Monday, September 30, 2013

Columbia University as an Agentive Landscape

The gates on Broadway.
In 1896, Columbia University moved from Madison Avenue to its current campus in Morningside Heights. It occupies approximately 32 acres, which, although small for a campus, is remarkable given its location within Manhattan, famous for its limited real estate and corresponding ridiculous prices. Architecturally, with its red brick and columnar architecture, Columbia more closely resembles Harvard and other college campuses than what is typical of New York City. Even the high cost of living is mitigated to some extent; dormitories are less expensive per square foot than the surrounding apartment complexes, and some faculty have access to rent-controlled apartments near campus. These differences result in a completely different ambience within these six city blocks; the city effectively falls away. As soon as one enters the majestic gates from either Broadway or Amsterdam, the feeling of pulsating energy and grit symptomatic of New York City dissipates in favor of a calm, idyllic atmosphere removed from reality.

In his article “Material Culture after Test: Re-Membering Things,” Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen writes, “Think how the routines, movements, and social arrangements of our daily lives are increasingly prescribed, defined and disciplined, as well as helped or encouraged, by networks of material agents. Acting increasingly imperatively, these agents tacitly demand certain behaviours, impose certain socio-spatial configurations” (2003:97). He then includes a university campus in a list of prescriptive environments. Columbia’s artificiality and controlled environment certainly support Olsen’s statement.

Unoccupied lawns.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the campus’s explicitly delineated paths, which direct movement and thus have agency to influence the university’s human population. Along with physical barricades, they often forbid people from making use of the grassy lawn areas around Columbia. When I first toured Columbia, I remember the guide drawing my attention to the extensive green space, so rare in New York City, and telling me that I would be able to read, play guitar, or just lounge about. However, since arriving this has not been the case. In a profound case of circular argument, using the grass would result in losing its embodiment of all that grass is – green, verdant, lush. Therefore, it seems as though according to the administration it is more important to SIGNIFY a lawn and its characteristics than to actually BE an active lawn space.

Another instance in which objects or, rather, collections of objects comprising spaces acquire agency at the university can be observed within the many libraries. Within each, the various rooms are assigned categories according to the degree of strictness in terms of both consumption and noise. This ranking system utilizes the same sign system as stoplights: green represents areas in which beverages can be consumed and cell phones can be used; yellow signs delineate spaces in which noise must be limited and only certain cups are allowed; and red prohibits all such activities.

Of course, many of these rules are often broken. To some extent, the degree to which violations occur corresponds to how strictly they are enforced. In other cases, though, it seems as though location also plays a role. The Nicholas Murray Butler Library, for example, the largest of Columbia’s libraries and one of the most prominent buildings on campus, technically forbids food from being brought into the library. Yet once inside, there is a café that serves not only beverages but also a variety of victuals. This evident contradiction between policy and spatial relationship has resulted in, based on my personal behavior and observations of others, excessive rule violations. While there is an area set aside for eating, many people consume food from both the library café and elsewhere in the study rooms themselves. While in other libraries I have gotten disapproving looks from other students for food consumption, in Butler there seems to be an unwritten agreement that it is acceptable to break this rule.

Butler Library.
This minor transgression pales in comparison to other acts of dissent that have taken place on Columbia’s landscape. Butler Library was the site of student protests resulting from the 18 renowned authors and philosophers inscribed around its exterior. With the exception of one, Demosthenes, works by all of these scholars have been required reading in Columbia’s Core Curriculum. They are also, significantly, all white men. Students have used the paradigmatic association between these inscriptions and Columbia’s curriculum to raise objections to the predominantly Western male perspective of the Core, unfurling banners from the roof displaying the names of female and black writers instead. In this way, the signification and definition of the established order within the landscape affected behavior of those acting within it, not by complying with its rules but by reacting against them.

David Shapiro.
This negotiation between landscapes/object collectives and human actors was perhaps most dramatically played out through the famous Vietnam War protests that took place on Columbia’s campus. These defiant acts not only disrupted the university’s day to day functioning but also its projected image of beautiful but sterile symmetry and perfection. One of the most quintessential photographs from that student occupation of campus portrays David Shapiro, then a senior at Columbia College, smoking a cigar and wearing sunglasses in President Grayson L. Kirk’s office. This overt transgression of landscape parallels the attempted transgression of dominant paradigms during the 1960s.

The ROTC program at Columbia, a longstanding symbol of order and tradition, was abolished cotemporally to the Vietnam Protests. It is interesting to examine the pronounced difference in the way humans interacted with the same landscape in these situations. Columbia University is just one example of an environment that is prescribed but whose configurations can be violated, resulting in a constant dialogue between the campus and its human occupants.

Lucy Gill

Student protestors occupying Columbia.
ROTC members performing a drill.

Olsen, B. 2003. Material culture after text: Re-membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2), 87-104. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Central Park: A Conflation of Nature and Culture

New York City, Manhattan in particular, is one of the most objectively unnatural places in existence. While it is an island, taking a boat to reach the ‘mainland’ is unnecessary. Rather than the rural or tropical wilderness usually connoted by any piece of sub-continental land surrounded by water, Manhattan is the land of street vendor’s synthetic food, towering buildings, and blinding billboards that never sleep. This is all to say, few things in the big apple remain unmitigated by human influence. But in a city so micromanaged by human hands, then, it almost seems ironic that one of the major landmarks for natives and tourists alike is Central Park.

The park’s location at the geographic heart of city life was not part of New York’s initial urban planning efforts. The park was the eventual outcome of longstanding public desire. Between the years 1821 and 1855 the population of New York City nearly quadrupled in size. As the city expanded, people retreated to the few existing open spaces to get away from the noise and chaos (Central Park Conservancy 2010). At the time, however, spaces of this nature were limited to cemeteries. Among the affluent and influential New Yorkers there was a conscious appeal for a stylish place for open-air driving and conversation – something akin to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or Hyde Park in London.

(Map of New York Circa 1875, c/o
In 1857, New York State appointed a Central Park Commission to oversee development of the 700-acre area from 59th to 106th streets. This space was planned to a T by landscape designer Federick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. The procurement of the land and initial budget for development was an estimated five million dollars (Central Park Conservancy 2010). From its earliest moment of conception, it is evident Central Park, New York’s great embodiment of ‘nature,’ was far from natural.


A place where dogs can roam without leashes, children can run and climb, and birds (other than pigeons) chirp, Central Park has become the standing symbol of nature in the concrete jungle. The fifty-block-long bastion of flora and fauna provides New Yorkers with a sense of escape. It is an almost Thoreau-like retreat from reality to a place with seemingly alternative notions of time and space.


So what enables this space to be so special? For starters, the basic spatial planning of the park helps to create a ‘natural,’ or non-cosmopolitan, atmosphere.  The park is visibly free of all signs of New York traffic. While there are a few (four) designated crossing points – where cars and buses freely migrate from east to west and west to east – the park remains visibly un-penetrated by vehicles. These roads are concealed from popular pedestrian areas. The greater environment of the park is pervaded by feelings of tranquility rather than hustle and bustle.

New Yorkers may be bound up in an identity of constant, fast movement, but the landscape of the park posits an alternative. A separate notion of time and space can materialize – one associated with something natural in contrast to the culturally pervasive “New York Minute.”

Feelings of nature may be pervasive in this context, but the curation of this landscape should not be overlooked. The park is comprised of 24,000 trees (which were intentionally planted), 7 water bodies (which were intentionally constructed), 9,000 benches and 36 bridges (which were intentionally built). Furthermore, even amidst the unrestricted patches of grass, child play does not occur in a “natural” setting. The park is home to 21 playgrounds – that is, 21 places intentionally designated for children to just be children.

What I found most striking about the park’s design is its eight designated “quite zones.” Bethesda Terrace, Conservatory Garden, Conservatory Water, East Green, Shakespeare Garden, Sheep Meadow, Strawberry Fields, and Turtle Pond are all spaces allocated for reading, meditation, and so-called “quiet enjoyment.” The public space is governed by rules. Here, no musical instruments are allowed, as signs stipulate in these spaces: dogs must be leashed and kept on pathways, no running, rollerblading or bike riding is permitted, no organized, active recreation or sports are allowed, even the feeding of birds and other wildlife is prohibited.

In a similar vein, it should be noted activity in the park is further restricted by its opening and closing times. While its entrances are not barricaded or gated, the park does close at 1am and open at 6am. ‘Nature,’ as New Yorkers conceive it, has permissible times in which it can be experienced. It is not recognized as a continuum – a world of infinite possibility and self-reliance as Rousseau describes it – but rather as an entity with recognizable limitations. Nature is culturally sanctioned. It is subject, much like the rest of the city, to both the public and invisible rules of New York. In other words, one can never truly escape New York whilst in the park. Rather, he or she can merely enter an alternative realm of New York’s rules. 
To many, especially native, New Yorkers, Central Park is ‘Nature.’ It has that raw feeling and instantaneous sensation of the great outdoors. Upon further inspection, however, it is evident the park rather than being nature is merely a symbol or (impure) icon of such. But, the question remains, does it matter that the park is not actually ‘nature’ or natural if it signifies this thought or alternative category of being to its visitors?  There appears to be an interesting conflation of symbol, symptom, index, or icon and ‘nature’ as it is classically conceived by Thoreau. It is clear that Central Park belongs exclusively neither to the category of the ‘natural’ or ‘cultural,’ but resides in grey area where culture has created a unique manifestation of nature.

[By Gabby Borenstein]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Outsider's View of the New York Subway Map

The New York City Subway map is a mix of symbols that are intended to help riders navigate the system. The New York Subway is a large and complex system that takes a bit of time for those of us who did not grow up in New York to figure out. The map covers 468 stations and 660 miles of track. For comparison the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, the system I rode growing up, has 44 stations and 104 miles of tracks.

While many of the riders on the New York City Subway know exactly where they are going, each car has a map of the subway system for those who need help finding their way around.

From afar the map looks like a swirl of colored lines moving about on a background of beige, blue and green. The colors signify different sets of tracks that run under the streets of New York. The colors are applied to multiple lines that run on the same set of tracks through Midtown Manhattan. The numerical groupings make sense (123 and 456) but to an outsider the groupings of the lettered trains is seemingly random. While there may be a meaning behind how the letters are grouped it is not apparent in the way they are expressed on the map.

While the trains that run on the same tracks go through all of the same stations some of them run express (eg: the 2 and 3 trains between Chambers Street and 96th Street). The express and local stations are differentiated on the map by the color of the station dots. The solid black dots are local stations and the white dots are express stations.

Because the subway map is a system of symbols it can't tell everything about the subway system. One thing that the map does not tell you how easy it is to transfer from the local to the express train. At some stations, such as 42nd Street Times Square 1, 2, 3 platforms, transferring from the express to the local train only involves walking across the platform and at others, such as 34th Street Penn Station 1, 2, 3 platforms, one must go down the stairs across and then up on the other side.  While they are not reflected in the map they are important pieces of information to know if you are trying to transfer between the local and express trains.

The subway map can't show everything in the subway system but it is a helpful tool for anyone who is trying to find his or her way. It is used as a filter to show the pieces of information that are important to lost riders.

Reading Rush Hour

Commuters in New York City are a people that descend upon the streets and transit systems during the hours of 8:00-10:00am and 5:00-7:00pm (a loose approximation), aptly known as “rush hour.” This rush is ultimately dictated by a language of being first—a pushy communication between fellow commuters who are all trying to either get to work or go home, and will get there eventually, but play a game of "every man for himself." Yet despite the way commuters overwhelm transit centers they seem to leave little traces of evidence of their competitive interplay. The language of commuting—of beating everyone else for a seat on the train or out the station door—can hardly be read in the materiality of public transportation; it seems to only exist in its own hectic world whenever it emerges.

For example, one cannot read from seats that fit three on NJTransit trains that some commuters will opt to stand in the aisles or vestibules rather than sit in the middle seat wedged between two strangers. Or how, despite the many train cars that fit crowds of people, most commuters will not engage each other in conversation.

Nor could anyone glean any accurate assumptions about commuter behavior by looking at the thick yellow lines painted on each side of the train platform, which are supposed to read as “Stand Back,” yet are largely ignored by commuters who stand as close to the tracks as they can when a train arrives in order to beat everyone else for a seat. The same phenomenon occurs on subway platforms, where commuters are also given a warning through a friendly announcement: “There is an uptown 1 train approaching the station. Please stand back from the yellow line.” Many people will do the opposite and stand closer, or even directly on top of the yellow line, hoping that the train will stop with a door that will open right in front of them.

Perhaps one could infer how hard it is to walk through Penn Station during the afternoon rush, when commuters become large clots of people hovering around departure boards, waiting for the track number of their train to appear; or how impossible it is if you’re unfortunate enough to have to walk in the opposite direction of a track that was just posted for an outbound train. The train station alone can tell someone these things simply by revealing how it operates—just add in a huge mass of people and one can imagine the difficulty of navigating such a place at such a time. I wonder though, if one could also infer the “me first” mentality that most people exhibit during rush hour. Can it be assumed that the daily grind might naturally cultivate such behavior? Or is there any other tangible evidence that could tell someone of how commuters are islands who only interact by pushing past each other? 

It seems that ultimately, when everyone has finally made it to work or finally gone home, there are hardly any traces left of the competition embedded in commuter life. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that there isn’t much materiality collectively involved in commuter culture; commuter passes, metro cards, styrofoam coffee cups—these things are indicative of traveling caffeinated masses, and perhaps from this one can assume that there was rushing in these masses, and therefore people might have been rude. But the daily, and somewhat fruitless ritual of trying to be first on and off the train is hard to read without being in the middle of it while it is happening. Commuter culture is an ephemeral world that appears and disappears twice a day, and it asserts itself with force during its peak hours, but when it is done it seems to take all evidence of its competition with it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Gothic Cloisters of Manhattan

The Cloister Museum, a branch of the Met, exists because of the financial backing and vision of millionaire, John D. Rockefeller Jr., a young Harvard grad curator, James R. Rorimer, and a sculptor trying to fund his art projects by dealing antique building fragments. In the Washington Heights Fort Tryon Park, French an assemblage of medieval period structures have been combined with gray stone from Connecticut to mimic an imaginary Gothic presence in upper Manhattan.

This story of this fabricated Gothic Cloister takes place in an idyllic setting: a landscape of old growth forest and ivy to feed the fantasy. The building site is on a 4 acre section of the 56 acres of woods donated by Rockefeller. The Cloisters were fittingly positioned atop a steep hill overlooking the Hudson River. The visitors approach must be what final moments of pilgrimage are like, the Cloisters come into view, and the slow steep climb amplifies the importance of the moment as you approach.

The construction project was shaped by a reverence for materials which signified high standards of European craftsmanship. The Cloisters represent the wishes of the extremely rich to inform the intellect of the middle class visitors. Rockefeller and the Met chose to do this with an uninterrupted authentic “experience”… an afternoon to take in or visually consume the signs of wealth, power and sanctity within. The cloisters and the collection perpetuate the myth of an American “royalty” who ordained its construction.


Though the function of this museum is to step back temporally into a humble sanctuary where men of the cloth were praying for the souls of the impoverished, in actual experience the Cloisters are host to fabulous showrooms of gold chalices, the Unicorn tapestries, jewelry, a cape and staff befitting the pope, ornate wood carvings of saints and biblical scenes, and furniture dating from the 13th – 15th centuries.
The contradiction of the gray exterior of the structure and priceless medieval materials within emphasize the hypocrisy of the function of the building. A medieval cloister brought into existence around the idea of 13th century Europe, but disassociated from the nearby real time poverty of the Great Depression occurring in the US; plus being situated in the middle of woodlands to remove the museum from the modern urban setting that may have reminded the visitor of where they actually were.

As a visitor to this world, I overlooked the artificial curation of ornate windows floating in plaster with a placard stating “Window” and became lost in the perceived authenticity of wood ceiling beams, knight’s tombs, the medieval herb garden and anything that fed the senses of reality. Ultimately, I gave into the myth constructed by material markers.
Tomkins, Calvin
1970  The Cloisters ... The Cloisters ... The Cloisters ... The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28(7): 308–320.


The Art of Walking (in Manhattan)

When visitors from non-pedestrian cities hear that New York – especially the borough of Manhattan – is a “pedestrian city”, they frequently assume that it means people walk a lot in Manhattan.  While this may be true, there is so much more to Manhattan pedestrianism and how we utilize our feet.  I am not talking about “strolling” which is more of a comfortable means deployed for window shopping or sight-seeing.  Nor am I referring to walking (or running) with the intent to exercise – people go to a gym or Central Park for that.  I am referring to walking as a preferred mode of commuter transportation in the manner that people from non-pedestrian cities drive their cars to work in the morning.

Sometimes, the distance to be traveled is so great that it requires walking to be supplemented with the use of the subway or bus system, but the first choice for the majority of the 9-to-5 workers in Manhattan is to walk. The desire to
walk to and from work played a major role in driving the financial companies from downtown to midtown, and the convenience of being able to walk to work in Manhattan without ever stepping on/in a subway, bus or car is considered a special amenity for the average 9-to-5 Manhattan workers.  They have perfected it to an art form.

They first ensure that they have proper “tires” for their daily walking commute.   During the subway strike of 1980, businesswomen adopted the wear of sneakers for their daily commute, keeping a pair of high heels in the office drawer.  The walking population has their usual “route” to work, as well as an alternative “Plan B” route in the event of obstacles (construction or a gaggle of tourists) blocking the usual path.  The commuters walk with purpose – their stride is swift and powerful and their eyes remain on the road.  After all, if they glanced at a passerby, they might actually recognize the person and feel obligated to stop and speak, knowing in their hearts that the person recognized no more wants to speak to them than they do the passerby.  Neither does this typically occur between two people driving cars - where the drivers might pull their cars alongside one another, block the road, then roll down the windows for a little chat.  

Commuting pedestrians in Manhattan tend to follow road etiquette originally designed for cars.  The commuter attempts to walk on the right side of the sidewalk, speeds up to pass slower commuters and even honks a "horn" when appropriate with a loud “PARDON!” or “EXCUSE ME!”  At intersections, often the decision must be made on whether to wait for the light or 
break into a run and dart in and out of the oncoming traffic.  Should the commuter elect to wait for the light, he/she stands aside in order to avoid blocking the path of the traffic-dodger, who is generally a skilled professional commuter/walker – one who actually enjoys the adrenaline rush of avoiding the speeding cars, taxis and MTA buses while attempting to cross the street.  Plus, they reap the rewards of their bravery by arriving to their respective offices at least 15 seconds earlier than they would otherwise had the decision been made to wait on the traffic light.

And what exactly is the message in those traffic lights for pedestrians?  Instead of the old “Walk”/“Don’t Walk” signs, the “Walk” lettering has been replaced with an icon of a white stick figure slightly hunched forward in what appears to be a walking position. The “Don’t Walk” has been replaced with the image of a red blinking palm of a hand.  This icon is saying: “Are you feeling lucky today?  If you proceed, you need to
be really careful and go really fast!” Meanwhile, the white stick figure informs you that “You are at a slightly less risk of getting hit by a car or bus if you cross the street now.  However, you are actually at a greater risk of being run down by a bicycle messenger.”
Walking commuters avoid known construction areas where sidewalks are blocked, and they especially avoid high tourist areas if at all possible.  Most tourists are from non-pedestrian cities and do not fully understand walking as a highly specialized form of transportation.  Usually, the intent of the Manhattan walking commuter is completely misunderstood by the average tourist, leaving them with the impression that we are rude.  On the other hand, the walking commuter believes that it is the tourist who is rude for blocking the path.  After all, I doubt that the visiting tourists would appreciate car commuters back in their hometowns driving the wrong way during the morning commute or even worse – blocking an entire intersection (which is unfortunately where most tourist grievances occur).  

So you see, the walking commuters in Manhattan have an undeserved bad reputation for their behavior.  They are not intentionally rude to visitors and tourists (unless it is a matter of “road rage,” which I have elected not to discuss).  The walking commuters are simply and methodically going to work in the same manner
as what the drivers of cars do in the non-pedestrian cities.  They just happen to be driving their feet.