More on Campus Archaeology

At this point of the semester, I’m resorting to all sorts of gimmicks to keep some kind of writing discipline.

This morning I have a Zoom meeting at 8 am so my goal is to write until 8 am, do a quick edit after my Zoom call and then move on to my next impending catastrophe (which I believe is processing North Dakota Quarterly contributions). I’ll obviously post the results of my frantic writing morning. 

Here’s what I got today. It’s all part of a chapter for my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can read more about the book here and more about this particular chapter here.

This picks up where my last post left off.

Timothy Webmoor and his colleagues studied Building 500 on Stanford University’s campus prior during a phase of abandonment prior to its repurposing as the Stanford Archaeology Center. Their work applied a wide range of experimental techniques that sought to capture the complicated interplay between materials and objects associated with this building. From the start, they recognized in Building 500 a common kind of building on university campuses. It was neither a ruin of the kind that has attracted photographers to places like Detroit in pursuit of “ruin porn,” nor was it a building in continued, active use. The indeterminate state of the building, perhaps evocative of the process of revaluation described by Michael Thompson in his “rubbish theory,” obscures its status as a ruin as it undergoes continuous transformation into new, useful, forms. The constant regeneration of buildings across university campuses reflects the practical realities of these fixed investments and finds a parallel with the processes that encourage the refitting of buildings that make up the “tail” of military sites. Moreover, it produces “transitory ruins” that preserve signs of abandonment, ruination, reuse, and adaptation that challenge conventional archaeological practices and emphasize the ontologically blurriness of ruins as a category. For Webmoor and his team, this encouraged holistic practices of documentation that challenged archaeology’s traditional commitment to metrology and the dividing the whole into parts as a means of complete documentation. Instead, Webmoor employed overlapping practices of documentation that included both conventional practices such as photography and textual description as well as a range of video techniques, audio recordings, maps, illustration, and list making designed to represent the messiness and complexity of this building. For Webmoor, these approaches reflected an interest in understanding the materiality of the building as not simply a passive object awaiting documentation, but as an active participant in the archaeological process. The fluid responsiveness to the ruins themselves produced methods of documentation that emphasized a care for objects and their role in creating our shared world.

The application of these techniques to a building on a university campus may be more than an exercise in convenience. While Webmoor stresses the proximity of ruins in our daily lives, campus architecture represents a distinctly dynamic assemblage of buildings and experiences. Not only are campus buildings regularly adapted and repurposed to serve the needs of a changing group of students and faculty, but, perhaps paradoxically, they represent the material backdrop for students during a key transitional time in their social lives. This sense of attachment is manifest in the fondness of Zeta Psi members for their former house on campus and their concern that the new house has compromised the sense of brotherhood among more recent fraternity members (Wilkie 2010). Despite the significance of architecture to the experience of campus life, buildings are also continuously falling in and out of ruin and abandonment as they are repurposed to serve different functions and to maintain pace with the changing expectations of research, learning, and student life.

In 2018 and 2020, I worked with a small team of students to document two buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Our work was very much informed by Timothy Webmoor and his teams approach to Building 500 on Stanford’s campus, but also embraced many of the pedagogical goals articulated in the work of Wilk and Schiffer. The work in 2018 focused on a pair of buildings associated with an institution called Wesley College which after being a partner with the University of North Dakota for nearly 50 years was purchased by UND in the 1960s. The two buildings originally housed dormitories, classrooms, recital halls, and administrative offices for students who attended classes at both Wesley College and UND. After the purchase of the college, however, the buildings underwent significant renovations and served as laboratories, faculty and staff offices, and classrooms before being demolished in 2018 as part of a wider effort to reduce the campus footprint.

By the time our team gained access to the building, it was formally abandoned by its previous occupants and the classrooms, laboratories, and offices were no longer in use or accessible to the public. At the same time, the building remained cluttered with objects that were either too large to easily remove, outdated, disposable, or otherwise unsuitable for repurposing elsewhere on campus. We encouraged the students to pay as much attention to the material left behind as part of the buildings’ recent abandonment as the earlier transformation of the structures and traces remaining of their original use. The students embraced the tension between the more recent assemblage of abandoned objects – from obsolete computers to mid-century office furniture, hard-used classroom furnishings, and depreciated window airconditioners and laboratory technology – and traces of the early-20th uses of the buildings from the partly obscured proscenium arch of the original recital hall to the corner sinks remaining in offices and student names etched in windows and bricks that preserve the original function of the building as a dormitory. Following Webmoor’s lead we documented many of the rooms with video and photography and prepared “Latour Litanies” of objects left behind in offices and labs. We also worked with a member of the music department to record the sound of the recital hall, which while compromised by later architectural interventions, preserved an “echo” of its former acoustics. As part of that program, we recorded a final concert in the recital hall with a small live audience situated amid the discarded classroom furnishings. The acoustic signature of the building became part of another work that combined music, video, and performance as a way to situate the abandonment and demolition of these buildings as part of a larger critique of higher education in the US and on our campus. Finally, upon discovering that one of the buildings was a memorial to a soldier who died during World War I, we organized an public ceremony designed to recognize the memory of this individual as well as the demolition of this building nearly 100 years after the end of hostilities.

The combination of multimodal documentation practices and performance located the near contemporary use of this building amid a long tradition of adaptation and reuse. This not only complicated idea of abandonment and ruin on a university campus, but also revealed a range of strategies, practices, and temporalities that produced the assemblage left behind by the last occupants of the building. The prevalence of outdated technology, for example, suggested strategies designed to maintain obsolete and near-obsolete computers for certain kinds of technical uses. This may well have reflected the ebb and flow of resources acquired through research grants which allowed for the large scale updating of technology, but then encouraged the reuse and maintenance of this technology well beyond its typical use-life. We also encountered how architectural adaptation to early 20th century buildings transformed elaborate spaces designed to communicate masculine values and refinement into less distinctive, practical spaces. The formal living room of the male dormitory, Sayre Hall, featured coffered ceilings, wood panelling, mosaic tile floors, a fireplace, and large windows and French doors recreating the ambience of urban, male-only, early-century social clubs. The addition of a drop ceiling, wall-to-wall carpeting, modern doors, and wall plaster overwrote the prestige communicated through the earlier space and created a room well-suited, in its final phases, as a computer room for campus technology services. The more functional arrangement of the room made it essentially interchangeable with any number of similarly functional spaces on campus and susceptible to being demolished in an effort to reduce the practical footprint of campus buildings.

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