Seelye's Third Floor: A Case Study in Mediocre Living Space
By David Zheutlin '11, Columnist
What you’re looking at is a corner of the third floor hallway in Seelye. Four rooms surround this area, making for what could be a nice little common space, were there anything there other than … nothing. But instead, it’s empty and unused — and the topic of my student life column for the week.

When I look at this picture (or, really, when I walk into Seelye), something stands out right away. This doesn’t look like a home. When I think “house,” a place where we as students are meant to feel comfortable, relaxed, and, well, at home, this is not the image that comes to mind. There could be a carpet, maybe something hanging on the wall, a couch or a few chairs, a lamp — really, the comforts that make us think, “I’m home.” Seelye doesn’t give that whole “home” feeling. It’s bright, empty, shiny and suspiciously clean for a college dorm.

As an aside, I think it’s really interesting to consider how students talk about Seelye nowadays. When I was a freshman, it was always known as either “Seelye,” or “Seelye House.” But since its 2008-09 remodeling, people now refer to it as “my dorm,” or “Seelye dorm.” (Even the crime log has changed the Triangle dorms’ names). This means more than you might think — and I do believe that we can trust this unconscious shift in the general terminology as evidence for Seelye’s fundamental change from comfortable old house to modernized dormitory. Students can feel the difference: Seelye has become a dorm.

But anyway, I must say that I do like the slanty wall … but maybe that’s the point here — this could be a great spot, one where people who live on this floor could hang out, do some studying, and get to know each other. But clearly no one is going to hang out in this awkwardly-placed, unappealing anteroom. Maybe we should call this an anti-room. After all, rooms tend to be inviting, dynamic, and worth spending time in.

As Emil Vasilev, a healthy young man from the class of 2011 — seniors, woo woo — (and resident of the room outside which this photo was taken), said, “I never run into people in Seelye, except in the bathrooms. So I’m only really going to hang out with people that I’m willing to invite into my room.” This, to me, is a big problem: Amherst houses should be places where people run into each other frequently, engage in conversations, and spend time together. And right now, clearly, Seelye (among other places) is separating students.

Imagine the following scenario, one that certainly happens frequently in the Triangle: Emil the Seelye resident wants to get to know his next-door neighbor. Let’s call this neighbor Tony Marx. He sees Tony in the hallway once in a while, but they never stop to chat. Where are they going to go? The large first floor rooms don’t facilitate discussion by any means, and no one is spending time in this hallway. They could go into one of the two residents’ rooms, but what if Emil isn’t comfortable inviting Tony inside? I know that from my experience, it’s great to have people over in our common room in Pond, but I’m not necessarily going to invite every one of those people into my bedroom. So hopefully, you get my point. Our rooms are meant to be private. Big common rooms are meant to be public. There needs to be something in between, something that I will call “semi-private.”

Semi-private rooms are ones that act as run-in spots, places that bring people out of their rooms and encourage mingling; most importantly, they’re rooms that feel like they belong, collectively, to the residents. They’re the types of rooms in which you can leave your shoes, your books or your lunch, because these rooms belong to you and your neighbors. They’re not set aside from the rest of the dorm, but they have a feeling of privacy and comfort. Look back at that picture. That is, by no means, a semi-private space. And as residents of Seelye can attest, when there is no gradation, no spatial distinction in a dorm other than public and private, the residents lose any semblance of community. Why? Because semi-private spaces are where people hang out.

These types of semi-private hangout spots, fostering interaction and encouraging sociability since 1821, are the essential components to comfortable student living. One main reason that the Socials are so popular is that every suite has a semi-private common room — a multi-purpose space that can be controlled by the residents but is generally available to be used by many others, guests or otherwise. Marsh’s Calvin Coolidge Library, Plimpton’s Isaac Newton Library and the first floor common room in Newport are some other good examples of semi-private, homey spaces on campus. We need more of these types of rooms at Amherst, but unfortunately there has been a general decline, in recent years, of these sorts of rooms — lounges, libraries and living rooms.

The picture you see here could easily be remedied. This room doesn’t have to be an empty hallway dead-end. With a couch, a lamp and an area rug, you’d have a fairly comfortable little study nook (and, I should add, not one of those weird ones, like in Hitchcock, where you have an aquarium-like viewing tank with a table and a white board). It doesn’t seem like much, but making this vestibulette into a study area would entirely change the third floor in Seelye. Instead of isolating students, the design would encourage residents to come out of their rooms and into the corridors, where some of our best interactions can take place. Soon, the residents could have a lounge to talk, relax or do work — without having to go to the empty first floor common areas (or, where they actually go, A-level in the library). In reality, it would change the culture of the dorm as a whole. Maybe it’d start feeling a little more homey and comfortable. As the great Neil Armstrong probably never ever said, this could very well be “one small study nook for Seelye, one giant leap for sociability on campus.”

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 04:28:12