The Muse Is in the Material: How a University Sculpture Garden Can Get Students Off Smartphones and Spark Conversation on Campus

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Public spaces like this one at Jena University in Germany can provide an inspiring environment for students to exchange ideas. | Image Source: Flickr User arenamontanus
Public spaces like this one at Jena University in Germany can provide an inspiring environment for students to exchange ideas. | Image Source: Flickr User arenamontanus

Many of my best memories in college took place in our campus sculpture garden. I remember skateboarding barefoot over to my friends’ dorms at our SoCal campus to meet up, lay on the grass in the shade of a large metal sculpture, and talk. We would bring our books, talk about ideas we were learning in lectures — our friends were pursuing a variety of degrees, so the conversations were varied and exciting, ranging from the geological forces at play below the grass to the architecture of Gaudi’s Cathedral to the aesthetics merits of the sculptures around us. They say that very young children learn the most at recess, and I’d argue the same for college students —  some of your most intellectually stimulating conversations happen between lectures when you’re just hanging out in campus public spaces between classes.

With the advent of networked technology and mobile connectivity to distract today’s students from these vital exchanges on campuses, it’s more important than ever for university officials to maximize the potential of their public spaces. Sculpture gardens and public monuments spark dialogue and gather people together to exchange ideas.

Campus Public Spaces Bring Students Together

Campus architecture and university public spaces bring students together and inspire the kind of conversations that catalyze new ideas and inspire students to take ownership of their future. Early university architects developed the concept of the “quad” to serve exactly this purpose: schools were often built on the edge of wilderness areas where land was cheap and students were distanced from the usual distractions of urban life. The quad on campus served as a metaphor for seeking meaning in the wilderness and finding a paradisiacal garden where one’s mind could fully blossom.1

If you look at the quads and sculpture gardens of today, that vision seems to have largely been realized. Modern university public spaces strive to provide a place where young people can grow intellectually while experiencing a freedom to talk, learn, and play that can be hard to find at other times throughout adult life. The subcultures that blossom in the public spaces of a university often go on to have a widespread impact on our national culture and political dialogue, but technology has changed the architectural considerations that affect how these public exchanges unfold for today’s students.

More and More, Technology Makes Our Public Spaces Private

To design a public space is to design a stage for behavior. The atmosphere can direct people toward reflection or engagement, guiding visitors through a high-traffic area to encourage private relaxation in a clearing or nook. As Winston Churchill concisely phrased it: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Public spaces such as university quads or sculpture gardens were originally designed to encourage relaxation and engagement but have become increasingly privatized with the advent of handheld screen technology. Students can bring their laptop or smartphone outdoors and completely leave the public space for the private worlds of their screens.

Researchers from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden discuss our changing paradigm for what is acceptable in public space. In their work Reclaiming Public Space, the authors point out handheld technology’s aptitude for creating “private individual spaces in the public domain.”[Eriksson, Eva, Thomas Riisgaard Hansen, and Andreas Lykke-Olesen.2 There are benefits to this, of course, but the Danish architects also pointed out that “a large part of physical public space is experienced visually.” What may seem at first like an obvious truism actually offers a very real, applicable lesson for universities as they work to engage students buried in their private, techno-centric space and to reclaim public space as a place for engagement and conversation. These public spaces become more and more important in the digital age because they give people something to see and more importantly, to experience something physical, something real.

How Universities Can Maximize the Potential of Public Spaces on Campus

For university officials, helping their student body to grow intellectually and have a stimulating college experience goes beyond the administrative details — it means looking at your campus as a whole to see what brings students together. Some universities are fortunate to already have that space set aside as a sculpture garden, but for campuses that don’t, and for universities that don’t have major endowment funds to spend on renovation, starting small is a good approach. Creating smaller nooks and points of sculptural interest on campus can be a strong jumping-off point to stimulate student engagement and make the most of your existing space. The first step is to consult with an experienced artist whose work will have the visual impact to truly engage students.

Is the Sculpture Garden Our Last “Public” Public Space?

Thinking back on it now, the time I spent at my university sculpture garden was more important than I realized. It’s clear to me now that we would go there to talk because something about the environment actually inspired conversation. One friend told me of her grandmother who had been blacklisted as a screenwriter in Hollywood for her liberal views as we sat on a stone bench inscribed with the history of McCarthyism. Another friend and I would sketch in charcoal and pastel-pencils the roses that bloomed by the base of a large metallic sphere. We watched the blooms reflect into an infinite metallic kaleidoscope of roses on its enormous convex skin, debating Simulacra and Simulation and the poetic merits of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Bowl of Roses.”

If we met up in someone’s dorm room, our time was likely to (okay, more like always) devolve into a game of Nintendo 64 or someone flipping open their laptop for a long and aimless playlist of Youtube videos. But the sculpture garden had a remarkable propensity for generating substantive dialogue between us. And the principles that applied to me and my friends still hold true for students today — in fact, they may be even more poignant as technology increasingly distracts us from the people and spaces around us.  Public art on universities allows students to get out of the technological black hole for a moment and engage with one another, exchange ideas, and inspire the visions that will ultimately create the future.

The McLeods are Australian bronze artists with experience making large-scale public sculptures. Their sculptures often engage with historic and environmental issues to tell colorful stories from Australian history, bring people together, and spark public dialogue. If you’re looking to collaborate with an experienced sculptor to maximize the potential of your campus, contact them for a consultation — for the artist, there are few joys greater than knowing that your work will bring new ideas to light for young people and making a lasting impact on a student’s life.

  1. “From Granite to Green: The Quad’s Purpose.” St. Lawrence University. Accessed December 7, 2015.
  2. “Reclaiming Public Space- Designing for Public Interaction with Private Devices.” February 1, 2007. Accessed December 7, 2015.

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