Concrete but charming campus
The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus has a reputation for being ugly. Detractors complain of too much concrete and not enough class. The college ranking site College Prowler describes it quite negatively, saying that, “with some exceptions, the buildings on campus are not very architecturally pleasing,” and goes so far as to claim that “they appear to have been designed by an architect who lived in communist Russia.”
Personally, I have always disagreed with this commonly-accepted conclusion. It is true that we lack the ivy-covered halls, Victorian dorms, and sprawling tennis courts that earn more upscale schools the qualifiers of “picturesque” and “classic.” But the visual appeal of UMass, however, is harder to pin down than just that. The charm of the school does not rest in its history or its unified look, it is something else entirely.
The first issue to deal with is a one of perspective. Many students here who claim that the campus is a concrete monstrosity suffer from tunnel vision brought on by a severe overdose of Southwest. I am not trying to insult Southwest or anyone who lives there. It is a great place to live, with first-rate dining facilities and an atmosphere that is quintessentially “UMass”. However, this can be a problem when the self-contained area becomes one’s primary idea of what our campus is.
Heavily packed cement-and-brick people storage is fine for the basic needs of life, but if you want to get a feel for what the campus really is, it becomes necessary to start in the middle of campus and do some exploring.
From the very center of campus it is easy to see that, over its nearly 150-year life, this University has been a very piecemeal construction project. The rustic stone church that is the Old Chapel looks like it belongs on a classic New England postcard, and yet it sits in the shadow of one of the world’s tallest brick structures. This sort of juxtaposition is often called “disorganized,” but to me that is just cynical. It’s hard to find a building on campus which bears any resemblance to the one sitting next to it, and while this doesn’t make for a cohesive “campus look,” it is a unique quality that I can’t help but love.
Another common complaint is a very blunt one – the Fine Arts Center is hideous. Once again I can see where this one comes from. It is, without a doubt, a monster of modern architecture. But once again, I have to disagree that this is a bad thing. The FAC is a concrete behemoth covered in odd angles, flat planes and oddly placed stairs. In this respect it strikes me, both literally and metaphorically, as being representative of the diverse UMass populace.
Its flat front end provides a haven for skaters and hipsters, its angles act as a playground for free-runners, and the rear stairs are turned into an amphitheatre for improvisational comedy groups and outdoor lectures. Who could fail to love something so unintentionally useful?
Once you move away from the center, from the quixotic and random makeup of the academic sector, some of the lesser-known sights of UMass are ripe for exploring. The hidden jewels of campus are as plentiful as they are surprising.
For those who have never ventured far into Central, or who have never stopped to look closely, the Durfee Conservatory is perhaps the best-kept secret in the area. This cozy greenhouse is nestled in rows of pruned foliage and elephantine trees, and inside its frosted windows hides a living and breathing rain forest, a warm and humid retreat from the bitter February cold.
Farther to the north, the student garden hidden behind Sylvan comes to life in the fall. It is a well loved half-acre of land, overgrowing with raspberries, asparagus, cooking herbs and anything else that Residential Student Organization members care to plant.
Natural sights are great, but man-made monuments can also be found on campus. The football stadium does a good job of hiding Stonehenge, a modern re-creation of the ancient British landmark that has long served as a smoker’s hangout.
At the opposite edge of campus, behind the Van Meter Dormitory, a mysterious black construct confuses even the curious local residents. It is in fact a silhouette of the city of Sapporo, and a monument to our sister-school, the University of Hokkaido, Japan. A series of engraved stones, linked by a path of purple flowers, tells the story of our long relationship with this far-away sibling.
For those who are caught up in the cement, or who think that the school needs a facelift, I challenge to you slow down and take a good look. Sit beneath the cherry trees in the spring and watch the ducklings play catch-up with their parents. Take the elevator to the top of the W.E.B. Du Bois and look down on the sprawling campus from above. Take a walk up to Orchard Hill at night, and watch the sun set over the mountains, painting the campus with color and light.
In this big, old, ugly school, I think you’ll like what you see.
Andrew Sheridan is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.