Combatting isolation

Isolation. The term appeared over and over again as we reviewed surveys regarding student’s sentiments towards community at Columbia—Its frequency overshadowed all other terms. The result was astounding and became the catalyst that jump started the Design for America community team to decided to make a change. We aimed to comprehend the source of these emotions by investigating student experience. Our findings showed that this sense of isolation came from a severe and notable lack of comfortable community space for students to collaborate, converse, and socialize. The challenge arose: How do we work within limitations of Columbia infrastructure to create spaces that encourage interactions so students do not feel this deep sense of isolation, leading to loneliness, anxiety, and depression?

As the community team, our first step was to research previous studies of inefficient and isolating educational environments in order to understand the limitation of space and the isolation that ensues. We looked to research done by Gensler, an international architecture firm that revealed how in most U.S. colleges, campus space does not effectively address student needs. Seventy percent of students prefer to study alone, yet most campuses lack the space for private, quiet study. Columbia, however, faces the opposite issue. Individual space is abundant, particularly in terms of study areas in our libraries, yet students do not have the proper venue to gather and interact as a community.

Though Lerner Hall is designated as our student center, it fails to live up to its mission. Lerner is flawed due to its ramps, which waste space and act simply as transitory passages. Searching for an outlet for social interaction, students look to Butler Library, which has evolved into a hub of activity, reducing its effectiveness as a study space. We are therefore robbed of our social space and our study space, provided with two buildings that are being used in ways contrary to their design and intentions.

Recognizing the conflict between the design and the use of the space, we sought to define what an ideal space on campus would look like. We found that Low Plaza acts as the quintessential space for students to gather, converse, and be a part of an age-old tradition of community building. Using Low Plaza as a paradigm, we asked how we might re-invent and re-imagine Lerner, along with other existing infrastructures, to maximize student space. We wanted to bring the bustle of Butler into the institutional and isolating glass walls of Lerner. Our preliminary ideas ranged from the small—designing desk wedges to increase the utility of the ramp tables and increasing traffic on the ramps, thereby increasing opportunity for spontaneous interactions—to the large—designing new comfortable furniture for the ramps up to Ferris Booth Commons and other high-traffic spaces. We began considering how to make the student lounges, such as the piano lounge, more flexible and transformable.

This concept was based on Gensler findings, which showed that spaces in which occupants can control and alter their environment are more conducive to productivity and happiness. Considering this ideal, we hope to also investigate the possibility of optimizing the Lerner glass as a visual forum for students to communicate within and outside of the Lerner space. Whether through the creation of an interactive calendar or a visual display of human feeling in the style of urban designer Candy Chang, we hope to encourage students to take ownership of the space, integrating themselves in the larger community.

We hope to implement our ideas and get student feedback in order to create a long-term solution for developing student spaces that are more conducive to interaction, communication, and community. Perhaps in a few years, the word “isolation” will be effaced from our mind-set and replaced by the term “community.”

Andrew Demas is a Columbia College sophomore and Design for America co-leader. Tessa Thwaites is a Columbia College first-year and Design for America community team member.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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Anonymous posted on

Way to go DFAmily!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Anonymous posted on

Can we seriously take the piano out of the Broadway Lounge because it is annoying as fuck when people don't know what they're doing.

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CU_Alum posted on

"Lerner is flawed due to its ramps, which waste space and act simply as transitory passages."

Saying the ramps waste space presumes that the space would otherwise have been used for something else. But it wouldn't have. It would instead have been an open courtyard.

Without the atrium, Lerner would be U-shaped. Many buildings use that shape because it lets in sunlight. The glass ramps and glass wall enclosed that space but still let the light in. The ramps convert what would otherwise have been empty air into spaces where students can meet and socialize. They also reduce the need for internal hallways, stairs and elevators, making more of the building available for program space.

Filling the atrium's volume with rooms and hallways instead of the glass ramps would have made most of the building's interior dark and unpleasant. It also would have made the building more expensive. The budget did not allow for that much additional floor space.

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Anonymous posted on

You clearly don’t remember the hell that is Lerner Hall very
well. The ramps waste far more space than hallways because they prevent half of
the potential floor space from being used at all. So internal hallways and
staircases would take up some space on each floor. At least then you could have
ROOMS on the rest of the floor as opposed to those damn useless ramps and that
giant atrium. And let’s not pretend that the ramps facilitate student
interaction. They don’t. The only time they are ever used for anything close to
that is during Glass House Rocks when they become strange catwalk stages.

In terms of light, you’re also obviously not a very good
architect. You’ll notice that Ferris Booth Hall’s design was not U-shaped, but
it still served as a passable student center for decades. It was also in fact
RUN by students for almost all of that period through the ~50 student FBH Board
of Managers. If you wanted to have some modern glass building that wasn’t
U-shaped but still let in an enormous amount of light, you could have simply
built something like the Diana Center at Barnard, which does an excellent job
of maximizing the use of the space available well while still feeling spacious,
open, and bright. You’ll also notice that in Lerner, unlike the Diana, the vast
majority of the space houses the ever-expanding Columbia bureaucracy of
University Events Management, Student Affairs, Financial Aid, the Student
Affairs Central Business Office, some branches of health services, etc. One
administrator once told me, “Lerner’s not really a student center. It’s a
campus center,” as some lame ass excuse as to why students couldn’t have more
space in Lerner, a building which replaced something that was explicitly a
student center, FBH.

I just hope that Facilities continues to neglect to do maintenance on the building for so long that they have to tear it down and start over. It's a monstrosity, and I wonder that Tschumi ever got commissioned to do another building after he built Lerner.

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CU_Alum posted on

A few points:

1. The space occupied by the ramps and atrium is not "potential floor space" as you presume. I explained why in my previous comment. And even if the ramps don't facilitate interaction as well as you'd like, they do a much better job of it than the open air that would have been there otherwise.

2. The Broadway wing of FBH was only four stories tall, while the rest of the building was just two stories. The third and fourth floors had windows on both the east and west, so it already had the sunlight Lerner's atrium provides -- much like the seventh and eighth floors of Lerner (though the hallways on those floors of FBH still managed to feel like a basement). The interior portion of FBH's two-story wing was an auditorium, so it didn't need windows. But the inner portions of Lerner are five stories tall. The auditorium fills just part of that space. The spaces above it need more light. They wouldn't have it if the atrium space was filled with more building.

3. I agree that administrative offices don't belong in Lerner. The space should be used for student activities instead. But that has nothing to do with why the atrium is there or what the alternatives might have been.

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Anonymous posted on

Your point 1 was wrong the first time and it's still wrong now. You would not have needed a courtyard to allow light, because we have moved past the mid-20th century, architecturally. The atrium/ramps area could have been floors in the eastern wing (i.e. not the Broadway wing) of the building, with full windows on the north wall to allow light into the north side of the structure. The southern portion of the eastern wing, if it were entirely blocked from the light from the northern windows, would have two options. It could either use windows on the eastern wall (where Ferris Booth dining hall and Satow room are now) to let in some light, or it could be exactly like the southern portion of Lerner's east wing is currently: dark. The mail room, black box theater, Roone Arledge, the cinema, and the package center all receive virtually no light. The rooms in the southern portion that do currently receive light (the ramp lounges, computer lab, and C555) do, as you suggest, receive the light from the atrium through the use of interior windows. While breaking the atrium down into separate floors would limit the light available to each floor, creative use of additional interior windows could ameliorate this for the southern half of the eastern wing. However, even if those rooms were blocked from outside light, it would still be an excellent deal if in exchange you got thousands more square feet of useable floorspace lit by the northern windows. The fact that Ferris Booth lasted so long while apparently feeling like a basement should attest to that.

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CU_Alum posted on

You're right that Lerner could have been built the way you describe. But that doesn't mean it should have been.

You haven't addressed my point about the project's budget. The extra floor space you call for would have been much more expensive than the atrium. There wasn't enough money available to pay for it. So the building you describe wasn't an option.

Ferris Booth lasted as long as it did only because Columbia couldn't afford to replace it sooner. The building was unsatisfactory almost from the start. The problems got worse as enrollment grew and the commuter population shrank, since what was merely a bad building also became overcrowded. (FBH had about 75,000 square feet to Lerner's 225,000.) Generations of CU undergrads groused about how awful the building was.

Columbia commissioned plans at least once to expand and improve FBH, but decided there was no cost-effective way to bring it up to snuff. Building an additional student center elsewhere wasn't an option either. The university's finances eventually improved enough to replace the building instead.

Bear in mind that FBH had a smaller footprint than Lerner. There was a large triangular patio in front of its eastern wing. That left less space behind the windows, which made it easier to bring in enough sunlight. Lerner's footprint includes the patio as well as all the land that was under FBH.

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