Jan Hartman
Principia, 31-044 Kraków, ul. Grodzka 52

Jan Hartman

The University Campus - a Ghost City

[tekst ukazał się w: Malcolm Miles, Nikola Kirham (eds.), Cultures and Settelments, Bristol 2003, ss.87-90.]


In this short paper, I am trying to define the role and place of the East European university campus within the public and urban spaces of a ‘satellite stare’ orbiting around the highly developed West. I am especially interested in drawing an analogy between the position of a campus within the city’s structure and the position of a ‘student community’ within the structure of urban populations of an emerging democracy and market economy. Of course, my references also concern the self-image of campus culture and its architecture in the West itself, since the parallel self-image in the Eastern part of Europe can only thus begin to be drawn.

In Poland and other relatively poor countries, which have been experiencing political and economic expansion in recent decades, millions of students have concentrated around the multitude of small colleges struggling for university status. These young people have created a clearly distinct social group, which is ill adapted to general norms and largely free of external control. Its awkward sovereignty surfaces in various circumstances, for example in the course of mass entertainment events, or stormy political outbursts. Yet, this sovereignty and freedom are curtailed and limited by a number of bard realities.

Firstly there is a total economic dependence on the real society, as it is called (i.e. the money-earning parents, and stare assistance). Secondly the shifting and short-term character of the student population is connected to the fact that typically, students remain a resident of the campus for periods no longer than five years. The latter leads in fact to the makeshift and tentative status of an entire group which is unable to display any long-term solidarity, having yet no real basis either in any stable unity of their fates or in a fair division of labour. The third factor limiting the sovereignty of the student class is rooted in the very reason for such human organisation as a university and its campus, which consists of individuals assuming as their goals the promotion of individual career aspirations within specific social hierarchies. This, together with a university itself, is an essentially opportunistic and pro-social motivation. Though isolated, partially parasitic or apparently communal, the characteristics of the lifestyle of a campus create a slight illusion of non-socialization - in a handy way transformed into the symbolism of hippy culture and it more recent derivatives and echoes - only to be unmasked subsequently through the commercial re-socialization and bourgeois normalization of the key expressions of this illusion. The situation is exacerbated by shifts of class consciousness and opportunity as both students and professors are increasingly drawn from class backgrounds excluded from tertiary education in previous periods; this means that middle-class career aspirations and welfare ideology are imposed on an underdeveloped and semi-conscious contestation that mark a student lifestyle.

Furthermore the traditional exterritoriality of the university against the city, its separate geographical location which mirrors its psychological as well as (a)social location, inherited from the Middle Ages, and the subsequent isolation of the campus as an apparently open district, causes some annoying or confusing ambiguities. The claim expressed by this settlement, which is a location only of study, is for the highest level of statesmanship socialization, a claim which in order to be expressed and declared needs to use most of the university’s own ideological power to legitimate itself amongst the highest social strata. Precisely as this ideology legitimates the university, the functionality of the university is reproduced only by its highest representatives in the society whilst students hardly perceive this ideology or at least don’t wish to do so. Thus the student society of a campus, together with the urban substance of their campus, don’t belong to the proper, immanent substance of the city. This campus society - the use of the word community would be a misuse in view of its temporary status - and its urban form (the space which is its vehicle) seem both to be alienated on account of its chronic, provisional, tentative, transitional, to not to say nomadic character.

The society of a campus is only partially settled in its social and urban place and therefore its socialization remains dubious. A campus itself, analogously is only halfrooted in a city, being as much sticking out of its residential and working parts, as it is little credible as a long lasting component of the city’s substance.

In effect, for all the external appearances, such as the noisy nightlife and the elaborate networks of illegal or half-legal activities beyond public control (I refer here to untaxed trade, drugs, petty technological thefts such as falsifying telephone cards, and prostitution - see Bordner & Peterson, 1986), a campus ‘community’ is highly fragmented. It is populated by alienated individuals deprived of the sense of a common goal who, as economically and psychologically dependent on external persons, are lonely and unsure of themselves. In East-Central Europe this personal alienation usually takes the relatively unpretentious shape of solitude or loneliness, while in the cosmopolitan West it becomes a much more socialised and politicised phenomenon. However the roots of alienation are always very personal and every disappointment experienced by young people in a community which later turns out to be the ‘community’ without a ‘commune’ damages their personal socialization (Parker, 1992: Angell, 2000).

To sum up so far, and suggest some comparisons: shanty towns and ghettos provide examples of Hobbesian type urban spaces where family and street-gang solidarity provides a shelter against universal hostility. Huge suburban districts of apartment blocks are but sleeping rooms of the city. The areas covered with middle-class houses can be dubbed spaces of urbanised privacy. In parallel with these definitions, a campus is a ghost city. It is a nomads’ makeshift camp, temporarily inhabited during the college term and in-between holidays. During the holidays each resident can return to his/her home, i.e. the parental home, or travel elsewhere. This campus city is a temporary urban installation with the atmosphere of an Expo village; it takes on the problem that, after the Expo is over, it is uncertain what uses such a site might then have, when the fair is no longer there. How long is it going to exist? How is it going to function and evolve? The Expo Village in Lisbon raises questions of this kind.

Returning to the University campus: if each part of the city space should be perceived from the perspective which best shows its social peculiarity, then this essential peculiarity may be best epitomised by the view from the window, the sight over the fence, the panorama seen over the café table, etc. In the case of a university campus in a poor country it is the view from a double-layered bunk bed in a crowded dormitory room. The essential element of such a perspective is a pin-up girl poster, the panorama extending towards the cafeteria, a cheap bar, a nearby shop, other college buildings, and up to the misty outlines of the ‘city’ and the crucial and focal site of the railway station. Looking from inside your room towards the outside of the city is always facing the public sphere from the borderline of our privacy. There are two terms in use, aimed at confronting and comforting both sides of the meaningful space and both of which domesticate the unreal space of a campus; one is ‘neighbourhood’, the other ‘infrastructure of facilities’ (see Dickens, 2000; Bareither, 2000; Dober, 1991).

The space of a campus is narrow and overcrowded. Its spatial structure and architectural demarcations partly resemble military barracks and seem to be stigmatised by some hidden forms of repression. The repressive tension on campus consists of the closed spaces, the common use of security devices, watching guards, and the division of genders within the residential accommodation. The intimacy of an overcrowded college campus in a Central European city spreads out of the private rooms and moves toward and conquers parts of the city’s public spaces, like park benches, bars, and even kitchens - in the night. Privacy, lacking in the three-bedded rooms of student hostels is reproduced in a compensatory way through private parties, which become public, seen even as high priority public services. Public parties, however, instead of intimacy, offer anonymous noise, darkness and crowd. The result is that a campus as an academic village with its proper infrastructure, somehow doll-like and slightly unreal in its apparent independence from the city, turns out to be a generalisation of the destructive alienation characteristic of an individual student’s life (see Muthesius, 2001). Like a campus, spreading throughout the substance of the city and alienating in social, psychic and architectural terms, a student is endlessly free and independent of his/her parents to build, together with others, an aggregate community made up of solitary and uprooted individuals from their former social environments.

The academic village as a decentred reality is shifted aside by its official image, exactly like its students, who are non-authentic or half-official parts of academic life: parts of its external legitimation rather than its internal constitutive moment. The academic village then shows its true face in the unofficial time of the night. If an external city holds its nightlife for the marginal and suspicious, a village (so to say) keeps living only truly during the night-time. Dark buildings with lecture halls, radiant dormitory buildings and bars are something to be perceived as an initial, zero state for a campus. Its daily activity is in fact, for most of its overnight residents, a time of passivity, a time of listening to the courses, a night, as it were, to be survived and suffered passively and lethargically. It is not before sunset that students really perform their true actions, exercising and circulating amongst their personal relations. Therefore, the truth of campus architecture is the truth of its night architecture - not that of buildings, but of the dusk and the lights (Gaines, 1998; Dober, 1996).

This is precisely why we are never happy with how our campuses look. We look at them to assess them in daylight, meanwhile they live in the night when not too much is to be seen. The night architecture is the anti-architecture, and the campus of the night, a genuine, silent contestation and reverse of its official daytime role. Why should a student care about how a campus looks? What is his/her profit from the university’s ethos, what does he/she anyway know about it at all? The reason why he/she became a resident of a student hostel has very little to do with the reasons and motivations of those who decided to build it. The duties of the day can moderate to some extent this misunderstanding, but in the night everything rises to surface - the ugliness of a campus and the real sense of the life it lives. The campus nightlife’s quick and chaotic consumption is disorganised, rough, and uncertain about its own meaning and goal young life - as against the panoptic, centralised composition of the day-campus.

So far, in this brief, hence slightly superficial and nonchalant sketch of a campus, I have used the analogies of structures: the campus - the city and student society - the society of the city. I tried to show that the features of a campus reflect the neurosis and alienation typical of the student society emerging against the background of the academic society, as well as against the broader social background materialised by the ‘authentic city’ surrounding a campus. I also stressed some features of a campus that reproduce and symbolize the relations between a student as an individual and his or her aggregate community, which is constituted by the very failure of its own constitutive and integrational efforts. We must not however forget about the campus urban symbolism, through which the campus as a district of the city shows its meanings as the connections and general relations it has to its urban surrounding. The provisional and doll-like character of the half-real university district reflects not only some alienation and infantilism of the student society against the society of academia, but above all the alienation of academia against the whole of society. After all, the university is in fact, at least to some extent, a place of work without working, a place of fulfilling some duties without the reality and necessity that charges the everyday life of the external, authentic city - the city of survival. The university must permanently prove and justify its right to exist within the working society. It must persuade the authentic city (so to speak, that is, in the wider society) about its use, value, seriousness, and finally about its very participation in that society. This process is of great importance, especially in poorer countries like Poland where the majority of people have no idea what the university is for and why the money earned by its staff should be acknowledged as an honest living. All signs of division of the university space from the substance of the city and society deepen this distrustful ignorance and destroy the prestige and political power the university works to gain. This has the obvious effect of damaging both the university and the society.

It is not hard to guess, after what I’ve said, that I am against this urbanist and social invention of the campus, and especially against its variation, the academic village, at least in those countries where the level of education is not yet a measure of prestige. I teach at a Polish university which is over 600 years old, has now over 35,000 students and is perhaps one of the best universities of Europe. The Jagiellonian University, University of Cracow has up to now managed without a campus. However, two years ago its construction began. I can only hope that philosophers won’t be forced one day to leave the old walls of this Jesuit College in the very centre of historic Cracow, to move to a doll-like building in a doll-like university district in the suburbs.