Since my first footsteps onto the University’s campus in August 2009, its appearance has undergone a multitude of cosmetic alterations. These changes have affected nearly all modes of University life; where we live, where we eat and where we simply hang out, ultimately changing the innate identity of our campus. Gone are the days when the Oreo resembled a sacred monument surrounded by forest. No longer must one worry about tripping on the tumultuous, uneven concrete turf while walking through the Quad. Never again will there be merely two options for specialty eating in a high school cafeteria-esque setting on the first floor of Dougherty.
These things are relics of the past, reduced to memories by means of the changes implemented by the University’s “Transformation of the Campus Landscape” program. The purpose of this column is to investigate whether all of these changes have been for the better.
The official intent of the transformation initiative claims that it will “improve the quality of life for Villanova community members and enhance the visitor experience,” by creating “a carefully-designed campus core that is highly integrated, vehicle-free, pedestrian-friendly, more accessible to people with different mobility needs, and more aesthetically beautiful.” These appear to be sound, satisfactory aims. Upon further examination, however, the plan contains some intrinsic flaws and contradictions.
At its core, the plan seeks to comprehensively upgrade the campus’ appearance for the benefit of its current and prospective students, but the means by which it sets forth to accomplish this enhancement seem to be improperly ordered. First, the term “highly integrated” is utterly vague and lends no clear indication of improvement. Next, attributes like “vehicle-free” and “pedestrian-friendly” carry no refining effects, because the center of campus had been essentially vehicle-free and pedestrian-friendly to begin with.
Furthermore, the problem of accessibility for individuals with differing mobility needs is one which should have been addressed long ago. Finally, the necessity of making the campus “more aesthetically beautiful” is nonsensically listed as the last aim. The aesthetic qualities of a certain place or structure are arguably the most important attributes in drawing people to the particular place or structure. Yet, inattentive to this point, the University seems to value the small-scale, specific adjustments to its broader aesthetic image.
To gauge the effects of the transformation initiative on the aesthetic characteristics of campus, one can apply the 20th century architectural concept of “form follows function,” by which the physical appearance of a structure is dictated by its intended functional purpose. Aesthetic beauty is comprised not only of material attributes, but also engagement with transcendent, intangible elements of a particular place or object. Lewis Mumford references this concept in “Art and Technics,” wherein he states that “the function of a building is subordinate to the human purpose it embodies: if such structures do not delight the eye and inform the mind, no technical audacity can save them from becoming meaningless.” This theme of aesthetic significance, if applied to the University’s campus modifications, can reveal many of the hidden faults of the plan.
Let us first investigate the largest and, perhaps, most comprehensive cosmetic change—the construction of the new center of campus. Previously composed of winding paths between Connelly, Corr Hall, Dougherty and Kennedy among towering trees of various species, the space is now clear of vegetation and occupied by bricks, benches and an ellipse of sod. While its potential has yet to be fully realized in warm weather, the new central area appears to be an ideal place for outdoor interaction and conviviality. That is, until you consider the depressingly finite number of things you can do while standing around on a small, flat, grass surface, or until you realize the trees formerly served as vital sources of shade in the warm weather.
If the function in mind had been to improve one’s ability to observe the length of the lines in Cafe Nova while perusing the bookstore, such a form for the space would be perfect. For the purpose of fostering a lively center of campus, though, the effects of the renovation have yet to be observed.
Speaking of Cafe Nova, we will now look critically at the apparent improvements to the campus dining experience. Think back to the simpler times, when one was forced to choose between two predetermined options—the Corner Grille or the Italian Kitchen—and was doubly endowed with the responsibility of placing his or her order by hand and through face-to-face interaction.
Now think of yesterday, when all you had to do was punch a few computerized buttons to navigate the new and improved menu and wait for your number to be called to get your fill of the University’s finest dining. Have these new features really optimized our experience of ordering and eating food? Undoubtedly, the new seating arrangements and cooking equipment have vastly improved the facility, but the new menu and ordering system are not as effective. The new menu is not actually new at all. Pizza, sandwiches and cheese steaks are all available at other a-la-carte dining locations, and southwest options are offered frequently at the Pit and Spit. Centralizing these options fosters little more than our own laziness.
The new ordering system is perhaps the worst possible adjustment. Surely I’m not alone in receiving either an incorrect or incomplete order through this new procedure. Such errors can be directly attributed to the removal of interpersonal contact from the system. It reduces the person to an order number and the cook to merely a middle-man between hunger and satisfaction, abstracting the reality of a face-to-face interaction. Like many of the denigrating, dehumanizing forces in modern society, Cafe Nova has driven technology between person and person like a wedge, diminishing the quality of interaction and communication. Despite its externally attractive appearance, the changes to Cafe Nova have disregarded the dining hall’s intangible significance.
Admittedly, I do not offer any concrete solutions to these problems. The point of this column, however, is to illuminate the problems themselves to the public eye and emphasize the fact that functional significance and physical characteristics are of tantamount importance in aesthetic beauty.