An architectural structure with its foundation in the past and the present
The University of Michigan Student Union building
In ages past, collective and communal places often were simply expected to serve a singular function. A church was to bring together individuals who shared in a similar faith, for instance. A one-room schoolhouse was to bring together students and an educator, united for the singular purpose of learning. However, as society has grown more complex and diverse, so have the structures that encompass intellectual, recreational, and communal life.
This is perhaps best evidenced on the University of Michigan Campus, in the form of the Michigan Student Union. This building is of particular interest, not simply because it is so well trafficked by students of the university. It is also of interest because it aspires to do so much, namely to provide a common nutritional, recreational, and functional gathering place for all students.
One reason this is important is due to the climate of Michigan, always an important architectural consideration. Some students may attend Michigan year 'round, but the greatest numbers of students are present on campus during the coldest months of the year. Furthermore, Michigan is very cold state, one of the colder states of the United States. Thus students, unlike residents of, for instance, the University of Florida, require a place that they can work together in, throughout the year. It must provide them with a comfortable environment, yet it must also protect them with considerable insulation from the elements.
Another important element to be considered is that Michigan is a university, and a large and spread-out one at that. Because it is so large, students may feel lost within its confines. How to give undergraduates in particular a sense of commonality, a unified ethos and a sense that they are part of a social and academic element that binds them all together, despite their different backgrounds, interests, and daily pursuits?
The first criteria by which one should judge a student union, therefore, is if structurally, it creates a place where students can be unified in an atmosphere of communality. Does it bring students together or keep them apart? But beyond this, are the methods by which the structure does so keeping with the specific mission of the university of which the student union is a part? Does the student union comprise the university's mission in such a way that enriches the academic and extracurricular experience of students and fosters school spirit? And by what structural methods does it do so?
Lastly, are the methods the student union employs keeping with the specific spirit of the university in which it is located? After all, the student union of a large, state university may be presented with different challenges than those of a small, liberal arts school. A student union located in a cold, spread out campus must be different than a student union in a warm environment, or even at a school that draws a great percentage of individuals from the local population, whom already have a sense of warm and closeness and a common background.
One of the Michigan Student Union's most notable initial features, upon entering, is the presence of the bookstore upon one side, and its international center upon the other. This immediately proclaims to a potential visitor that Michigan University at Ann Arbor is an intellectual center and an international one. It also, incidentally, shows that school spirit has a prominent center in the heart of the university's social and communal life.
It is interesting to observe how evident visitors (usually prospective students and their parents) experience this part of the space of the building. They stop, and immediately are drawn to the brightness of the bookstore and the university paraphernalia it sells. This selling point of a nice bookstore, although not initially a part of the criteria set for judgment of the building as a whole, suggests that the building immediately serves an important commercial function for the university, not necessarily appreciated by the already-existing student body on a daily basis.
Those who are more jaded by the bookstore's sights, such as the current University of Michigan students themselves, will of course by-pass this part of the building as a matter of course. However, it is also worthy of note that many freshman who are still new to the space will, along with the books they are required to purchase, select a great deal of paraphernalia from the bookstore -- perhaps due to the brightly lit, attractively displayed and spacious nature of the room, which bears little resemblance to a library and a great deal of resemblance to an attractive store at a local, familiar, and friendly mall, present in so many suburban and urban communities.
The bookstore, unlike a commonly shared gathering hall, is a retail outlet, not a communal gathering place, no matter how attractive the store may seem. Ultimately, the main criteria set for the student union is if it provides a 'dorm away from dorm' life for current Michigan students. This is a more crucial question than might be initially obvious to a passing observer. There is a temptation in such a large university, for individuals to become 'holed up' in their dormitories or within their own fixed social circles. How to create a space that takes advantage of the diversity of the university, and encourages all individuals to come together, braving the coldest of weather?
The cold is dealt with by structuring the building on a variety of levels, so that individuals can enjoy its various functions, not by proceeding horizontally outside, but by vertically accessing the different functions of the building. An individual can check his or her mail in the subterranean mailboxes, grab a hamburger at Wendy's, and then type his or her paper -- after a quick check of email, or the course website of the class he or she is following. The computers are the next set of rooms that a visitor or a student would be exposed to -- to a visitor to the university this highlights the technological nature of the Michigan campus. To a student, this is a comforting reminder of the centrality of computers, for he or she to be able to work on his or her papers, or remain connected via the World Wide Web. The presence of a computer room is another encouragement for students to come outside, out of their dorms, into a common working space, although by necessity the computer room is somewhat protected in its hallway location, so that hall traffic and noise are not off putting to those doing work. Some email terminals are not similarly protected, suggesting and allowing a nosier, more social experience.
The stress upon commonality is evident even in the structure of the food court. Rather than having individual restraints with individual seats, individuals may purchase the food they desire, and then sit with their friends who want other food, or even just a coffee or a cookie. This encourages individuals to be able to discuss what they have learned in their classes over a late lunch, if they have not already dined, with someone who has dined but may wish to buy a coffee or a snack. People with different food preferences do not need to argue about the best place to go to eat. In something as simple as a food court, commonality and individuality are simultaneously reaffirmed. The largeness and spaciousness, necessary to accommodate the large numbers of students at the university, additionally reinforces the ambience of the food court area.
Of course, this sort of commonality could be critiqued. Some individual might be tempted to observe that, in addition to the main campus dining establishments, the most attractive purveyors of food in the student union are chain restaurants. For students, this is a welcome relief from what they usually experience as part of their meal plan. But to a critic, this might seem to be more troubling. As in a mall food court, there is the illusion choice. There is a suggestion that a consumer is confronted with many options. But all of these options, in essence, are 'the same' -- of Mrs. Fields cookies to Villa pizza, which can be found at almost any mall across the land.
One reason the food court's offerings might seem so incongruous is that the outside of the building is so beautiful, even Gothic in its quality. The spires of the building and its high-reaching structure suggest the French Notre Dame cathedral rather than the 'Mall of America.' To the first glance, the building seems to proclaim the seriousness of the university's mission, rather than any frivolity or consumerism. The frivolity and the consumerism that do exist within, the newness of the inside as opposed to the oldness of the surface, seem to be an apt metaphor for what most students seek in a college meeting-place.
Students want a place to do work. They want a place that is…