Academia (After the Apocalypse)

My office is located near the heart of the University’s at Albany’s Uptown Campus, a formidable, formal architectural edifice designed by the great Edward Durell Stone. The Uptown Campus is an awesomely scaled, integrated, fully actualized feat of architectural vision, and as such, tends to inspire strong love or hate reactions from those who visit, live, teach, work or study in it.

From a professional standpoint, this campus is challenging to me and my staff, as it is often very difficult to create the sorts of soft, comfortable, community-oriented dining and shopping spaces that we might desire within the austere and regimented order of Stone’s concrete and glass vision. But on a personal basis, I’ve grown quite fond of the Uptown Campus over the years, and I explore it with the same sorts of curiosity that I bring to my suburban woods explorations, never letting a nagging “I wonder where that trail (or corridor) goes” question go unresolved for very long.

As my woods explorations have been largely curtailed of late by this year’s perpetual monsoon, I have spent more time than usual walking the decks of (and tunnels beneath) the Uptown Campus. During the summertime, when most of the faculty and students are not here, such ambles about become somewhat surreal, as the vastness of Stone’s vision, without other human beings to give it scale, evokes some great, fallen city-state of the future, rendered sterile by an apocalyptic agent, with me as the final observer of its slow and crumbling return to the rocks and soil from which it was cast.

I can’t always decide whether I’m a zombie vampire or a time traveler or a doomed astronaut in this scenario, but under the low gray skies of spring this year, that sense of weird isolation becomes ever more palpable to me when I’m out and about. For those who aren’t on campus now, or for those who have never seen the University at Albany, here are some representative shots from recent walkabouts . . .

The Hall of the Mountain Grill

World of Tiers

Electric Tepee

Silver Machines

The Iron Dream

To see similar “Hidden in Suburbia” photo essays, click here.

20 thoughts on “Academia (After the Apocalypse)

  1. Cool photos. Reminds me of late night forays around the empty NCCC buildings. (and also of nearly being caught for trespassing while playing in the fountains!)

    • The coolest thing about working here is that I can go into all sorts of spaces (including the incredible tunnel network beneath the campus, which are worthy of a post of their own) is that I can’t be arrested for trespassing, since (conceptually, anyway) I actually BELONG there. Huttah!

      The “new” Nassau Community College campus was similarly “Logan’s Run” looking in its time . . . I spent more time there BEFORE it opened, climbing on top of half finished buildings, than I did once it actually opened, I think . . .

  2. Afraid I fall into the “hate it,” camp. Viscerally. Just visiting the campus tends to make me insane, and I’ve felt that way since the first time I ever saw it.

    • When I was working on my Masters at the Downtown Campus, it was a point of pride to me that I only set foot on the Uptown Campus twice: to get my parking stickers. As a pedestrian or a commuter coming into the campus from outside, it is truly off-putting. But once I started spending time on the INSIDE, it began to make more sense to me, in terms of it being a self-contained world on some plane . . . I think it would have been more successful thematically had it actually been out in the middle of nowhere, rather than an island surrounded by suburbs. But, in any case, beneath the brutal ardor of Stone’s work, the place offers a lot of neat surprises in terms of views and sight lines and hidden gardens and light wells and the like. The one thing that Stone did NOT care much about, clearly, was maintenance . . . the concrete and thousands of custom windows and thick decks above subterranean lecture centers and the columns every 20 feet in every direction definitely create some formidable challenges as the complex ages . . .

  3. Years ago, when the campus was more in need of maintenance than it is now, while I wouldn’t put myself in the “hate it” group, I wasn’t impressed. Since then, a lot of improvements have been made. Over the years, as I’ve become more familiar with it, I have gravited closer to the other side – maybe not loving it, but appreciating it. Some of the improvements are really good (getting rid of those rodent infested mounds on Collins circle) while others (paving nearly every square of green space) not so much. Finally, even though Life Sciences, “new” administration, Empire, SEFCU arena, Science Library, Freedom, Nano, etc., etc. have merits (and de-) all of their own, I think architecturally they take away from Stone’s original design.

    I’m rarely on campus when students aren’t, but something that always strikes me is how few people are out walking around on the podium, considering how large the numbers of students, faculty and staff are. Also the contrast of my floor – all offices, very quiet, could go all day hardly seeing another person – with the constant motion and din of campus center’s basement.

    • As part of the upcoming Campus Center renovation project, I had the chance to see some of Stone’s own visions for how the campus could have expanded beyond the original design while maintaining the flavor and feel of the core . . . and none of them look like the ways that it actually has expanded over the years. We’re hoping that we can preserve that energy of the campus center basement, while creating better designs from an industrial engineering and traffic management standpoint to facilitate having less of it occur while our customers are waiting in line for their food, books, or sundries! I’ve been really pleased with the State and Indian Quad Dining Room renovations, as they proved that we can shoehorn something completely different within the architectural constraints of the Stone design, while still being respectful of that design . . . that’s a big part of the conversation around Campus Center now, e.g. how sacrosanct is the space? how would a new/expanded facility interact aesthetically with the Podium? how important is symmetry? etc. Fun stuff, especially for the last zombie astronaut . . .

      • Those designs were on display in the library back when I was a student. It really expanded that same look and feel over the property that’s now the Harriman office campus, if my memory serves. Not exactly the rolling hills of a stereotypical Northeastern college, but also better than the Harriman campus that is.

        • The Harriman Campus is just awful all around, agreed . . . it’s ugly, it’s isolated, and it’s not pedestrian friendly. At least it’s easy to walk around the UAlbany Uptown Campus, regardless of how you feel about it aesthetically, whereas when I walk over/around Harriman, I’m constantly wondering which way the traffic on the road I am crossing is coming from, since the inner and outer two lane loops mess with normal street crossing protocol. It’s almost like they wanted people to get in their cars to drive between the buildings . . .

  4. I was thinking, perhaps, the Limbo world Mal and Dom created in Inception. That seemed to have a very post-apocalyptic feel to it.

    I am also in the “hate it” camp, but that’s because I hate modernist architecture. I can appreciate it for what it is, particularly with these photos, but it still makes me cringe. However, a lot of people don’t like colonial or Victorian architecture, either, so …

    • I’m weird about modern architecture . . . I consider the Empire State Plaza to be an abomination, but I do like UAlbany . . . it probably has something to do with the fact that the former was plopped down in the middle of a bustling city, surrounded by all sorts of incongruous older architecture, while the latter was sited on an old golf course with nothing around it to clash . . .

      • Not to mention, the ESP came into existence through the bulldozing of what Rockefeller considered “slums” and what we today would call “residential neighborhoods containing churches and businesses.” Something Albany really has a shortage of now.

        • The whole history of the ESP makes me cringe. UGH. Yes, I will say, I vastly prefer UAlbany to the ESP on that fact alone. Now (to reference the comments above) if they had put something that looks like the ESP where the Harriman campus is …

          (Because while the ESP makes me angry, the Harriman campus is just downright depressing. Although, if you’re lucky, you may get an office with a window that overlooks the Helderbergs. It was the only thing I liked about the job I had when I worked there.)

  5. In grad school, I worked at the Empire State Plaza and lived at Empire Commons. (Which is more human-scaled housing, but still a pumpkin patch orbiting this huge frightening spaceship.) Classes on the downtown campus, at least, brought me out of the Modernist Nightmare.

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