November 23, 2004

The Politics of Architecture

Category: Politics — Biella @ 5:54 pm

Yesterday, I headed to the Business School’s new “home” an architectural wonder built on the corner of 58th and Woodlawn. The building is stunning, a purely absorbing wonder largely because of an obscenly huge atrium that leaves no doubt about the weather outside and the shape of the clouds. I can’t wait to go there during a massive Chicago snow storm.

Along with the starkly stunning architecutre, using this building reminds me of flying first class. The extravagent perks are everwhere: a gracious dining hall, a rec room with multiple pool tables, security guards wearing spiffy maroon coats and equipped with the latest walkie-talkie technology, parking for the profs, wireless throughout the building, some insane antique piece of furniture that serves no purpose except to give a sense of tradition and time to this otherwise postmodern structure, and my favorite, tons of indoor plants, including bromeliads by the hundreds. Really pretty bormeliads.

Now, in this day and age of the “service economy” the “B-school” students are a little closer to customers than students. They pay out of the roof so it is no surprise the roof in thier new building is so high and the accoutrements so lavish.

But there is still something that bothers me about the surplus of elegance, of resources of this building in relation to the rest of the university. Spatially, it inscribes the reality of the assymetries of value in our universities, which also are almost direct mirror reflection of broader social assymetries and social values. That is while U of C has some motto “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched” some types of knowledge makers clearly are able to command pretty flowers and glass ceilings in a way that others can’t.

Now again the b-students are more like b-customers. They pay and I and many PhD student don’t (though some do as do most of the terminal masters students). At this time, everyone is allowed in so the perks are there to be most shared (though I am not sure if this will last or if the wireless netwokr is open to all).

I also realize the University as a whole is spending a huge amount of money to spruce up the campus and bulk up our resources. Already they have built a new gym, parking lot, hospital wings. But really the GSB buidling takes the cake. They can add the golden touch because they are awash in resources given business school alumni are awash in resources.

What I find so interesting is not really the fact of assymetry but its presentation. There was once a day in which the b-school was smaller, less important. And it also seems there was once a time when the ideology of “valuing all” types of knowledge may have still been ideological but closer to its message. Ideology I think still comes in degrees.

And I know there was never an Eden, a time when the University was impervious to the reality of market forces. After all the University was established by one of the captains of the industry, John Rockefeller and then home to Milton Friedman’s free market fundamentalism. It has in different decades been strangled by the market. All private universities are quite beholden to the broader economy..

But ideology through the ages does not act with the same force. It is now acceptable to accept the assymetries and to even relish in them.. We accept them as fact: some of us get to fly first class, others don’t.

And though in some ways I am clearly bothered by this (I am after all writing about it) I am not entirely sure if this is a bad thing. Sometimes I think like the GSB glass architecture, such clarity is something that can maybe lead to some critical kernel… But necessary and what seems totally absent is more public discussion about the “future” of the University given real market demands and assymetries in funding. How if at all is money redistributed? At what point does the b-school evince such wealth and command of resources that it takes a life of its own, away from the larger “community? But at this time the only think that is speaking is the architecture…

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