Megan Steveson
My Own Prison: Lawrinson Hall

from the author:
This piece originated from an assignment given to me by my professor, Paul Butler. We were to analyze and write about any building on campus while using what we had been discussing in class to further our points. I picked Lawrinson Hall because I thought it would be the easiest to write about since I lived there and knew the building better than any other on campus. After I began to write, however, I discovered that my emotional connection to the building in fact made it the hardest to analyze. Despite the difficulties I encountered, they ended up pushing me to do some of my best work.
from the teacher, Paul Butler:
In this Writing 109 studio assignment on urban space, I asked students to analyze a building on campus or in the community using some of our course readings that looked at cities as complex systems and emergent environments. In her essay, “My Own Prison: Lawrinson Hall,” Megan Stevenson works with some of the structural binaries identified by nineteenth-century architect Le Corbusier—for example, the tensions between curve and straight line, paralysis and circulation, feeling and reason—to analyze her campus dormitory, Lawrinson Hall. She identifies an important dichotomy between the restrictive, isolating construction of Lawrinson, which she says is reminiscent of a penal institution, and the many ways in which she and other residents subvert and reappropriate the dorm’s disciplinary power structure in order to create small communities of interaction.
from the editor:
After reading this piece I was lefting thinking this student should win a Nobel Prize. This piece of work is by far the best analytical writing I have ever seen. While reading this piece you’ll see how the author is in complete control and allows you to visualize every part of the building and what she thinks of it. Enjoy this brillant piece!

 

 

I live in Lawrinson Hall, which is one of many dorms on the Syracuse campus. With twenty-one floors, it happens to be the tallest, and is located in the very corner of campus. Square in shape, the building is a tall tower of reinforced concrete and clear glass windows. It is a large mass of perfectly horizontal and vertical crossing lines in perfect symmetry. This building would make nineteenth century French architect Le Corbusier proud. Le Corbusier felt that “the curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing” (Taylor 26). Just as Le Corbusier would have preferred, there are no curves in Lawrinson. It is a grid. However, this grid has paralyzed the students who call it home by restricting social interaction. In fact, Lawrinson resembles a prison both in form and function.

My first impression of Lawrinson was that it appeared to be a very imposing and cold structure. Much like a prison, its concrete surroundings and strong lines do not evoke feelings of comfort. The interior does not improve upon this theme. The sparse lobby of Lawrinson contains two jail-like “checkpoints.” The first is a manned desk by the door where ID’s must be verified before building access is permitted. The second, sitting off to one side, is the front desk, where official tasks and paperwork are completed. This administrative aspect of the building greets students as they enter the dorm-prison.

Once I pass through the mandatory checkpoint, I go to my floor, unlucky number thirteen, which is one of a total of eighteen inhabited floors. The dorm rooms ring the outside of each square-shaped floor with a hallway looping around the inside. The very center of the square opens up for Lawrinson’s three elevators and a small lounge. This layout of the floor makes it difficult for me to meet even half the people who live on the same floor, as no reason exists for me to go to the other side of the square past the elevators. This easy isolation reminds me of the city of Manchester, England, which was set up in such a way “that someone can live in it for years and travel into it and out of it daily without ever coming into contact with a working-class quarter or even with workers” (Johnson 36-37). In the case of Lawrinson, the workers are other students who reside in the same prison.

 

In addition to the poor layout that decreases social interaction among floor mates, floors are divided by gender. Any contact with others on my floor is therefore with the same sex, which greatly reduces the diversity of people I am likely to meet. Floors are also fairly small with only thirty members. Most other dorms on campus contain more than twice as many students. As for the rooms themselves, they are not overly small, but all double rooms are split down the middle with an inner wall, separating my roommate and me into our own respective “cells.” Lawrinson’s eighteen floors may make it the biggest dorm on campus, but it is hardly the most socially centered.

 

Lawrinson may be predisposed to resemble a jail due to the era in which it was built. It was erected in 1964 when student populations grew across the country and efficient housing was needed for the influx of people. One defining feature of Lawrinson that follows this train of thought is the deficiency of good communal space built into the architecture. For example, the lobby lacks communal space. This bare minimum is not a very welcoming environment for students to conduct social activity. It encourages students to retreat directly to their rooms without interacting with others, much like prisoners are sent straight to their cells after outdoor exercises.

 

There are two other communal areas which students may go to that are not as limited as the lobby area. The first area is located on the second floor. Access is limited to steps and just one elevator. In the lounge area there is a pool table, a ping-pong table, and several couches. In addition, hidden in one corner there is a computer cluster. Until very recently, the walls were a bland white. I rarely see people on the second floor taking advantage of this “ambiance.” Mostly, students come only to the computer clusters to do work, not to socialize in the lounge. The second communal area is on the very top floor of Lawrinson. It is an open area used for large groups to meet through reservations only. It is not intended for everyday use and most people are unaware of its presence since the elevators stop at floor twenty. Lawrinson’s attempts at forming usable communal areas have failed and only help to perpetuate the restriction of student interaction.

 

I find it ironic that a building this tall can see so far across the landscape of the city and fail to become a part of it. From my thirteenth floor window, I can see a number of things: the campus and the Carrier Dome on my right, the city straight ahead and to my left, and the countryside beyond it all. As I stare at the many cars speeding down Interstate 81, I realize I am looking at a world in motion. Yet, Lawrinson, like a penal institution, is incorporated into neither the bustling campus nor the city. It remains on the outskirts: a forgotten and ignored structure. As a home to many Syracuse and SUNY-ESF students, the isolation of Lawrinson can damper the growth of our social circles.

 

The structure of Lawrinson works almost like an office building, where people are holed up in little areas to diligently do their work. Unlike an office building, however, there is no water cooler to gather around. Did the architects feel that students would be more productive if they were given no outlets for social interaction? If this was their way thinking, they would be incorrect. According to Taylor, who discusses the efficiency of the assembly line, “a worker’s day [. . . ]was divided into equal but separate parts. Within the all-encompassing logic of industrialism, work, leisure, and rest are designed to promote efficiency and thus increase profitable production.” Without adequate leisure and socializing time, Taylor says a kind of tension develops among workers, or for our purpose, students. Taylor goes on to say that a student’s production “cannot work without an equally calculated social engineering” (29). By inhibiting students’ social interaction, Lawrinson Hall could potentially hurt their academics as well.

 

Despite the many disadvantages of Lawrinson, students have tried to make the building work for them. In applying “Foucault’s analysis of the structures of power,” Lawrinson is an example where “spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life.” This relates the structure of Lawrinson Hall to the disciplining of its residents to have little social interaction. However, there exists “a contradiction between the collective mode of administration and an individual mode of reappropriation.” This reappropriation is performed by students as a way to circumvent the “disciplinary society” that is so prevalent in Lawrinson (de Certeau 96). One way students recapture their social interactions is by choosing to spend their free time outside the confines of Lawrinson. Many times, students visit friends at other resident halls. These halls are student-centered hubs of activity that are better planned to allow for social interaction. Even the names of the halls relate closer to the purpose of their construction. For example, Haven Hall sounds like a place where students can spend their leisure time in a relaxing environment. Lawrinson sounds much more penal, as though there are strict laws which all residents must abide by. Proper names were a very important concept to de Certeau. He writes: “Proper names carve out pockets of hidden and familiar meanings. They ‘make sense’; in other words, they are the impetus of movements, like vocations and calls that turn or divert an itinerary by giving it a meaning (or a direction) that was previously unforeseen (104).” Lawrinson is a name that connotes the meaning of a structured, law-abiding place. It is not the so-called “haven” where students live, work, and play within its walls. Other examples of students’ attempts to break out of the strict anti-social surroundings of Lawrinson include those individuals who smoke. They congregate out on the concrete patio much like cellmates would do in the jail yard, and form cliques of their own. However, this practice excludes those residents who do not have the vice. In addition, neighboring rooms on each floor at times form cliques. Though small, these groups once formed become very close-knit. Another aspect of Lawrinson’s residents concerns the sophomores who live there. These sophomores may not encounter the same troubles as many freshman within the building due to their ability to choose friends from the previous year to room with or reside on the same floor. Although this eliminates difficult socialization somewhat due to their ready-made social networks, it also increases the troubles experienced by freshman. The average floor has eight or nine sophomores, which further reduces the number of people willing to associate with the new freshman. Despite this apparent setback for freshman, many students do in fact find ways to make Lawrinson a home in the way many prisoners make life in prison work for them.

 

Although Lawrinson may be reminiscent of a prison, I, along with over five hundred other
students, must learn to adapt and to deal with the circumstances presented to us. Otherwise, how will we ever learn to function in that bustling city I can see out my window each day? I believe we will all flourish in time. Everyday I witness more and more students attempting to relate to the people around them in spite of Lawrinson’s predisposition to interfere.

Works Cited

de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven

Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 91-110.

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

New York: Scribner, 2001.

Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago

University of Chicago Press, 2001.

 

 

Megan Stevenson
Megan Stevenson is currently a freshman pursuing a degree in Broadcast Journalism. While taking writing classes here at Syracuse, she has unveiled her ability to write analytically as you will see in the piece, “Lawrinson Hall: My Own Prison.” Megan is also involved with the UUTV show Afterhours here on campus, where she is the technical director, and a contributing writer.