West Bank was not designed for beauty

Everywhere on our campus, concrete and brick are being torn up and torn down . Never has there been as much construction as there is right now. In many ways, our University will surely benefit from this face lift. We will have modern buildings filled with the latest in technology. Antiquated halls will be replaced with state-of-the-art facilities. Many of these changes are long overdue.
One project, however, has its good intentions a bit misplaced. For most people, this project is creating the greatest havoc concerning their ability to get around campus: the West Bank Plaza Restoration. At present, all that remains of the plaza is a thin strip filled with dozens of pedestrians and bikers who stubbornly refuse to walk their bikes. Many people curse the congestion and inconvenience, but in the back of their minds, they know that the end result will be a better-looking campus.
Or will it? To many people, the West Bank is an ugly sight: buildings that all look the same, a forlorn tree poking up here and there, drab concrete benches and very little green space.
Everything is a dull gray, and the ancient lights only make it worse. When students take their parents to a picturesque spot to showcase the beauty of our campus, rarely do they visit the exterior of Blegen Hall.
Thus, it is no surprise that the University plans on sprucing up the area with … more planters.
Not to mention handrails, new steps, and fashionable light fixtures. Now, I haven’t seen the final plans or an artist’s conception, so my opinion is partially formed out of ignorance.
However, that does not change the fact that I do not have much enthusiasm for this project.
The West Bank is ugly by conventional standards. That opinion is not in contention.
What makes the West Bank so uninviting, however, is not a lack of planters or old handrails. It is the very essence of the area. Moreover, there is no compelling reason to change it.
The area is a relic of the 1960s, when the West Bank came into existence because of the rapid expansion of the University. The architecture of those buildings is quite simple and very utilitarian. Brick and concrete, unappealing to the eye but quick to erect and simple to maintain.
Classrooms and offices have the bare necessities, just enough to handle the huge classes and staffing increases of the time. Imagination was placed on the back burner, and we were left with half a dozen buildings that were illegitimate facsimiles of each other.
Fast forward to the present. The University has been putting up flamboyant spectacles of architecture: The Weisman, Carlson, the Gateway Center. Suddenly, the retro look of the beige-colored brick seems out of place. Green and liquid forms are in, and so the West Bank gets a make over to make it more liveable. This is the ultimate example of the thinking prevalent during most of the decade: Don’t change the product, change the outer packaging to make it more appealing.
In the end, however, the 14 stories of the Social Sciences tower will look just as they did before. Anderson Hall will be the same lonely place to go for huge lecture classes as it always was. The basement of Blegen will be just as cozy as the gloomy cafeteria it has always been. The only thing that will be different is the sweet candy shell, the plastic packaging, the chintzy faáade.
There are many places for beauty on campus. The West Bank is not one of them. If your tastes run to lounging around under the shade of a large, friendly tree, go to the Knoll by Peik Hall. The Mall is good for a game of frisbee or to hear a fiery mall preacher. If you wish to silently meditate upon the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, you can’t beat the East River Flats.
Every location on campus has its purpose, and that innate purpose depends on the architecture and environment that were forever set when the buildings were erected.
After all, many good things can be said about a grassless, treeless West Bank — plenty of bike parking, for one thing, which has changed for the worse during construction. All that open concrete makes avoiding people a breeze. Stopped-up drains lead to huge puddles that are fun to jump in and splash around. There is never any glare from the sides of brick buildings.
If the University were to take a survey, the West Bank would not win a beauty contest. It shouldn’t. But beauty isn’t, as they say, skin-deep. A few superficial improvements will only serve to heighten the contrast between what that area of campus is and what some wish it to be.
It will never be an agreeable gathering place. It was never meant to be. It is a place to go for classes, to sit through lectures, to grab a quick bite to eat and then to retreat from. Unless the entire West Bank is razed, it will always be so.
Students might not like how it looks, and most people will welcome the changes. It will be plastic surgery on an aging character who was told that she was unattractive and thus decided a face lift and tummy-tuck were in order. That is too often the answer these days: to deny the past and the process of aging. The West Bank might not be aging gracefully, but does that mean we should vainly endeavor to cover up its past?
I wish we had just let it be. The West Bank might be ugly, but at least it is honest. That is much rarer than beauty in today’s world; so rare we should hold onto it whenever possible.

Nathan Hunstad is a senior in political science. He welcomes comments at [email protected]