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  • Alice Tecotxky

Left in the Dark

Campus is beautiful and we can’t see why.

By Alice Tecotzky

Illustration by Kendra Mosenson

As November comes to a close and the final stubborn leaves drop off of the trees on College Walk, a layer of twinkle lights is wrapped around the bare branches. What does it take to cover these trees carefully and consistently? What does the process reveal about our relation to—or, really, distance from—the everyday process of maintaining Columbia’s grounds?

I naively thought that connecting with the tree wrapping company should be relatively straightforward, yet my interactions with the Facilities and Operations Department were obscure. On my first call, the representative on the other end of the line told me to contact the elusive “Ricky from Grounds” with a phone number that led nowhere. When I emailed again, a department spokesperson said that the University doesn’t think that it’s appropriate for me to contact the vendor, given that they’re doing work “on behalf of the university.” Budgeting information is also kept private. And no, I couldn’t speak with a member of the Facilities team at this time.

A few days later, yellow trucks emblazoned with “Bartlett Tree Experts” appeared on College Walk and ended my search. Here it was, the company at the bottom of my Google doom scroll, readily placed for all to see.

Andrew Dolkart, a professor of Historic Preservation at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), believes that a gap exists between our experience and knowledge of Columbia’s grounds. Students, he said, are “probably not” attuned to the level and nature of work required to maintain the landscape. Given the mandated degrees of separation between myself and the ironically accessible Bartlett Tree Experts, I wondered whether the University has a vested interest in our distance, or whether it is such distance that enables the picturesque beauty of campus in the first place.

College seeks to bridge a different kind of distance, that between childhood and fledgling adulthood; its architecture and landscape coax us along the journey. According to Jorge Otero-Pailos, Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at GSAPP, the University’s original architects purposefully extended College Walk to facilitate our movement from Broadway to campus, from the chaos of New York to a haven for intentional thought. 

“That arrival sequence is itself a ritual,” Otero-Pailos said.

In December, the trees alight as if by magic and our ritualistic walk transforms, made brighter and more joyous by those who spend weeks attending to the branches. Young children suspend their belief on Christmas morning, trusting in the invisible labor of Santa, and we, too, exult in a spontaneously materialized gift. To know how it works may dull the sparkle, not only of the glowing trees, but of campus’ seemingly natural beauty altogether.

Having attended Columbia as a graduate student, Dolkart remembers aspects of the landscaping that were once “abysmal.” Rats, he said, used to circulate around the unkempt courtyard behind Avery.

Yet he recalls that in the 80s or 90s, the administration pledged to improve landscaping and hired the famous garden designer Lynden Miller to work her magic. Among other improvements, Miller installed the flower beds south of 116th street and in front of Uris.

“They trimmed the trees, they made sure the trees were healthy,” Dolkart said. “Columbia began to be concerned with the green landscape and the living landscape.”

As the level of maintenance has soared, Dolkart noted that our indifference to campus’ beauty and ignorance about its effect on our experience may also increase.

“We notice when it’s looking shabby, but we don’t necessarily notice when it’s looking good,” Dolkart said. 

Many consider Columbia an urban garden of sorts, but both Otero-Pailos and Dolkart said that the campus is a type of illusion, for it is largely one of hardscaping, or artificial structures incorporated into natural vegetation. Our belief in an urban garden is, it seems, evidence of successful architectural trickery.

“It makes it feel as if it’s more of a greenery than it really is,” Otero-Pailos said. “There’s a lot of hardscaping around, but if you’re looking down from the steps onto the green fields … the green really registers in your visual a lot more than it really is.”

“That’s the idea about landscape: it makes you feel good,” Dolkart said.

And in making us “feel good,” the landscaping is meant to reinforce our identity as Columbia Students, as Scholars with a capital S. According to Dolkart, the design and architecture both establish and perpetuate the grandeur of higher education. 

The engineers of Columbia’s landscape have created a physical environment consistent with our identity as scholars, as people who, ideally, interrogate and remain curious about the world. Our literal path to that landscape is sparkling and our winters are better for such light. But the path to such beauty itself, such picturesque alignment with the scholarly world as it ought to be, remains overcast.

Campus’ architecture may be one of intellectuals, but I wonder how earnestly we can think about our environment when intentionally cut off from the processes and people who make it happen. I am still flailing in the dark. Someone, it seems, has employed clever hardscaping and hidden the light switch.


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