Campus Corners: EC Courtyard

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In which Bwog staffer Mark Krotov familiarizes us with the places you can find him when he’s supposed to be in class.

I love inhospitable environments. When placed in settings that are unfriendly, unattractive, or simply odd, I find that I enjoy myself a little more than I do in a place that is comfortable or accommodating, but what really thrills me are those places that are more misguided than intentionally uninviting. Places like Lerner are wild because many smart people spent a lot of time pondering how to create a comfortable student center, and got it absurdly wrong.

Such is the case with the EC courtyard. Besides the uncomfortable benches (which, in themselves, are a death knell for viable public space), I think that what I love most about the EC courtyard is its self-selection of weather phenomena: good weather is excluded from this imposing, threatening space, while bad weather thrives there.

Rain? Absolutely welcome, and heavily exacerbated by the horrible tiles on the ground, which seem to have been designed expressly to encourage standing water.

Wind? Bring it on! I don’t understand how it can be so windy in the courtyard, given that the space is surrounded by four huge walls, but if my year in EC has taught me one thing, it is that heavy wind outside of EC becomes unbearable in the courtyard.

But what about sunlight? Hardly. Because of the way the building is constructed, the courtyard sees no sunlight at all until noon, and then it rapidly disappears behind the walls of the townhouses. The sunsets are gorgeous in the courtyard, as long as one is satisfied with seeing the sunset reflected in the building’s massive 20-story brick façade, rather than having any direct contact with, well, warmth.

But despite the courtyard’s quasi-divine manipulation of meteorological phenomena, I often spend time there anyway. Usually, I am alone, which should be surprising in a space that, ostensibly, is a courtyard for hundreds of undergraduates. But it’s not surprising. The EC courtyard is an exceedingly direct reminder of the impact of architectural ideology, and what happens if that ideology is imposed too strongly.

I’m sure that the architects believed that this would be a popular space—it is centrally located, it has nature, and it is outdoors, but not far enough away to make traveling there a sacrifice. But it’s also unquestionably oppressive. Surrounded by nothing but flat walls, horizontal bands of windows, the weird, dark stairways into the townhouses, and the monotonous façade of the Heyman Center, the courtyard resembles a motel plaza—one that could accommodate a swimming pool, but instead accommodates smokers. The space revels in its architectural identity—straight lines, homogeneity, and unabashed bigness—but here, just as in hundreds of buildings constructed in this era, purity triumphs over humanity. It’s all very neat and organized and logical, but it leaves little room for the anarchic, unconstrained human contact that a public space needs to foster—a public space like, say, the steps.

So, besides its proximity, why do I spend time in the EC courtyard? Because I’m in awe of architecture and its ability to go beyond providing roofs and bedrooms, and to instead affect people’s moods. In the quiet, dark, and empty courtyard, I am assured that I will always feel alone, though I’m not sure that’s how the architects wanted it.

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1 Comment

  1. ec dweller  

    read the history of EC...this was intended to be columbia's answer to the quads of oxford, cambridge, and yale...sort of pathetic how little it recalls them in actuality. the large roof overhangs are an especially wasteful element; imagine how much larger the townhouses would be if the courtyard were restricted to the unroofed area with its plantings and benches.

    btw guys...here's a better photo for you:


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