Grossman, Susannah L., (2010). Demolition Men: Contemporary Britain and the Battle of Brutalism. Undergraduate Thesis, Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.