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Speak Up About What You Want

Last month many in the SAIC community woke in the wee hours to disturbing phone calls and text messages from SAIC security about the abduction (and later return) of a student at the 162 N. State St. dorms, launching us all unwillingly into a strange—and partly imaginary—fraught relationship between the School, the city, state authority and the individual.

A few weeks later, at around the same time in the morning, we woke to the soft rumble of an earthquake tremor. This time nature rocked our collective experience.

These things are not trivial matters. Such large-scale collective experiences ought to remind us that we’re tied to each other in ways that often go by unnoticed, and although our individual experiences may differ, there is value in remembering the notion of collective experience. The structuring factors impinging on us in space and time, while sometimes invisible, can be quite significant.

At crunch time at the end of this semester, many of us are simply searching for a place to go and do good work—somewhere comfortable and inspiring. Others, who may not need to seek silent corners, look around at vacant, utilitarian lounges and wonder, “Where did all the people go?” Vanished into all-nighters in studios and at home in front of their laptops? That may well be the case. But if we’re all in it together, in the same space and time, just what defines this space?

For SAIC students, this is a crucial moment in time. Right now, SAIC students can help define future spaces at the School in a substantial way by offering input on upcoming construction on campus. The Sharp Building is the center of the School’s attention at the moment, but the administration has not forgotten studios and classrooms in the Columbus and MacLean buildings either. At this “drawing board” stage, the time is ripe for students to get a hearing about their needs, architecturally speaking.

According to grumblings we’ve heard from classmates, the space at SAIC creates a compartmentalized school community with few communal areas of the quiet variety (for reading) or of the noisy variety (for socializing and group work). For instance, if you don’t have a studio or graduate student lounge, just where do you go to eat a sandwich, while reading Heidegger, in the Sharp Building?

Currently, SAIC lacks a holistic heart to the School, in spatial terms. Student Association member Katrina Enros has voiced a desire for a space that would help foster a stronger community feeling at SAIC: one where student groups can gather. Sure, there are the banal, institutional lounges on the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth floors of the MacLean Center, among others, but those spaces seem so pragmatic and institutional; they feel like they exist by default, and it is likely that this is the case.

Tom Buechele, head of Instructional Resources and Facilities Management at the School, recalls his years as a SAIC student in the late 1980s—when the School was much smaller, with fewer buildings. In those days, the School’s central social spaces were the Columbus Building’s pit and Sonny’s Cafe.

“Over the course of time the School grew, and we became very utilitarian,” Buechele said, adding that in more recent years, the awkward spaces around campus that weren’t designed for specific uses—such as a hallway—were then “programmed” to be social spaces (thus the benches in the hallways of MacLean Center).

“It is not as comfortable now,” said Buechele, “We used to have more vacant spaces and student lounges, but we ran out of free space…we’re fighting this need to program every square inch.”

Certainly, as School administrators plan a new library and other facilities, they are considering a space for socializing and relaxing, or a “campus center,” as Buechele calls it. Currently this is being discussed in relation to the space on the ground floor of the Sharp Building, on the corner of Monroe and Wabash streets. An architecture firm has recently been hired: Valerio Dewalt Train, a firm that has designed other schools and libraries.

“There’s a lot of thinking about student needs,” said Edward McNulty, SAIC’s Chief Operating Officer, who did not elaborate on exactly what the consultative process would involve.

According to Enros, “The architecture firm will do their own independent research on our student body using their methods (whatever they may be).”

Careful, careful. With an independent entity doing the research, certain obvious facts about student life can be forgotten or ignored. So whatever Valerio Dewart Train chooses to do, now is the time to take action and make it clear to the administration, who will be communicating with the firm, about what it is like to make art, study, eat, socialize and live in this unique downtown campus. It’s an opportunity to effect genuine positive change on the School’s environment, even though bureaucracy and the plain old realities of construction will mean many of us won’t see the results. Be generous with your wisdom, for the benefit of future students. At least we’ll know we have made the School a better place by expressing our views on spatial and communicative experiences at SAIC.

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