UCU is a Monastery

By CLEMENS SCHALLY & NINA GRIBLING

“Hell are the others,” JP Sartre wrote. Put a number of people into a closed space and they will end up detesting each other. Shouldn’t the same thing be the case here at UCU? 800 students, locked in with each other through their own laziness, dominating gates halting any attempt to break the daily routine of waking up, going to class, eating a kaassoufflé in DH, going to the bar to drink and going back to sleep. You must imagine Sisyphus happy. And hating his co-stone-pushers.

St. Benedict had a somewhat different notion. Put people together into a closed space, utterly disconnected from the happenings of the world and they will be free from distraction to fulfill their labour to god. Or academics. Or you know, beer brewing or whatever.

How does Campus fit into this picture? Is it a pious monastery of academic prowess, or an infernal prison of futile toil? Whatever your view on this, one element binds both interpretations together. It is the physical space we live in that shapes us. Without noticing, the architecture around us determines our social life, our behaviour and our emotions. Having become so familiar to us that we have stopped paying it any heed, the way our campus is built fundamentally shapes our student lives. Reason enough to have a closer look. Armed with an exhaustive compendium of half-facts and ad-hoc hypotheses we set out to do exactly that.

The Kromhout Kazern, or as we know it, Campus, was built as military barracks in 1908. The design that used to keep soldiers from having to interact with the real world now coincidentally allows students and scholars to do the exact same. With military dedication and esprit de corps entirely we can fully devote ourselves to our academic lives. Wait. Doesn’t that sound exactly like Mr. Benedict’s idea of a monastery? A bit. Military Barracks, Monasteries, University campuses share similar architecture to motivate residents towards their respective cause, be it pretty parading, praying or procrastinating (studying, but I needed a word with p to finish the alliteration).

Yes, we are detached. Yes, we are in an ivory tower, but it’s supposed to be this way. Already St. Benedict recognised what an important role architecture plays to steer human behaviour towards a certain ideal. Everything in a monastery has its own place, at minimum distance from each other. By giving everyone the same circumstances residents will not be distracted by just as many quarrels of status, being forced to interact with each other on a daily basis.

We can see how at UCU, the architecture is used to achieve these ideals. There is a strict order and symmetry within the space inside of the gates. We are forced to eat together, are already complaining when we have to walk from the Wall to Kromhout, and there is a clear separation between the different academic buildings that creates a discipline bubble within the bubble. There is a strict separation of places to ‘study’ and places to ‘chill’, which stops us from easily combining both. Work hard play hard.

There are hardly any zones where the two can be nicely combined. Either you choose for the bar, or Voltaire. The pure disgust felt among students for the architecture of the DH complex certainly adds to this notion.

Now, students certainly are no monks. Since we all value radically different things in life (at least that’s what your average, template UCU student claims), the question arises whether the monastic architecture and culture fits our needs and desires. Distractions lie around every corner. Moreover, the effects of being literally walled in be harming our mental health for all we know. A monastic campus gives us a lot of opportunities but it demands sacrifices. Not unlike living in a monastery, it is certainly not for everyone.

Postscriptum: A new UC is currently being envisaged in Haarlem. The proposed location is a former Panoptic prison. The authors are very interested how that is going to end.

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