Saturday, October 23, 2021

Architects of Failure: the “New College’s” Poorly Constructed Student Experience

Story | Dave Chappell (he/him), Former Editor-in-Chief
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

If I could choose one Octant article to show to the individuals behind the decision to merge Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) it would be David Chia’s piece on Yale-NUS’s architecture. While there are many things wrong with the merger besides the incompatible buildings, the piece demonstrates why the “New College” experience will be constructed so poorly. The architects of the merger would do well to heed its warnings.

As the piece points out, Yale-NUS’s campus was not designed in a vacuum, but rather in conjunction with and supporting the college’s vision (something I’m sure was true for USP’s Cinnamon College too). To create a college that was more than the sum of its parts, it was important that all the components supported one another, including the curriculum, culture, extra-curricular opportunities, architecture, and more. This created a distinct and rewarding college experience. It is not something that can be easily deconstructed and reassembled — you cannot remove or rearrange load-bearing walls without compromising a building’s structural integrity.

Yale-NUS’s campus is filled with examples of how it was constructed around a specific vision of being an autonomous college, divided into sub-communities of learning that bring together its founding universities and cultural traditions from across the world to create a distinct identity. While I want to believe in post-merger possibilities, I fear the two colleges’ strengths are so distinct and embedded that a merger is incompatible. Although I am focusing on the campus architecture, this is a microcosm of the unsound construction of “New College,” which also applies to the other components mentioned above. 

An Autonomous College

Yale-NUS was envisioned as an autonomous college and the architecture reinforced this. As detailed in Chia’s piece, the openings to UTown are deliberately limited and the grid architecture is a distinct contrast to UTown’s curves. Yale-NUS’s campus is also separated by gates, and the covered walkways that allow an individual to circumnavigate UTown without getting caught in the rain do not extend to it. All of this points to a “New College” where half the student population is architecturally separated from the other. The architecturally induced division between students is, needless to say, at odds with collaborative learning. 

The physical spaces were also designed around Yale-NUS’s small student population and therefore will not support the “New College’s” larger size. The library is already at capacity and, as pointed out by Shaharaj Ahmed, most Yale-NUS classrooms cannot support the class sizes envisioned by the “New College.” 

Sub-Communities of Learning

Yale-NUS was intended to be a fully residential experience to foster round-the-clock learning and encourage more international students to apply. This was embodied in the architecture, which created communities nested within each other (suites within sky gardens, sky gardens within residential colleges, residential colleges within Yale-NUS, and Yale-NUS within NUS). That Yale-NUS was always intended to be divided into the three residential colleges is borne out by the triplication of courtyards, butteries, and dining halls, but also by subtler things—like the different grains of wood or choices of flora.

These cannot be replicated by the “New College.” Even if they were to keep a sub-residential college structure, this would create large asymmetries—USP’s buildings have two towers joined by a single dining hall for a capacity of 600, while Yale-NUS’s buildings divide a capacity of 1000 between five towers (of varying sizes) and three dining halls. There is also less need for sub-identities since the “New College” will only have a two-year residential component.

What seems likely is that the architects of the “New College” will try to erase the sub-communities—losing yet another of Yale-NUS’s best features—in favor of an overarching “New College” identity. Still, as noted earlier, the Yale-NUS architecture encourages the formation of sub-residential identities. Add in another college separated from the Yale-NUS campus by a sizable distance and with large architectural differences, and one will have established a fractured college community antithetical to social cohesion and round-the-clock learning. 

Creating A Distinct Identity

Students at Yale-NUS and USP will be able to tell you the challenges of creating an identity from scratch. Fortunately for those at Yale-NUS, the work was already partly done, as the college’s founders infused the identities of its founding philosophy and parent institutions into its iconography and architecture, from which students could construct something unique. These include the fusing of architectural motifs from East and West and nods to its parent institutions. 

Features such as the gates, the Sol LeWitt painting, and the Deinonychus fossil in the library, which link Yale-NUS’s campus to its New Haven heritage, will remain long after these connections are severed. Stripped of the Yale-NUS identity, these markers will not only cease to contribute to college identity, they will detract from it, by acting as reminders that a college’s soul was once forcibly removed from its architectural body. 

“New College” will need a new identity and this will probably involve bastardizing the identifying markers of its two constituents. But how can a unifying soul emerge from such a soulless endeavor?

Conclusion

I always used to joke that Yale-NUS’s former slogan of “2+2=5” unintentionally implied that liberal arts graduates were bad at math, but it made a compelling point: Yale-NUS was more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t something that happened by accident. As demonstrated by the campus architecture, it was the result of the founders and subsequent students, faculty, and staff building mutually reinforcing links that created a unique and irreplaceable college experience. The architects of the “New College” show no understanding of this and the writing is on the walls. Unfortunately, this kind of top-down decision making will not unify the strongest features of Yale-NUS and USP. It will be a poorly constructed, disjointed mass of rubble—less than the sum of its parts.

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