The most famous fictional educational institution in the world—for good or ill—is probably Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Lovingly described in the Harry Potter books and beautifully realized on film, it is a wonderland of mad Gothic extravagance. The long stone passageways are lined with statues and gargoyles. It’s what John Ruskin might have dreamed about if he’d spent the evening reading Tom Brown’s School Days and then eaten too much cheese before bedtime.
To arrive at a modern university must be a great disappointment for young adults who once delighted in the nooks and crannies and ancient cloisters of Hogwarts. A minority are lucky enough to attend universities whose buildings were largely in place before architects turned to the dark side; the rest will spend their time in buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness. And it is not just the exteriors. The boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture is much lamented, but it is perhaps less understood how the insides of these buildings are dull and flat and oppressive to the soul.
I know whereof I speak. Before the pandemic, my job took me to universities all over England, and the uniformity of the décor, ambience, and layout is remarkable. The suspended ceilings are low. The colors are anemic. The lighting is stark. Paintings are rare, although you will occasionally see blandly reassuring modern prints in a highly abstract style. Also largely absent are visual manifestations of long-term institutional memory: There are few if any plaques commemorating old boys who died for Crown and Country, while portraits of founders and photos of victorious sports teams from past decades tend to be hidden away.
To wander the corridors of such places is to enter a vacuum, a disorienting, unmoored Anywhere. You could be in London or New York or Singapore or Johannesburg.
Libraries, now called “Information Centers” or “Knowledge Hubs,” have become curious affairs. Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.
Given the typical layout of such spaces, the desirability of natural light for sustained book reading does not appear to have entered much into the designers’ thinking. Possibly we are seeing another manifestation of the cultural dominance of the Almighty Screen; natural light is generally very helpful when reading a book, but irrelevant and sometimes actively unhelpful to clear viewing of a computer, tablet, or smartphone. A reactionary’s lament against the modern world, I hear you cry. Perhaps. But the transformation of the library is of a piece with the grimly functional nature of the offices and conference rooms and lecture theaters. It feels like a flight—perhaps not conscious or deliberate, but flight nevertheless—from commitment to a place.
A book is a physical object, anchored in time to individual people and a specific location. It can bear the same kind of significance as other things that become imbued with meaning in our lives. Information viewed digitally does not have this character. It is abstracted, universal, transient. A stamp in a book, declaring it the property of a particular university library and noting its acquisition in 1984; or the marginalia left by generations now departed; even the accumulated creases and marks of long usage: They all help to support the true understanding of a university as a community of scholars, bound to some real place, engaged in a grand enterprise through time, that transcends the fads and preoccupations of any given era.
By the same token, a certain amount of grandeur and beauty in interior decoration helps to give a sense of institutional authority and self-confidence in the face of demands from activist students intoxicated by What’s Happening Right Now. A photo of the university’s league-topping football team from 1938, or one of those mildly pompous depictions of a heavily bearded Victorian gentleman who was first principal of the original technical college, gently tell us that we are simply the latest in a long line, and that others will follow in our footsteps. To be confronted with the wisdom and achievements of the long dead is to be reminded that we are not so very important as all that. Our ancestors knew things we have forgotten, just as we have remedied some of their defects, and our descendants in their turn will improve on our efforts in some respects and fail to do so in others.
As it is, the interiors of university buildings present a nullity. They presuppose, and create, people without roots and without concrete allegiances. Nothing is remarkable, nothing is mysterious, nothing is awe-inspiring. There is no room for vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards, nor for the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant. The niche and the decorated window are banished. Students’ lives will remain unenhanced by the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque. Instead we have endless tedium, thinly carpeted and lit with headache-inducing, uniform brightness.
Naturally none of these buildings are haunted; ghosts are agents of mischief and disorder. As unwelcome intruders from the benighted past, they are liable to have problematic views on all sorts of subjects. It would violate any number of policies to have an unquiet spirit on the premises, and might upset the true ruling powers of the academy, the accountants, by affecting the institution’s score in the National Student Survey. There would certainly be complaints if the multi-faith prayer room were turned over to a Catholic priest for the purposes of an exorcism. In any case, on most of these anodyne campuses there is nowhere really scary for a ghoul to make its base of operations—unless you count those terrifying rooms found in Brutalist masterpieces where the flat roof has been leaking rainwater since it was built.
Harry Potter may have had crypto-Nazi dark wizards to deal with, but at least he faced such foes in a place that was beautiful and inspiring, a tribute in stone and glass to the nobility of the ideals for which he fought. Pity the poor student who must face the adventure of intellectual discovery in an open-plan desert of gray floors, off-white paint, and fluorescent light.
Niall Gooch is a columnist for the Catholic Herald.
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Image by Claire Giuntini.