Saturday, August 19, 2017

Learning, Frozen in Time

The University of Pittsburgh's campus is centered around a giant building called the Cathedral of Learning. It's the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere and the second tallest gothic-styled building in the world.

With more than 2,000 rooms, the building houses a number of departments plus classrooms, a theater, and many other amenities you would expect in a major university. The ground floor contains a half-acre of study space that's four stories tall, designed to look like a European Christian cathedral:

It certainly does look like a cathedral, right down to the monkish scholars decorating some of the carved benches:

The building took a long time, from its commissioning in 1921, planning and design for two years, and ground-breaking in 1926. The first classes were held in 1931, the exterior finished in 1934, and the formal dedication in 1937.

For a tourist visiting the Cathedral, a major attraction is the so-called Nationality Rooms: 30 of them, ringing the first and third floors. According to the Wikipedia entry, they had to be “depicting and donated by the national and ethnic groups that helped build the city of Pittsburgh.”

The rooms were an integral part of the building plan, with planning initiated in 1926. Foreign governments usually were involved in the funding, often with craftsmen brought from the countries of origin to do the work. The rooms usually took at least 10 years, with the first rooms opening in 1938, and new ones opening through 1957.

Early American





1948 Norwegian
1949 Italian
1952 English
1957 Irish

At that point, for some unexplained reason, there was a 20-year hiatus. The Wikipedia entry tells us, “In the 1970s, policy revisions were implemented which, retaining most of the earlier principles, utilized a broader definition of nation to include a body of people associated with a particular territory and possessing a distinctive cultural and social way of life. This allowed the creation of the Armenian and Ukrainian rooms prior to their establishment as independent nations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as allowing for the installation of the African Heritage Room.” Not to mention “Israel Heritage.”

About 10 years after that change, a new set of rooms, located mostly on the third floor, started to open and continues today:

1987 Israel Heritage
1988 Armenian
1989 African Heritage
1990 Ukrainian
1996 Austrian
1999 Japanese
2000 Indian
2008 Welsh
2012 Turkish
2012 Swiss
2015 Korean

The Swiss room, one of the most recent additions.

The Turkish room, also fairly recently completed.

The room designs are supposed to portray aspects of the particular culture before the year 1787, when the university was founded. Yet they include nations that didn't exist then (for instance, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which were both part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, if I'm not mistaken), rather than the ethnicities of those countries. I wonder how the Slovaks and Czechs, or the Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians, etc., feel about being lumped together like this for all eternity?

The "Yugoslav" room.

The omission of an African-descended room until the second round of rooms is another eyebrow-raiser. Not to mention that all of Africa is mooshed into a single room, of course. The room tries to make up for it with symbolism from a range of groups across the continent (described on the Wikipedia page), but it's weird and, frankly, offensive to have a giant continent in one room and something like Switzerland in another the same size.

The fact that there's an "Early American" room and an English room is another questionable decision. Basically, once a room gets built, it never can be removed, no matter how wrong it becomes in light of more correct ways of thinking or boundary changes. And, finally, there's no room included for the people who lived in the Pittsburgh area before Europeans arrived.

The premise of the Cathedral of Learning seems to be that knowledge is static instead of a changing, living thing. From the overtly religious symbolism of the building itself and the study hall to the mothball-worthiness of some of the rooms, to me it communicates the exact wrong thing about what should be (and I assume is) an institution of higher learning and research.

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