Our Buildings Are Much More Than Halls and Classrooms

November 1, 2004 | CUNY Matters Columns

Some years ago, when I was taking a tour of the just-finished Newman Library at Baruch College, a group of students stopped me to give their assessment of this new center for learning that had once served a powerhouse for streetcars. I steeled myself. Then one of the students said, “This building is so beautiful. It’s more beautiful than where any of us live.” I replied, “You know what? It’s more beautiful than where I live, too.”

I have always believed that our students and faculty need campuses that are beautiful, spaces that inspire learning, places for reflection, companionship and community. The need for fostering community is especially great at CUNY where nearly all of our students commute to class, often from the workplace.

New York City presents the ultimate challenge for those who seek to create excellent spaces for learning. Available land is at a premium, and the rules that govern its use are complex. Employing inspiring architectural designs that are at ease in an urban environment is no simple task. These obstacles present a daunting challenge, one with great risks, and great rewards.

This challenge has taken on a new urgency as the University’s enrollment is at its highest level in 30 years, and as we move forward with a capital construction program that will provide to our campuses over the next five years the largest infusion of dollars for facilities in the University’s history.

The scope of recent efforts at CUNY demonstrates that inspiring destinations can be created throughout New York City: from Baruch College’s “vertical campus,” a 17-story building that covers almost an entire city block; to the academic building under construction at Medgar Evers College to support its growing programs in Brooklyn; to the restoration of the Great Hall and the landmark exterior at City College. John Jay College of Criminal Justice will in a few years have a space that will be in keeping with its position as the nation’s pre-eminent college for the study of criminal justice and related disciplines.

Consider, also, the newly expanded library at Brooklyn College. The project combines a respectful restoration of this neo- Georgian-colonial gem, additional space to house the collections amassed over the decades, and new technology that is without peer. A second project for the college will expand the quadrangle to the proportions contemplated by its original designers.

In these and many other projects, the architectural teams have responded creatively, emphasizing through visual detail and scale that these are places of inspiration and import, not merely pass-through points.

Attending college is much more than dashing into a building, sitting at a desk for an hour, and then leaving. Just as good design has many inspirations and influences, a good education doesn’t happen simply by sitting in a classroom. It happens when a student feels the sense of ownership, confidence, and ease an inspired setting can offer. Spaces of light and connection and purpose—when designed well—inspire us to believe in the power of our own creativity. Educational environments should stir the imagination, communicating to students that they are capable of being the “architects” of their future, through whatever field they have chosen.

With its 19 colleges and professional schools spread throughout the five boroughs of New York City, CUNY is truly part of the fabric of the City. Its distinguished alumni have helped shape the city; its students reflect the city’s racial and ethnic diversity; and its campuses reflect the physical diversity of the city’s neighborhoods.

That’s why we at CUNY are such believers in creating strong civic and academic spaces. Our students, the future of New York City, deserve them.

Editor’s note: Chancellor Goldstein was the recipient in October of the New York Foundation for Architecture’s Presidents Award.

Watch the Chancellor talk about the importance of architecture in which students study.