It is soft and easy to imagine yourself the chief director of your actions and choices, but the environment around you built with brick and asphalt and very specific intentions exerts a control that is jarring when you meet it up close.
You walk around campus because there is a path guiding you around the buildings that would protest with several tons of stone and steel if you tried to walk through them. You study where you study because, whether it is in your room or a library or a student center, there has been violence done to raw materials to fit them in a formal place so you’re sheltered from rain, dangerous animals, and the sun. Very few humans are not subject to the demands of the built environment, and for all the benefits and luxuries they afford over the natural world, most people are generally content to meet those demands.
The structure and style of built spaces are full of the passage of time, and like the Prada-wearing Devil would remind you; should you protest that you think this has nothing to do with you, the very stones underneath your feet and walls against which you lean were hand-picked for you by some people in some room. Every day is another unique performance on the stage built by designers and architects, using variations on their script and choreography, and acted out by anyone who happens to find themselves anywhere other than an old-growth forest or other natural ecosystem.
This semester I’m going to write about what is always urgently passing through my head as I live here on West Campus, because soon I will no longer be living here and the thoughts will seem less urgent (not because I’ll be dead — just graduating). But because I don’t want it to be a structureless, boring series of enraged rants and gushing praise, I’m giving it some naturally entertaining bones that provide a uniquely productive grafting surface for analysis: theatre. The built environment generates stories, and the stories attach flesh to stage, script, choreography, actors, performances, and reviews. Three intentions and three actions, three forms and three interactions of content — all six a standard set to understand design at Duke.
To stir your appetite for what follows, and to turn my cumbersome abstractions into some concrete examples, we’ll take a brief tour of Duke University’s West Campus writ broad to get a feel for how the Theatre of Duke Design looks and smells and feels.
STAGE: Imagine you’re a bird looking down and the earth looking up. The air between both incarnations of you rests and flows above what is now West Campus, and the first thing you notice as The Land is your very interesting shape. Rising up in the middle away from the earth’s center, you’re a perfect ridge of outstretched arms dropping steeply off on either side above and below your elbows. At your highest elevation, a little bit west of true north where your head would be, a tobacco mogul placed a 210 meter high chapel almost a century ago. Your arms are lined with what an American southerner who lived in New Jersey (JB Duke) contracting a Pennsylvanian firm (Trumbauer & Co.) thinks Academic Gothic cottages should look like. Your right arm bears a clocktower (Crowell) and belfry (Kilgo) and houses some of the students who pass by the Chapel, and your left arm their classrooms in the academic quad (Language, Old Chemistry, Social Sciences, & Reuben-Cooke). Your left fingertips point to the School of Medicine and your right ones to Cameron Indoor Stadium, homes to two of the university’s hallmark enterprises. Under your outstretched arms, your body as The Land descends into the Gardens on your left and more dormitories on your right, and behind your head it descends sharply again through Melinda’s gift and onto a tranquil pool that catches all the runoff. Your torso squeezes between the Allen Building and Few Quad, and your legs extend as the long, slight C shape of Chapel Drive. You The Bird looking down see a curious, cruciform stage that manages the sole complete style thought surrounded by a dizzying cluster of run-on clauses in the form of the surrounding building complexes. Stuck in mid-flight above the campus, you cock your head and wonder how such a place is intended to be used.
SCRIPT: The language of the West Campus script is Gothic, inflected by the Tudor and Academic dialects. A unified facade and parallel symmetries fluctuate with intimately detailed variations, and the script is densely referential; the seals of more than thirty other schools are carved in low relief to decorate the exterior of West Union. James Buchanan wrote a Chapel into the script to exert a pious influence on the cast of actors that walked the cruciform campus, and early sketches show a now-extinct ring of manicured trees around the campus, indicating a intention of monastic solitude for this place where you could eat and sleep and learn all in the span of a few minutes’ walk. The built environment of West was written to tell a story in gothic style of education, research, and living where you do both. We tell many of the same stories with this script today.
CHOREOGRAPHY: Walk on the blue flagstones, go from dorm to class to meeting to study group to lab to eat and to dorm again. Some busy days the dance requires a few prestidigous tricks to convince onlookers of the magic a student conjures to get everything done. First steps out on stage are in your dorm room, the only real site of personal expression, and the tap dance to academic requirements and homework takes you to learn in front of a lecturer and work in the many libraries where your fingers take over the tapping on the stage of your keyboard. You learn the choreography by watching others at first, and despite its bewildering and confusing sequence and the wide variety of different expressions it might take in the athlete, engineer, business student, or humanist, you’re flowing and having fun by the time you graduate.
ACTORS: Students, faculty, administrators, staff, custodians and visitors all flood the stage each day to do their respective works to their respective dances. Each act has a different cast: the early mornings for custodial preparation, midday for hustle and bustle of students to and from classes, afternoon for administrative meetings and student studying, evenings for meals and occasional leisure, and nights for riotous athletics and parties for all involved.
PERFORMANCE: Everyone from Churchill to Trask has remarked about how we may shape our spaces, but it is our spaces which most significantly shape us. The performance of the several actors on the West Campus stage, guided by the script and choreography referenced from centuries of academic theater, is an intricate combination of each individual’s expression in the role they are asked to play. To watch it, all you have to do is pretend you’re a visitor to the campus for the first time, sit outside, and observe — you’ll see how the angles of the campus and the elevations of the buildings call out lines when someone forgets, and how the campus itself, from curtain to curtain, directs the performance.
REVIEWS: I’m almost embarrassed to quote what I’ve quoted so many times before, but you can’t get a better review of Duke than Huxley calling Duke “the most successful essay in neo-Gothic that I know.” West Campus (within the relatively confined contours of the gothic paradigm buildings) is a very unique achievement of design and implementation. For all the changes to the buildings that the last twenty five years have seen, it remains by its structure and continued use a place where learning and living happen in concert, all within sight of her majesty the Chapel. You can’t help but be challenged by the labyrinthine dorms and counterintuitive interface lacking overt landmarks of symmetry; but the challenge is probably part of the fun, and certainly part of the charm.
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While tours with a smaller scope and clearer pictures are to follow, I hope the broad experience of the West Campus theatre was at least minimally interesting enough to pique your interest in the next. My hope is that by reading these you might be awakened to the specific and granular effects that a designed space has on your daily actions, to the ultimate end of engaging more critically with design and being more intentionally present in your spaces. Until then, I hope the jarring task of imagining your body as the crucified earth underneath West didn’t stop you from also being the free flying bird above it.
Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column ‘duke by design’ runs on alternate Tuesdays.