Clearly, there has been a lot of careful thought put into the ongoing changes to our campus. As Biddy Martin writes on the Amherst website, “The Greenway recognizes the importance of the Amherst landscape and builds upon our tradition of rigorous academics balanced by quality of place.” This statement demonstrates an understanding of the importance of environment, as well as an understanding that landscape and architecture are not meant to exist abstractly or in a vacuum, independent of the people who inhabit them. In her last year-end update President Martin also wrote that the Social dorms had “long outlived their usefulness.” Unfortunately, this statement not only reflects a disconnect between the administrators and many students; it also fails to acknowledge that those outdated dorms actually provided a social function that went beyond their aesthetics or immediate purpose of providing housing and that this social component would need to somehow be replaced once they were demolished.
The Greenway dorms are meant to usher in a new era of Amherst College. They are meant to be symbolic of a modern Amherst, an environmentally friendly Amherst, an inclusive Amherst. But as long as they are considered solely in the context of form and not with respect to how people engage them, the Greenways are simply a superficial answer to Amherst’s social issues (namely, loneliness and a lack of activities), if not a temporary distraction from them altogether. There is no doubt that well-planned design and architecture can inspire moods and shape emotional responses. This kind of strategic planning was used by Newtown, Connecticut in the creation of their new elementary school, which evokes a sense of calm and security through motifs of nature. However, the principle of environmental determinism, that habitat determines habit, is an oversimplified one. This limited theory, which presents architecture as a potential panacea, the antidote to social woes, is misleading. As a college community, we cannot rely solely on architectural changes to create the changes we wish to see in social life; these architectural changes must be coupled with corresponding institutional and cultural improvements. Otherwise, Amherst’s shiny, new façade is just that—a façade. Students may be temporarily distracted (and amused) by a Google Headquarters-esque color scheme, arcade games, and spiral staircases that lead to nowhere, but now that the ribbon-cutting ceremony is over, and the crowds have dispersed, we may come to a harsh realization: the Socials have been demolished and four new buildings erected in their place, but the status quo remains standing.
Further, the Greenway dorms might not simply be maintaining the status quo; they may be exacerbating the social issues that students have already identified and potentially giving rise to a whole new set of issues that are the unique result of the dorms’ design and location. Despite the college’s concern with student reports of loneliness and anxiety, it is possible that the Greenway dorms do more to intensify these problems than they do to alleviate them. Instead of encouraging campus-wide engagement and interaction, the dorms divide and polarize the campus, decrease social crosspollination, and facilitate exclusion.
The Greenway dorms not only share the aesthetics of a Silicon Valley tech headquarters, but they also share a major and unintended problem: they are self-contained bubbles that reduce interaction with the community at large. Just as workers at Twitter feel no need to leave their San Francisco offices to buy lunch, which would support local businesses, many Greenway residents are finding they have no need to leave their chef-quality kitchens for a meal at Val. Sure, students will leave Greenway C for a 10:00 am Stats class and again for a 4:30 lift or a cappella rehearsal; they may even make the trek from Greenway B to Jenkins on a Saturday night because there isn’t much else going on. But there is little incentive to leave the Greenway on a sober weekday to mingle with friends who live in Mo-Pratt or on the Triangle. After a long day of classes, the trek simply feels inconvenient. The campus has become increasingly divided, shockingly so considering its small size. Perhaps with this resistance to making the “trek,” the Greenway dorms are drawing attention to a bigger underlying issue: students don’t want to have to work to have fun. By eliminating existing social groups without providing alternatives (what ever happened to Social Branches??), the college has handed over the task of creating a new social scene to students without any real means to do so. After having experienced the Socials and the minimal effort it to took to throw or find a party in those spaces, this feels like a lot of effort, maybe a challenge so large in scope that no student feels up to developing any solution.
On the Amherst College website, the Greenway promises to “unify the campus at the same time as its design, shape, and uses expand the opportunities for everyone on campus to experience the richness of the landscape.”At least initially, the dorms have not fulfilled this promise. The campus has become geographically more divided, and there is no unifying force.
Perhaps the true vision of the Greenway cannot be realized until the dorms exist in conjunction with the new science center. But while I want to give the Greenway the benefit of the doubt, I am not prepared to wait until 2018. The new dorms, while visually impressive, are simply not the answer. Amherst keeps trying to fix social problems with formal, school-sanctioned events, organizations, and buildings. The Greenway dorms are the prime example of a shiny, official “solution.” But in reality, we don’t need shiny new dorms or school organized events. We need organic social flow. This does not necessarily come from new buildings; it comes from being more relaxed about parties in existing ones. The solution to our social problems isn’t just to construct new environments, but rather to allow for an environment where socialization happens naturally. For example, the school could encourage socializing by making the party policy less rigid, by opening up dorm parties, and by giving students the means and independence to socialize as they see fit. Architecture cannot be our antidote. We must switch gears and refocus on social life, itself.