Friday, September 03, 2010

The New Wing

Went to the opening of the new wing at the Law School this morning.  I was late so I had to stand in the shade which turned out to be a huge improvement over sitting in the sun.  It was pretty much what you would expect--the requisite round of introductions--Dean this and Dean that--and a full platter of "without the help of," etc.  And I really shouldn't be snooty: a project like this takes not only a ton of work but a ton of  human coordination--none of it mine--and so if these guys feel like taking a victory lap, I should not begrudge them.

It does provide an occasion, however, to marvel over the tendency of buildings to metastasize.  When I interviewed for my job here in 1968, they were still housed in quonset huts--they kept telling me the new building was due any day and sure enough, when I turned up for work in the fall, there it was: spanking new, albeit spare and rather government-issuey in appearance.  "My God," a friend said of the picture, "it looks like a Mormon trade school," but I'm not sure I ever saw a Mormon trade school so I can't say.  It was in truth nothing much to admire, but it mostly worked, even if often crowded and inconvenient, too hot, too cool, whatever, it mostly  worked. Starting today, we have a much grander facade and a lot more state-of-the-art this and that.  I know we can't  not do this sort of thing--one person already this morning told me about a beloved family member who had passed us up for Santa Clara because the building looked better.

But does anybody read C. Norchote Parkinson any more--about how grand architecture comes into being only after the institution has reached is prime: the Rome of the republic was much tougher and more resilient than the Rome of the emperors that we remember; the Catholic Church that built the breathtaking baroque churches was a Church under siege.  Or Jane Jacobs about how much more functional were the old city neighborhoods before the Robert Moses battalion got its hands on them?   I remember showing up as a grad student and Yale and finding a physical facility not a bit (well, maybe a bit) grander than the Tier-4 law school I had just left.  And the London School of Economics in the 70s--boy what a nest of chutes and ladders that was, though perhaps the most intellectually alive social science institution in the world.   At what point does an institution simply choke on its old buildings?  Are there Barbarians watching us from their encampments in the foothills today, thinking this place would after all make a pretty good apple warehouse?

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