Two weeks before Dragon Week, the preparations were already underway for pranks to be performed by first-year archies on the days preceding Dragon Day. For these students, the pranks — like coloring the snow green and disrupting engineering lectures — are more than publicity stunts: they embody the spirit of a tradition that dates back to 1901.
The tradition was conceived by a man with a name Cornellians know well — Willard Dickerman Straight 1901. Originally, Straight called the day “College of Architecture Day,” and he dedicated it to decorating Lincoln Hall — then an architecture building — with a St. Patrick’s theme, according to the University.
In 1934, the day was stamped with a more political message, being used to commemorate the repeal of prohibition by creating a giant beer stein in lieu of a dragon. Years later, the dragon was painted black to protest the Vietnam War, according to the University.
Over the past 30 years, Brian Beeners, the Dragon Day advisor and Rand shop technician, has watched the Dragon Day festivities evolve into what they are today.
“When Cornell made me an advisor for Dragon Day, it was because the rivalry [with the engineers] was getting out of hand and they recognized that the architects were going to continue to build the dragon no matter what,” he said. “They gave me this role as peacekeeper so I could help regulate it and dumb down the violence that was occurring.”
The friendly rivalry between the architecture school’s dragon and the engineering school’s phoenix originated during the 1950s and reached a climax in the 1980s, when students from their respective colleges would instigate violent brawls which resulted in injuries and riots, often halting the Dragon Day parade, according to Beeners.
“The police were overwhelmed and could not possibly handle the violence, so they delegated the job of regulating the crowd to me and a safety task force of architects and engineers who would break up fights,” Beeners said. “By communicating with the engineers and replacing violence with fun alternatives like water balloons, we were able to make Dragon Day safe and fun again.”
However, in recent years, Dragon Day and its associated rituals have undergone further changes.
In 2009, New York State Environmental Conservation regulations banning the open burning of non-wood or agricultural materials meant an end to the cathartic bonfires that characterized Dragon Day celebrations. The University itself has also imposed restrictions on Dragon Day festivities, limiting student activities such as cutting hair in preparation and banning certain pranks.
Samuel Ososanya ’17, a fifth-year architect, has seen the effects of such restrictions during his time at Cornell.
“[The traditions] have been diluted,” he said. “A lot of this can be connected with the administration’s actions, a lot of the traditions were misconstrued, perhaps it was too real or too primal, so that people think it’s hazing.”
As a result, the first-year architects have worked carefully with administration in order to ensure that their activities comply with their restrictions.
“You could say that in short, for me, Dragon Day was the reason why I chose Cornell over other architecture schools,” said Sahir Choudhury ’21. “They’re so against some of our traditions because if they were to be portrayed as hazing, it would reflect badly on the college.”
It is this negotiation between tradition and the restrictions that contextualize Dragon Day’s struggle between self-preservation and adaptation.
“I am sad it has become so institutionalized,” Beeners said. “However, it depends on your perspective, I think that they’ve used this dragon as a form of their own expression, used it in celebration when they felt the need to do that. Now they’re using it as a political statement.”
This year’s theme is “Louder Together,” a message meant to express diversity and solidarity within the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.
“Considering the era we live in, considering the things that are happening in the world and how divisive it is and the phobia and hate there is, the rise of extremism in thought, we wanted to branch out and connect with the people,” Choudhury said. “We associate ‘Louder Together’ with several groups and people having a say.”
Choudhury added that the design is “literally going to be played like an instrument,” playing off of the pun of having musical sound and a component of solidarity.
No matter how much Dragon Day has changed, students in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning still see it as a chance to celebrate their community.
“When you choose Cornell and you choose architecture, you know about the dragon, and you know that nowhere else in the world do you have this opportunity,” Choudhury said. “This is what we know about the program before coming, it’s an opportunity to work in a group and create something that we can be proud of.”