Carla Yanni

 

On her book Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory

Cover Interview of September 11, 2019

The wide angle

As an architectural historian, I use buildings to interpret the past. Through nuanced architectural analysis and detailed social history, I offer glimpses into the past, such as double-loaded corridors (which made surveillance easy but echoed with noise), staircase plans (which prevented roughhousing but offered little communal space), lavish lounges in women’s halls (intended to civilize male visitors), mixed-gender saunas for students in the radical 1960s, and lazy rivers for the twenty-first century’s stressed-out undergraduates. Color plates at the center of the book tell the history of college dormitories in a few pages, from the quadrangles for men and box-shaped buildings for women to skyscrapers and, eventually, hill towns. I also found one residence hall modeled on a beehive and one fraternity in the shape of a phallus.

I worked in the central administration at Rutgers for three and a half years, and I frequently heard other administrators ridicule the three slab-shaped high-rise dormitories from the 1950s that line the Raritan River. The tone was: “What were they thinking? Why did anyone ever think that was a good idea?” As an administrator and an historian, I knew that I could answer that question; I could place earlier academic and architectural decisions in a social historical context.