The ever-elusive “space” is a word spoken into a great expanse of hopes and fears and delusions: “safe spaces,” “inclusive spaces,” “open spaces,” “green spaces,” “learning spaces.” In this space, words float around abstractly, almost effortlessly, seemingly without the weight of any gravity; appearing to be a distant glimmer of an idea, a once bright and assuring light, which — without much definition — easily fades into obscurity.
Coming to Princeton, it’s tempting to feel as though the rhetoric surrounding the term “space” stretches the word out, magnifies it, and tacks it onto well-designed brochures and anonymous invitations. Yet the question remains — how do you comfortably situate yourself within the incredibly abstruse concept of “space,” especially when you happen to exist in a territory that has been occupied and claimed by an endless sea of others, and which has been upheld by an impregnable and deeply rooted history?
In the process of interviewing various members of the University, one thing has become clear; the question of space is an issue that is pertinent to all members of the Princeton community.
Since the Black Justice League protests were held in Nassau Hall, numerous articles, conversations, and committees have emerged to reevaluate and discuss the meaning of “inclusive spaces” on campus. According to a ‘Prince’ article at the time, during the initial compromise, the administration decided to “designate four rooms in the Fields Center for use by cultural groups, and promised to have members of the BJL involved in a working group to discuss the viability of forming black affinity housing.” Among these initiatives, the Carl A. Fields Center Renovation Project Steering Committee as well as the Campus Iconography Committee were born.
Briana Christophers ’17, who was part of the Fields Center Renovation Project Steering Committee, described how the center partnered with the Isometric Studio to conduct student focus groups. She said that the student discussions ultimately helped define the the Fields Center as a space where students could feel at home. Christophers noted that since the renovation, the space has been transformed through the writing on the walls, the furniture, and the pictures that constantly remind people of the purpose of the space.
In response to student feedback, the first floor and entryways were redesigned to express certain sentiments, as seen in the writing on the walls that read “We’ve Been Here,” “We’re Here,” and “We’re Loved,” thus celebrating the history, the current experience, and the hope of diversity on campus. Within each of these spaces there are pictures and quotes from national figures of various ethnicities and backgrounds, as well as students from Princeton itself who have expressed ideas about the role of diversity on campus.
Last year, Chase Hommeyer ’19 worked for Jarrett Drake, the University digital archivist, on a project called “Archiving Student Activism,” and since then has become a student member of the Campus Iconography Committee. Hommeyer stated that, looking forward, she thinks there should be more ways in which students are able to leave their mark on campus spaces, as a way of recording student presence and historical change.
She commented that “time and time again students have broken down the rigidity of the University in various ways through activism,” as demonstrated through the repercussions of the BJL protests. However, Hommeyer remarked that each time students challenged the status quo at Princeton, “it seemed as though they had to reinvent the wheel, because there isn’t a continuous story of student life on campus” or a “legacy of students who have broken the mold of traditional architecture and space creation.”
“Sometimes at Princeton, people equate the word ‘manicured’ with the word ‘beautiful’... I think I would prefer campus if it were a little bit more wild, and that could come from letting students have a little bit more of a visual impact on it with art or graffiti,” Hommeyer added.
In a similar vein, the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Michele Minter, said she hopes that spaces on campus are able to change often through the prominence of active student roles, in order to really allow students to be the owners of the places that they occupy. Minter added that creating space doesn’t necessarily have to require erasing the past, but rather, can manifest itself as an additive process directed towards enriching visual cues on campus.
Minter remarked that, for her, an inclusive space “is about everyone feeling that they belong and that they can be authentically themselves and feel that they can be treated fairly and with respect.”
The Executive Vice President of Princeton and current co-chair of the Campus Iconography Committee, Treby Williams, shared how this year’s efforts to evaluate campus portraiture, public spaces, and history represent “the first time we’ve had a central multi-constituent committee that is considering these issues [about space] in the abstract.” According to Williams, the committee is focused on how spaces can be enlivened in order to reflect the “diversity of our community, provide visual cues and represent nuanced interpretations of Princeton’s history.”
Williams noted that this is an especially critical time in the history of the University, because there is a significant campus planning effort dedicated to how the school will be built in the next ten years, within the frame of a thirty-year view.
In addition to the renovations in the Fields Center, within the past year other spaces such as Murray-Dodge, the LGBT Center, and the Women’s Center were transformed to welcome students of different backgrounds and identities to the Princeton campus.
Dean Matt, the associate dean of the Office of Religious Life based in Murray-Dodge, commented that since being temporarily situated in Green Hall,“It’s been really remarkable coming back to this space.” He noted that the Office allows various religious communities to feel at home, by providing furniture that served the needs of different faith-based groups, such as bathroom facilities for Muslim foot washing rituals, a Hindu shrine room, an Orthodox Christian altar, among other features.
Josh Faires ’19, who worked with the LGBT center over summer, noted that part of the transformation of the space included modifying the logo, wall color, and art pieces within the center to reflect creations made by queer people.
Judy Jarvis, the director of the LGBT Center, emphasized the necessity of cultivating “brave spaces,” such as the dialogue facilitated by students from the Black Leadership Collective after the vigil for Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, in order to accommodate for diversity within the campus community. She explained that to form spaces that are fully inclusive, we have to acknowledge that the harm caused by the historical presence of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on this campus is real. As a result, she stated that we have to build “trust within communities so that we can share authentically and vulnerably with each other.”
Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly of the sociology department, who teaches courses on urban studies, said that within her discipline, “space may be seen as visual representations of the way in which resources are distributed in a society,” such that “space itself produces forms of inequality in the larger society," which are generally “a result of inefficiencies in policies.” In effect, she stated that she was supportive of but remained wary towards, the formation of “safe spaces,” because they have the potential to “contribute to more segregation along class and income lines.”
Within the realm of architecture, Professor Stanley Allen stated that space is a paradoxical subject. According to him, although we are responsible for creating the physical structure, “it’s the negative space, the void that these walls define that really counts.” In this way, he believes that “perhaps the primary responsibility of the architecture is to create public space: places where people come together to exchange ideas.”
Ultimately, Allen commented, “Space is an abstract concept, but it becomes real when spaces are occupied by people, meeting, talking and exchanging ideas.”