By Sara Schulwolf
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
Studying methods of population and land control implemented by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank (shout out to Professor Hussain if you’re reading this—politics of verticality are just so relevant!) has shown me how architecture can define, and even create culture. Israeli forces engineered an intricate separation barrier and connecting tunnel system around Jewish settlements in the West Bank, allowing them complete division from Palestinians while maintaining Israeli unity. Architecture wields tremendous power: Our buildings’ designs design our lives. At Amherst, we can analyze Crossett, Coolidge, Pond, and Stone—the main hubs of our social activity—to assess the cultural climate fostered by their design. Like the biological principle of “structure fits function,” the layout of the socials reveals much about the atmosphere within.
The suite is the basic unit of the socials, with each part of the suite corresponding to a distinct purpose. Common rooms are the recreational epicenter, providing space for sparse furniture (usually a bar and a table intended for drinking games) and small masses of people. Try as we might to fill all available space (people shoved in corners… atop bars… on the window sills…) there are only so many bodies that can physically fit inside a socials common room. The resultant density can prove overwhelming: Maneuvering through the three-foot deep wall of bodies becomes balletic. But the size constraints lend parties an air of intimacy, and promote socialization. But we cannot ignore the fact that cramped spaces overrun with drunken masses also produce a climate conducive to sexual assault, vandalism, and other misconduct.
Bathrooms, odorous as they are, are a crucial junction. They are meeting spots for separated friends, storehouses for illicit kegs, and places of refuge for those who need respite from the external chaos. Most importantly, bathrooms form connections between suites—a passageway of sorts. This median ground is crucial for party-hopping students. In the journey from one overcrowded common room to the next, there’s always a brief relief in a space designed for personal conduct. Furthermore, these connections encourage a fluid social dynamic within the buildings themselves. No one remains tethered to one party; besides leaving one social to go to another, students can travel between parties through the network of bathrooms, stairs, and common rooms. Information travels through these channels as well: students will relay word that certain suites are active, prompting a continual flow of students between live rooms.
Personally, I love the socials. Throwing open the door to Crossett or Coolidge on a Saturday night and inhaling the omnipresent stale-beer-and-sweat aroma fills me with giddy anticipation. Soon, I’ll be crowding into a poorly lit common room with bodies covering every available square inch of floor space, sipping unidentifiable liquid from a Solo cup, and gyrating to chart-topping pop numbers alongside my friends. I wouldn’t spend my weekends any other way. But all sentiment aside, I can understand why students might find the socials frustrating to navigate weekend after weekend. Most teams and clubs will recruit a select group of its members, usually upperclassmen, to occupy a suite. Suites thus act as representations of different social groups. The soccer suite. The Zumbyes’ suite. The suite belonging to an underground fraternity that definitely does not exist. The socials put people in boxes, and students come to associate different suites with the characteristics of the organization that they represent. A paradoxical combination arises, as suites must oscillate between being public and private space. They juggle the desire to host events for members of their groups and their responsibility to entertain the student body. These suites have both public and private roles on campus, and this awkward binary accounts for much of the uncertainty among both partygoers, party-throwers, and those in between on any weekend night.
As President Martin announced to bewildered freshmen at a teatime near the beginning of the semester, the socials have an expiration date. By my senior year, the socials will be gone, replaced with an unknown substitute. The administration now faces the tremendous task of reconfiguring Amherst’s recreational space, and potentially redefin- ing Amherst’s social culture. During development, they ought to keep in mind the dichotomy between the two most common models of social construct.
Crossett, Coolidge, Pond, and Stone currently serve as self-determined modular spaces. This type of construct struggles to balance insular, labeled enclaves with overall inclusivity. While most can find some entertainment, the design still leaves many feeling excluded and perpetually directionless. The opposite construct is apparent in the new powerhouse design, which endeavors to eliminate divides in the student body by conglomerating the entire Amherst population into a single, large room. The issue with such a prescriptive, unified space is that often, attempts to encourage (read: force) unification have the opposite effect, and attract no one. A similar contrast occurred in last year’s debate over whether or not to replace Keefe’s game room with a new Multicultural Resource Center. Those in favor of the replacement presented the hypothetical MRC as a beacon of solidarity, promoting acceptance and cross-cultural dialogue. Those opposed maintained that freely determined space encouraged diversity more than a singular, prearranged locus for celebrating multiculturalism.
The ideal social construct thus marries openness and community with personal choice. Luckily, a remedy to the enforced duality observed in our conflicting social constructs already exists in the form of the socials lawn. The socials lawn belongs to no one, and is therefore communal terrain. As it is not the single space prescribed for social interaction, many opt to linger there. Friends convene on the grass to determine a plan of action before entering the socials, people cross paths in transit between buildings, pausing for a moment of conversation, and sometimes, whole groups drag chairs outside and lounge in the open space. Often, especially in temperate weather, a greater proportion of students congregate outside of the socials than within. Whatever structure replaces the socials ought to incorporate this inclusive freedom, serving as a place where everyone can gather without the prescriptive vibe of a TAP. Ideally, such a design could achieve the desired open-air quality of socialization.