Walking the warehouse: an architectural critique of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

Smith Warehouse is now home to the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies (AAHVS), as it has hastily moved from its former domicile in East Duke at the entrance to the East Campus. Rather than sharing its space with Women’s Studies, the department is now the primary academic wing of a warehouse of administrative offices for Duke University. The department has now metaphorically cut itself off from the rest of the Humanities as it opts for spaces for the functional and technical sides of its nascent Media Arts & Sciences program.

Previously holding pride of place on the right-hand side of Campus Drive, the East Duke Building, eponymous of East Campus, indicated the first stop on arrival from the outside world. Smith Warehouse, on the other hand, is most easily reached by driving and poses concerns about accommodating beyond minimal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. People will be less likely to make the trek to attend events or meetings here as they are with the John Hope Franklin Center on Erwin Road.

Upon arrival, the smart brick exterior exudes anticipation for the innovation and comfort to be found inside. Counterintuitively, the interior division of space falls short of the standards of an interior designer or architect-aesthete. Walking into Bay 12— the only viable entrance for the three bay facility—is immediately discombobulating. Where are the stairs? Where is the elevator? Where are the bathrooms? The inclination to walk straight ahead will take the student to a back staircase that in the end was probably not the one she wanted. There is no reception desk, since the offices on this floor are devoted to Arts of the Moving Image despite the welcome sign and directory indicative of AAHVS.

Reaching the second floor, one must now proceed further into Bay 11, crossing the threshold from what was not the department to a space that is still not yet what one is seeking. To the left or the right? One wanders and tries to peek around corners hoping to determine the quickest route forward. Like a mouse in a maze, one follows the twists and turns to dead-ends until the correct path becomes apparent. By this time the student has now crossed into Bay 10 and can have a go at finding the offices of administrators and professors—all the while hoping she left a trail of crumbs to find her way back out again as efficiently as possible.

The spaces one finds are clean, cold, smooth and clearly new. The exposed wires and pipes, along with all the computers and other high-tech gear, contribute to the aesthetic of refurbished warehouse meets engineering laboratory. Like any building, there’s no guarantee that the technology itself will be cooperative in its chic environment. Open lounges, fishbowl work spaces and uncovered cubicles provide an additional start-up sentiment. However, lack of privacy and amenities such as a graduate student lounge or offices make it clear that this is not a place to be after-hours.

Unlike the engineering school, there are no panel windows for natural light or outdoor patio spaces for sun, study and socializing. Unlike the rest of the East Campus, it is not simply a few steps to Lilly Library or Brodie Gym. While the current configuration and furnishings might be suitable for a small subset of visual and media studies concentrators, they do not suffice the needs of a department as deep and wide as art, art history, and visual studies. With the continued expansion into Bay 9, there is a remainder of hope that the disorder and irregularity of spaces will mend itself or cease to be emblematic of the department’s own disposition.

The flexibility of use and possibility available from future reorganization highlight the redeeming quality of this non-Bohemian "quartier." A pervasive sense of non-finality provides an anarchic freedom of hybridity, interdisciplinarity, and opacity (à la Glissant) exemplified in the research being produced. In these ways the department may yet live up to its separation from other arts and sciences at Duke and distinguish itself for the type of mixing of peoples and ideas found in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, or, in the case of AAHVS, the Mediterranean.

Nathan Bullock is a PhD student in the art, art history, and visual studies department.


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