Is that art?
Updated: Jun 30
By Hallie Nell Swanson
Of course Lerner is art: I took Art Hum. And some more art history after that. It’s art because it’s useless. If it weren’t art, it would have to be design like how a really arty Swedish toaster is “design”—in the sense of having a function or a purpose. I spend a lot of time here—sketching, contemplating existence. I’ve come to know it. I’m an observer here. I’ve observed that beyond certain stylistic and formal elements, there’s very little of the toaster at play. This building is truly, I want to say ideologically useless. Form over function. Art for art’s sake.
Freshman year I came here to get my mail for the first time. As I traveled around the building’s irrelevant periphery, I gazed, perplexed, at its useless empty core. What was it all for? I ascended the ramps, disorientated by the random, purposeless changes in gradient. Across the room, I thought I glimpsed stairs, rising from the void like a mirage I could never reach. Finally, I found my mailbox. Empty.
It was an artistic moment, a conceptual moment. All my hopes of finding a purpose to my journey were subverted, the exchange rendered devoid of utility. I gazed at the other mailboxes— all identical, all presumably empty. In that moment, I saw mail services for the farce it truly is. The mailboxes appeared stacked before me as visions of student existence—lined up in institutionalized order, identified by a meaningless number. We only have them for four years. And then it hit me. Aren’t we all just trying to fit into the same identical box? And aren’t we all empty inside?
Shit, I thought. This is some arty shit.
Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes you realize the truth.” Lerner lies to you. It invites you up the staircase to join friends. Then you crash in to an athlete and end up with Powerade all over your Moleskine. It’s an absurd moment, gesturing productively towards the sad empty ritual of the student endeavor. It’s kind of sublime. (I wrote that in the Powerade-drenched Moleskine.)
I mean, when you think about it, all the ramps are really only leading down.
Not to overlook aesthetics—I mean, this building has plenty of other features whose sheer eccentric uselessness confers upon them a certain artistic status.
Look at that sofa-esque structure in the piano lounge. Its lime green color and its odd wavy form are artistic features, surely, when its very form is a rejection of functionality: try and sit in it, and its concrete texture positively resists you, whether you sit in the weirdly high wave or the weirdly low trough. The green thing is art.
It doesn’t end there, either. Here, as we are all forced to become viewers, we also all become art. I know a lot about that because I’ve sat here, hours at a time, perched in one of the space-age shiny “armchairs.” Apparently the ramps were designed to facilitate productive moments of random encounter. Here, that tends to mean judgment. Aesthetic judgment, if you will. Appraisal; a kind of voyeurism. Isn’t that’s what all the glass is for? Your cynical gaze lights upon Lerner’s wretched inhabitants and it finds…yourself. And in that moment, you are art. Lerner makes an exhibition out of us all of us.
By Virginia Fu
No. I’m a student center. I swear I’m literally just a goddamn center for students.
They say that Lerner doesn’t function. They say that I’m cold, unaccommodating, and don’t have enough space to offer. That I—and here they point out how the bewilderment the uninitiated face navigating my ramps mirrors the difficulties attending the achievement of American Dream—am just a metaphor.
I say they’re not looking in the right places. They’re obviously not looking at Alfred Lerner Hall, a functional student center that provides space for students.
Because if you looked, you’d see that I’m a go-getter, a do-gooder, a recipient of the American Architecture Award, the New York City AIA Design Award, and Time Best Design of 1999. I’m Alfred Lerner Hall, student center for students and I offer 250,000 square feet of space. Pure, unfettered, space. Yours for the booking. Space for your tedious weekly club meetings, space for you to work crookedly on my sloping ramps, space for you to rub shoulders with and spill Powerade on this University’s diverse multitudes as you ascend my carefully placed staircases. When you’re looking out from the fourth floor after your meeting with your very own academic advisor or chatting with administrators in their administrative offices, leaning on the railings surveying the transparent emptiness below— which, by the way, in no way gestures toward some deep scalloped hollowness at the heart, the core, of the student experience—you can see it’s all just there for you. Space. For students.
Because if you just looked at me it would become abundantly clear that I am a goddamn spaceship. I am a gleaming motherfucking spaceship from outer space. That’s not a metaphor.
But you’re not looking. You’re not looking at my ramps. You don’t see their rugged functionality. My ramps are like arms. Warm, embracing maternal arms that reach out of their homes and claw gradually higher toward that tantalizing glass ceiling. I say that if you know how to navigate me, it’s not that difficult to get where you want to go.
If you were really looking, you’d see that I, Alfred Lerner Hall, am here, was created, birthed, built for you: the students of the greatest college in the greatest university in the greatest city in the world. Think about that next time you swipe your wallet at the turnstile and bruise your crotch on my unyielding metal bar.
Sometimes you look, but you don’t really see me at all. It’s almost as if there were something between us. A partition that’s not transparent. I just want you to see you, reflect you.
Isn’t that what everyone wants? To be looked at and to recognize in that gaze the image of something you are or hope to be. But you pass by on my ramps hunched, rushed, intent on your work, eyes averted.
If I am cold, if there’s an emptiness at my core, I am only a mirror of you, you who look at my architectural daring, my yearning to be more than I am, and scoff. You who only see impediments where there is limitless, vacuous opportunity. I just want to be loved.