Back in high school, when I was beginning my college search, I made a list of criteria by which to evaluate the schools I visited. First on the list was academic rigor, followed by strength in my areas of interest, social life on campus and financial aid. Last on the list, and almost as an afterthought, were the aesthetics of the campus. I thought agreeable aesthetics would be a plus, but ultimately it would be unwise, even juvenile, to select a university because it looks nice.
My time at Yale has led me to think otherwise. I have come to see that the appearance of a campus is significantly linked with several of the other criteria I had thought more important — particularly academic rigor. Yale’s excellence in scholarship hinges in large part on the style of its architecture, the arrangement of its buildings and the splendor of its courtyards.
Too often we underestimate the impact of aesthetics on our everyday lives. Students walking by Sterling Memorial Library, gazing up at Harkness Tower or strolling through Old Campus, are liable to be struck by wonder. These buildings tower over us and reach into the heavens, rousing us to aspire to a higher way of life and reminding us that we are spiritual beings, longing for something beyond this earth. What better preparation for class than to look up, en route, and find inspiration to seek something greater and grander than our petty, quotidian concerns?
Yet looking up does more than inspire wonder. Part of recognizing that the buildings are great is to recognize that we are small. Towering edifices remind us not just of our spiritual nature, but also of our lowly animal nature. We are finite and feeble. Our feet are bound to the ground. For the time being, we must remain separated from the higher state to which wonder beckons us. Thus, great architecture instills both an aspiration to greatness and a sense of humility.
Still, towering buildings are not enough. In order for architecture to be truly conducive to education, it must also be beautiful. Beauty is seductive. It draws us in and entices us to lay aside our self-absorption. It makes us aware of the mysterious other. It inflicts us with the painful awareness that we are lacking, that we are incomplete, and it thereby incites in us the only force powerful enough to make for a truly enriching, truly profound education — namely, eros.
We typically think of eros as sexual, but in its highest sense — the one Socrates uses in the Symposium — eros denotes a passionate desire to be whole, to possess what is good and to hold onto it forever. Eros of this kind is a prerequisite for great artistic creation, philosophical inquiry and scientific discovery. True education, then, must be highly erotic.
Buildings by nature are stubbornly conservative. A university’s curriculum, religious affiliation and educational philosophy might be thrown out the window, but its buildings will stay put. Besides encouraging wonder, humility and eros, buildings can maintain a university’s sense of tradition.
We study, learn and live in the same places as the men who have gone before us. Imbuing every nook and cranny of our campus is the spirit of a million stories, legends and dramas from the past. We feel the burden of living up to this spirit, but it is a happy and exciting burden.
Granted, a beautiful campus does not guarantee academic excellence, nor does an ugly campus entail academic mediocrity. But there should be no question that the aesthetics of a campus play a large and often underestimated role in a university’s ability to inspire and to educate. The beauty (or unsightliness) of our surroundings seeps into our souls whether we acknowledge it or not, affecting our moods, desires, tastes and thoughts.
I applaud President Levin for selecting Robert Stern ARC ’65, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to design the two newest additions to our residential college system. Stern’s penchant for more traditional styles accords with Yale’s architectural heritage and promises a beautiful result. To have chosen a more “avant-garde” architect would have been to trade the benefits of a tried-and-true architectural style for the whims of an architect likely to offer not wonder, not eros, but revulsion.
It is comforting to think that even as the last vestiges of Yale’s heritage are being modified, modernized or abandoned every year, there remains one point of contact with the past from which students may draw energy and inspiration: campus aesthetics.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.