Thursday, July 18, 2019

Living on Campus

Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory
Carla Yanni
University of Minnesota Press, April 2019



Paperback | 7 x 10 inches | 304 pages | 146 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1517904562 | $34.95

Publisher Description:
Every fall on move-in day, parents tearfully bid farewell to their beloved sons and daughters at college dormitories: it is an age-old ritual. The residence hall has come to mark the threshold between childhood and adulthood, housing young people during a transformational time in their lives. Whether a Gothic stone pile, a quaint Colonial box, or a concrete slab, the dormitory is decidedly unhomelike, yet it takes center stage in the dramatic arc of many American families. This richly illustrated book examines the architecture of dormitories in the United States from the eighteenth century to 1968, asking fundamental questions: Why have American educators believed for so long that housing students is essential to educating them? And how has architecture validated that idea? Living on Campus is the first architectural history of this critical building type.

Grounded in extensive archival research, Carla Yanni’s study highlights the opinions of architects, professors, and deans, and also includes the voices of students. For centuries, academic leaders in the United States asserted that on-campus living enhanced the moral character of youth; that somewhat dubious claim nonetheless influenced the design and planning of these ubiquitous yet often overlooked campus buildings. Through nuanced architectural analysis and detailed social history, Yanni offers unexpected glimpses into the past: double-loaded corridors (which made surveillance easy but echoed with noise), staircase plans (which prevented roughhousing but offered no communal space), lavish lounges in women’s halls (intended to civilize male visitors), specially designed upholstered benches for courting couples, mixed-gender saunas for students in the radical 1960s, and lazy rivers for the twenty-first century’s stressed-out undergraduates.

Against the backdrop of sweeping societal changes, communal living endured because it bolstered networking, if not studying. Housing policies often enabled discrimination according to class, race, and gender, despite the fact that deans envisioned the residence hall as a democratic alternative to the elitist fraternity. Yanni focuses on the dormitory as a place of exclusion as much as a site of fellowship, and considers the uncertain future of residence halls in the age of distance learning.
dDAB Commentary:
Like many people who went to college away from home, I lived in a dormitory. Well, technically I lived in two of them: My first year it was a nine-story all-boys dorm at a four-dorm complex, and the following year it was a relatively quaint co-ed dorm in a smaller complex nearby. The latter one looked old, with rough limestone walls and a gable roof, while the taller dorm was clearly modern, with a flat roof and windows set into horizontal bands between stone strips; they were built in 1951 and 1967, respectively, but looked decades more apart. Although the last three years of my five years of architecture school were spent living in houses off campus, it seemed to be a given that I would live in "the dorms" for at least one year; it was just what frosh did if they weren't, like me, going to pledge to a fraternity or sorority. So from that time on I basically figured everyone else who went away to college had the same experience of dorm life followed by off-campus living. That's not the case, obviously, but neither is the given of living in a dorm at all.
On the first page of Carla Yanni's Living on Campus, the author clearly states how the book explains "why Americans have believed for so long that college students should reside in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories." But, she continues, "This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary." Like Yanni's earlier book on American insane asylums, The Architecture of Madness, she approaches dormitories from the perspective of social history. Asylums were designed to improve the lives of the patients who resided in them, while dorms were created to benefit students socially, not just intellectually. Inherent in both otherwise divergent building types is a high level of control that extends to the design and siting of the buildings. People buying Living on Campus with the intention of seeing the best and most beautiful dorms built in the United States will be disappointed, but those curious about the intentions behind dormitories and their evolution over a couple hundred years will find the diverse case studies fascinating.

With my dormitory experience I gravitated to chapter four, "Dorms on the Rise." The chapter on "skyscraper residence halls" follows chapters on early all-male dorms, on later women's dorms at co-ed colleges, and on the rise of early 20th-century quadrangles modeled on Oxford and Cambridge; the fifth of the five chapters returns to (post-skyscraper) quads with the most architecturally striking dorm complex in the book: Eero Saarinen's Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale University. Each chapter has a few case studies, and one of the three in "Dorms on the Rise" resembles my freshman dorm: River Dorms at Rutgers University, designed by Kelly and Gruzen and completed in 1956. The double-loaded corridors of the three-building complex looks like the basic parti for the dorm I lived in, not only for their floor plans (only mine was an "L" rather than a long bar), but for the intention of creating "one social group per floor." Reading those words brought back memories of the "floor meetings" that happened every so often and were designed, I'm guessing, to make us feel part of a smaller community in a large university and dormitory complex. These days that dorm of my youth is the same but different: same footprint, but now co-ed instead of all-male, with more diversity of room types, and new amenities to make the dorm an appealing choice when other choices vie for attention. Or as Yanni writes in the epilogue ("Architectural Inequality and the Future of Residence Halls") of her excellent book, "Once again, the justification for the dormitory is a social one: planned activities allow students to make new friends, and new friends will become part of future networks for business and the professions." In other words, the dorm is much more than just a home away from home.
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Author Bio:
Carla Yanni is professor of art history at Rutgers University. She is author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Minnesota, 2007) and Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.
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