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.
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