The Meaning of Main
“The building became more than an object,” writes Sarah Scott; “Main Hall was conjured as a sentient being, a stalwart, omniscient presence of the Wagner experience.” A Wagner art historian, inspired by her students, reflects on the meaning of Wagner’s architectural signature.
By Sarah J. Scott
ORIENTATION BARBECUE … Songfest … Lounging … Graduation …
Likely you have fond memories of these events at Wagner. Upon visualizing these memories, everyone conjures their own personal details that color the image. Perhaps you are there with your family, your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your classmate. The weather might be hot and sunny, or cool and crisp, or even drizzly. Your olfactory senses might be picking up whiffs of grilling food, dried leaves, or your signature perfume or cologne. You might be listening to other students cheering at a football game, a professor teaching class, or the B-52s on the radio. But it is likely these events took place on Sutter Oval. And if you were on Sutter Oval, Main Hall was there as a backdrop.
When I talk with students in my art history classes about ancient architecture, one of the challenges is our inability to physically place ourselves not only in the structures, but in the actual place. Experiencing a place or a work of architecture is not only about seeing the walls, noticing the sculptural detail, or sighting the filtering of light in and around the structure; it is also about other sensory experiences: smell, sound, touch, and even emotion. A tourist who visits the Parthenon today will be bombarded by sensory experiences built upon sight, smell, sound, touch, and particularly upon emotion, which will likely be affected by the political and economic turmoil in Greece today. And that experience is drastically different than that of the sixth-century BCE Athenian citizen, who approached the structure with the goal of religious pilgrimage in the newly victorious Athenian polis under the patronage of Pericles. Hence, the experience of architecture — the experience of architectural setting — is also dependent on time.
So, our own experiences of architecture today can help us when we are learning about ancient architecture. Understanding architecture through this approach of phenomenology is a new trend in scholarship, asking us to overlay thoughts and experiences going on in an occupant’s mind while approaching and walking through a structure.
ARCHITECTURE IS BUILT FOR A PURPOSE; the study of architecture asks us to analyze the relationship between form and function. Our phenomenological impression of a building is related to the function of that structure. Main Hall was built initially to function as the administrative headquarters of Wagner in the late 1920s. It was designed in what is now called the “Collegiate Gothic” architectural style, following trends in campus buildings that were embraced across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a trend that sought to link the function of college campuses with a particular aesthetic.
Gothic architecture, as it developed in France and spread through Europe in the 12th century, sought to elevate the spirit and raise the mind to greater heights. The Benedictine Abbot Suger of St. Denis wrote extensively on the link between physical illumination and the broadening of the mind:
Thus, when — out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God — the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.
Today, the flying buttresses, sculptural tracery, finials, and towers typical of Collegiate Gothic architecture aid college communities in reaching new heights in intellectual development, in the same way the original theories of medieval ecclesiastical mysticism worked for monks and laypersons. Main Hall was designed to aid us in succeeding in the mission of higher education. The building is just as important to us today (literally, as I see students, faculty, and staff gather for the re-dedication ceremony outside my window), as it was when the cornerstone was ceremonially laid by the Reverend Frederic Sutter in 1929.
DURING THE FALL OF 2011, when the work on Main Hall was going full steam, my Museum Studies class conducted research on the process of historical architectural preservation, using Main Hall as a case study. Through research into a variety of topics such as the Collegiate Gothic architectural style, brick and stone conservation, historical landmarking, and Wagner’s history, the students learned many things. But the concept they found most engaging was the heritage cycle. Buildings acquire a social value far above that of their architectural value. The class and other Wagner students that came before them had developed a subconscious connection to Main Hall. My students came to understand that this relationship, not necessarily the architectural mastery, was the reason the building was valuable and worth preserving.
As a class we took multiple trips down a Wagner memory lane; they remembered things like orientation, Songfest, and hanging out with friends on the Oval; they described people, sounds, smells. But when asked to very pointedly visualize these memories, they all realized that Main Hall rose up as their primary stage set. And as they came to understand that Main Hall was thus the backbone of their collective experiences and memory at Wagner, the building became more than an object. Main Hall was conjured as a sentient being, a stalwart, omniscient presence of the Wagner experience.
Main Hall is forever part of every Wagner student’s memory, but Main Hall also is a symbol of the Wagner community’s collective memory. It is icon and friend to all who experience the place that Wagner is. It embodies the academic and social goals of the institution perhaps better than any other structure on campus. Of that we have all become more aware, now that it has been rescued from the ivy. So the next time you think back on your days at Wagner, although your phenomenological memories of the place might be in the fore, try to visualize the setting for your memory. Chances are Main Hall will appear in your mind’s eye; be sure to give your old friend an appreciative nod of acknowledgement.
Sarah J. Scott is an assistant professor of art history. She specializes in the art and architecture of the ancient Near East, Aegean, and Egypt. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on excavations in Greece, Tunisia, Italy, and Belize. Photos by Pete Byron, except where noted.