Just another Wash. U. Manor

| Staff Columnist

Ever since the destruction of the building formerly known as Prince Hall, all of Wash. U. has watched with some degree of interest as a hole was created, expanded, made into a parking lot, and topped off with a new student center, officially the Danforth University Center. Although I’ve only been marginally aware of the building construction (the hole was a lot more fun to watch), after its official grand opening there was so much buzz about it that I decided to go take a look for myself.

I walked around outside it and felt like I had looked at it before, maybe a million times. I walked in, and it felt like I had been there before too, also maybe a million times.  This new student center, the object of more than a year of construction and anticipation looked to me like a new age rendition of a very affluent family’s mansion; exactly like 85 percent of all of the other buildings on campus. It has the classic pink granite exterior with the same curves and points, the same high ceilings, dark furniture, quiet ambiance, paneled walls and familiar fireplaces imposed on every reasonable spot of wall. I can’t deny that it is beautiful, classy and impressive, but creative it is not.

This summer I read a book about McDonald’s (trust me I’m going somewhere) which talked about how the struggle of the corporation has been for sameness, a promise of familiarity no matter what restaurant you enter, whether in St. Louie or Taiwan. The food is going to taste the same, and the chairs are going to feel the same. During that bit of summer reading, I realized how much I appreciated the sameness, but it also made me feel sad at the loss of eccentricity and creativity.

Allow me to make a stretch, and say Wash. U. is going for the same idea. It seems that in this new burst of construction and development, our University is creating an atmosphere of sameness, an undeniable feeling of familiarity in each building. And I’m not saying it is all bad—for gosh sakes the buildings are lovely, and no one can deny that our beautiful campus is one of our big selling points. I’m also not denying that the new building takes risks; our new student center has brightly painted ceilings, new types of chairs and bean bags, and some interesting metal screens around the main eating center—but that’s not architecture, that’s interior design, and it still isn’t much.

I imagine the basis for this construction is a desire for continuity, an architectural thread that unites our campus and gives it class and structure. But as an untrained-in-architecture English major, my question is “Is this the only way?” As far as I can tell we have a remarkable and intense architecture program, attracting professors and students from across the country. Could they not contribute some formula to maintain continuity and give each building some character of its own? Wouldn’t that make our campus more memorable?

I’ll leave my rant like this: if buildings like Mallinckrodt and Eliot are headed for their doomsday (which it seems they are), can we not replace their originality with new buildings that utilize new technology and new creativity without sacrificing the Wash. U. atmosphere and continuity?