To contribute to the Quad discourse from earlier this week, I think we need to pay more attention to Olin Library and what could have been. Before proceeding, we should acknowledge that there are some good things to say about Olin Library.
If I’m studying in the stacks, and by studying, I mean browsing various social media with my essay waiting in another tab while trying to not meet my own increasingly deadened reflection in the window-turned-mirror next to me, Libe Cafe is a welcome place to take a five minute coffee break, run into several friends and accidentally stay for an hour.
Libe itself is (was?) one of the only cafes on campus open into the evening and night, and is largely responsible for my caffeine addiction during freshman and sophomore year. With their floor to ceiling windows, the Olin seventh floor stacks are low-key one of the best views on campus. However, these few features do not redeem the fact that Olin is an architectural monstrosity both relative to the rest of the Arts Quad and on its own.
Disregarding Olin, the Arts Quad is architecturally cohesive. McGraw, Morrill, and White Hall form a symmetrical, vaguely gothic trio. While the buildings themselves may be crumbling and held together by metal beams, in part due to the chronic underfunding of the humanities, they’re nevertheless exactly what you would picture an Ivy League university to look like, especially with the iconic Slope right behind it.
Uris Library is also exactly what you imagine an Ivy League university library to look like. Its design takes full advantage of its location right on top of the Slope (unlike a certain other building just down Ho Plaza, *cough* Willard Straight). Klarman and Goldwin Smith complement each other nicely, the new meshing with the old, underscored by the Greek statues chilling in the atrium. The Johnson Museum may be brutalist, but at least its brutalism has an artistic point to it; I can argue that this is the only other acceptable iteration of this architectural style, in addition to the brutalist Eastern European cities that had little money and time to rebuild after being bombed in World War Two.
It was shocking for me to find out, from another anti-Olin advocate, that prior to Olin, in its space, stood Boardman Hall. Boardman Hall used to house the Law School. Morris Bishop, an American 20th century biographer describes in A History of Cornell: “Boardman Hall was opened in 1892, to be the home of the new, thriving Law School. Designed by William H. Miller, it corresponded in style and materials with the Library. It was called the finest law-school building in the country. Noteworthy were the high-vaulting classrooms, which no money or ingenuity could heat on a windy day, the spaciousness of the professorial offices, and the fourteen imposing fireplaces. Their use was forbidden, because of the fire hazard.” Boardman Hall aesthetically completes Uris Library, essentially acting as Uris’ extension down the width of the quad, interrupted only by the entrance to Ho Plaza. This is what could have been.
Instead of the aesthetically pleasing and complementary Boardman Hall that the Cornell students of the 19th century had, we now have Olin Library, with its banal brutality, exposed rotting pipes and narrow crusty spaces. Olin belongs more to the Engineering Quad than it does to the Arts Quad (sorry engineers, but Upson, in my opinion, is the nicest place to study on campus, so at least you have that). All in all, Olin is an oppressive structure, inside and out.
Furthermore, Olin Library is named after the petrochemical magnate John M. Olin of the Olin conservative mega-donor family, who, not incidentally, was also called out by the lefitst podcast Chapo Trap House as one of the more problematic Cornell alumni, joining the ranks of Francis “History ended when the US won the Cold War” Fukuyama and Paul “Architect of the Iraq War and Notorious Neocon” Wolfowitz. The Olin Family Foundation has funded the Federalist Society and many other conservative and right wing groups that bear at least some responsibility for the deep ideological divide in this country. While this is not without precedent in the Arts Quad, Goldwin Smith’s namesake is a virulent racist and antisemite, Boardman Hall, named after the jurist Douglass Boardman (this is as much as Wikipedia would give me), would have been more benign.
Asit stands Olin Library is an eyesore and a mismatching one at that. The strengths of Olin, mainly Libe, its collaborative spaces and its ability to gather everyone you’ve ever met at Cornell in the space between your reading room and Libe, can be retained in another, prettier building.
The Arts Quad, completed by the Slope as its backyard, is one of the iconic spaces of Cornell, and it deserves something that can live up what used to be Boardman Hall on its southern edge.
Robyn Bardmesser is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Impolitiburo runs alternate Fridays this semester.