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Learning from architecture

Lauren Galgano | Thursday, August 26, 2004

Not pretending to be an expert in either field by any means, I would like to offer a few observations on architecture and learning, especially at this University.

Those returning to campus this week have certainly noticed several new academic buildings peppering the landscape. With all of the new construction and growth, this is an exciting time to be present at Notre Dame. However, for those who will engage the halls of these buildings in the years to come, I hope the architecture of today will meet the needs of our students and faculty. Let me explain.

When you walk into a building, have you ever considered how it makes you feel? Have you considered the way your steps are directed, even the way your mind is directed, by the bounds of the space? Whether or not you are privy enough to contemplate your surroundings on a regular basis, architecture is a painstaking craft, perhaps exerting more influence on your daily routine that you might realize.

Think for a moment about DeBartolo Hall. Sitting today in one of those tiny seminar rooms on the third floor where the walls are grey, 25 desks are shoved against the back wall so the professor can breath and the only window hides in the corner, square and outlined by a thick metal rim, I found my mind wandering off-topic from the lecture quite often. The professor and the material presented were actually quite interesting, and I wasn’t feeling tired, so I sat there trying to figure out why I was having so much trouble paying attention, until I realized a striking paradox: The architecture of the space was distracting to my learning.

There I was with a brilliant professor explaining the relation of philosophy and poetry in a way that really made the material come alive, and all I could think about was how blank the wall behind him was. In fact, the dull architecture provided a sharp contrast to the nature of the lecture. There was nothing poetic about the room; nothing about the space engaged my senses to enhance my learning experience. Instead, I found myself having to actively ignore my surroundings in order to appreciate the lecture. At an institution of higher learning, this should not be the case.

Now contrast those classrooms in DeBartolo to the more classic style of the Law School library – undergrads, you really should go check it out just to see it. When I walk into that library I feel closer to wisdom, just by the very nature of its lofty design. I can sit and read in that library for hours because the architectural design speaks to academic achievement.

As for the new buildings on campus, I can only hope that someone took into consideration that the space inside is meant for learning, and that the design ought to facilitate that end.