Opinion | Community and contradiction: examining the identity of Miami through its architecture
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 02:10
As students of Miami University, we have all had the unique experience of being within a campus atmosphere. Classmates, friends, family; these are some of the words that describe the relationships this experience of collegiate life has created.
A relationship that forms and shapes the very foundations of our identities; an identity ultimately based on both community and interaction. However, we must ask ourselves if the college campus itself comes to accurately reflect this identity.
Louis Sullivan would say that the buildings we create are etchings of our soul; they contain the essence of what we believe and who we are. As these reflections of self, both on a community scale as well as an individual scale, architecture becomes the most telling aspect of societal values and ideology. So what does Miami’s architecture say about us and who we are?
To start we have to look at the construction of the campus as it is, and we can begin with the materiality of the composition of each building. The red brick façades and stone detailing, which dominate every campus building, harken back to the original Georgian construction of the university’s heritage. This is coupled within a unified attempt at like forms, so that even within new construction, say for example the Goggin Ice Center, the building adheres to strict limitations of material selection and adaptation and is often set to only correlate to its existing environment.
Contained within these constraints of materiality and form comes the notion of uniformity. In an effort for cohesion and unified atmosphere the clear delineation of individualized identity was subsumed within the totality of the campus.
Each building may have a slight uniqueness and offer varying qualities, but it must always fall back within acceptable parameters. Like the previous models of collegiate construction the idea to portray unification under shared commonality became the central theme of both the campus construction and its identity.
We can also look at the layout and placement of buildings within the campus plan as a whole. As a campus the landscape is set often set as a picturesque composition modeled from previous classical and neo-classical universities. This is evident in the pathway construction of pedestrian walkways, which dominates the majority of a spread out campus. Thus each building, as an individual construction, is placed to idealize the context of itself; often times removing itself, physically, from the surrounding buildings. Even in set zone construction, where complexes of buildings create a sense of a unified space, that space is often removed from interconnecting to the rest of campus.
While materiality stresses uniformity and cohesion, the point driven landscape of the campus puts emphasis on separation. Each level of continuity is disconnected from the next, save from strokes of pedestrian or vehicular movement and the control of material usage.
It is in both the material composition and placement of buildings which the identity of the campus becomes the most telling, as well as the most problematic.
As mentioned earlier, the identity that is created by our collegiate experiences is one of community and interaction. In the generation of community we often embrace and celebrate the differences that each individual person brings, as each difference enriches the total composition. This is coupled with the amount of connectivity and interaction that often surges between the members of the community.
However, currently the campus architecture speaks of contradiction; not only from ourselves, but from within itself as well. Instead of embracing and celebrating the uniqueness of structure or typology the campus passively suppresses it. Instead of fostering a unified sense of connection the campus separates each place. The contradictory message does not lend itself to the coalescence of identity but rather the fracturing of it.
Now before people say that I hate the campus or university, and subsequently its architecture, let me just say that I am not and do not. Miami has a beautiful campus, with a lot to offer any person. Both scenic and functional the university is a great place not only to learn, but a great place to experience life. With that being said it does not mean we must stop looking for and building towards a better campus community.
With all the construction currently underway, as well as all the future construction, the question of authenticity is key. When our buildings speak about us, and for us, the message must be clear. We want our buildings to accurately and actively say what and who we are, and by identifying and contextualizing the discrepancies between ourselves and the representation of ourselves, we can enhance both the quality of the spaces we create and the experiences we have. And it is in this enhancement that we can drive a better community and identity.