What Americans Build and Why

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Spaces of Great Character: Few and Far Between

When spaces lift your spirits

Look around you, on your campuses and in your communities. How many work spaces elevate your spirits? How many promote concentration? Creativity? How many such spaces are quiet? If you are fortunate enough to experience spaces with any of these characteristics, some of the spaces may feature vaulted ceilings and substantial size; they may also have architecture reminiscent of an earlier era (picture the dining hall at Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter movies). Increasingly, these spaces are under attack due to budgetary pressure and changes in technology.

The Sunday April 22 issue of The New York Times published an article entitled “Sacking a Palace of Culture,” which focused on proposed changes to the New York Public Library’s main branch and included a picture of the glorious central reading room in this building on 5th Avenue. Viewing the picture of this elegant lofty space brought to mind the importance of such spaces of great character and reminded me how few of them we have. Over 20 years ago there were a number of articles in the journal Academe that emphasized how important good teaching spaces are to the intellectual integrity of a campus; these spaces are great resources. The article in the NYTs also brought to mind a 2-part series by Tony Hiss in The New Yorker, in which he wrote how Grand Central Terminal was a space that embodied simultaneity of perception, basically the idea that Grand Central Terminal engaged and heightened many of our senses at the same time.

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When I was in school at The University of Michigan in the early 1970s, I was fortunate to have a number of these spaces of great character available to me. One was the reference room in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library; another was the library at the Law School.  A graduate student and not a law student, I still managed to spend a lot of time in that law library, where I found the ambient environment conducive to studying. Yes, on a number of dimensions, both libraries were deficient (in particular in what designers today call task lighting, that is, lighting that illuminates your work surface). In addition, the chairs were large and constructed of wood; again, these are not the ergonomically designed models of today and were hardly comfortable. But in the grandeur of their surroundings (e.g., the height of the ceiling and the stained glass in the case of the law library), these spaces more than compensated for those inadequacies. Both reading rooms had clerestory windows that let in wonderful light, a factor often associated with positive mood.

These spaces were also very quiet places to work. The flooring may have contributed to the level of noise (I think the law library flooring was a cork composite), but it was the affordance of the space, the cues from the space about what was to happen there, that most affected the noise level of the conversations. If such conversations occurred at all, they were conducted in hushed voices, essentially whispers. Contrast that with any recent library experience, where conversation IS the norm.

People may respond that in today’s economy, building a grand reading room or other such generous space is impractical and expensive. Yet one could argue that such spaces, or spaces like them more modest in character, are precisely the kinds of spaces that students today need to encourage thinking. When Kalamazoo College renovated and added to its library in 2006, one of the premier spaces that resulted (in what is called the Upjohn Library Commons) is the Yehle Reading Room, which features two story windows and plenty of natural light. When Connecticut College renovated space on the main floor of its library to accommodate an Asian art collection, it did so in the context of a spacious and elegant reading room, named for Charles Chu, a beloved professor of Chinese. Even for this current generation of students, it is possible to both build it and get it right. Kalamazoo College and Connecticut College did.

Ann Sloan Devlin, Ph.D., is the May Buckley Sadowski '19 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

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