a living/learning history

by jonlemon


I love Living and Learning. 

Never have I ever seen such spectacular feats of non-Euclidean geometry and esoteric mysticism. And don’t get me started on the vertigo-inducing low ceilings or grimy linoleum. Holy shit. I mean, on Drop-Off Day my dad spent a solid 30 minutes trying to find my dorm. It took him another five minutes to leave — and the exit is literally 10 feet away. 

This got me wondering: why is L&L the way it is? 

And moreover, how did it get that way?

L&L traces its roots back to the hippie counterculture of the early ‘70s. According to a 2008 Seven Days article, L&L owes its design philosophy to “a wave of late-’60s [to] early-‘70s enthusiasm for nonhierarchical, hands-on, self- directed learning.” In 1974, resident anthropologist Paul Magnarella described L&L as “a multi-purpose complex designed to offer students small college intimacy without diminishing the wide range of educational opportunities associated with a university”. While I can see the merit in this claim, I think that it’s only scratching the surface. L&L is profoundly confusing. And I don’t think you can pin that solely on whimsical, hippie-dippie architecture. In passing conversation, the most common epithets thrown by students are confusing, like a maze. Not to mention: where the fuck am I? 

Although Magnarella never mentions the all-too-slight problem of actually navigating the goddamn building, some things in Living/Learning are just … timeless. Case in point: the shitty HVAC. Breaking from his usual blaise, toneless assessment, Magnarella lampoons it as “deplorable” and a “mindless waste of energy”. Basically, he thought it was shit. And it still is. He categorizes the hallways as unclean, and notes that the garbage room is almost never emptied. I can confirm that both of these statements are 100% true: one day I came home to the smell of a half-ton of fish fermenting in an open garbage can. And the hall outside my dorm either smells like armpit, ass, BO, or feet. Or all of the above, like an offensive smorgasbord of god-awful smells. It’s much less a question of if it will smell, and more a question of what and which offensive smell is on the menu

In a second 1975 report, Magnarella assesses the most common student complaints, finding that “the design of the LLC [Living/Learning Center] functions to break-up and isolate small groups of students”. He notes on the flipside that this “facilitates … close relationships within a suite”. 

No shit. When you isolate an entire dorm, of course they will get closer with their suitemates – ‘cause who the fuck else will they talk to? Magnarella’s words fall roughly in line with my own experience. On one hand, I’m not super close with any of my suitemates. On the other, I only know about three other people in the complex – and fuck-all-else about what goes on. Really, I couldn’t tell you if our upstairs neighbors are throwing a party or dropping bowling balls on their little fucking toes. I also had no clue who my RA was, until about a week ago when a friend introduced me to her. Really, anything goes. In a vacuum, you might think that L&L is simply the product of a university’s bureaucratic fuck-up. But maybe there’s more to it than that.

In 1972, America was at the heel-end of the Vietnam War. 3 years prior saw Woodstock and the Moratorium March on Washington. With ‘67 and ‘70 came respectively the end of UVM’s nightly curfew on women students and the Kent State Shooting. Like any other college campus at the time, students at UVM were up in arms. And it was in this context that Living/Learning was built. By itself, this isn’t damning or indicative of anything. But given the context of the times, it’s hard to see L&L’s incredibly disjointed structure, labyrinthine hallways, and soundproofing as just coincidental. In 1975, Magnarella found that one of the most prominent complaints from students was a lack of community. Students felt isolated, and oftentimes had no idea what was going on outside of their suites. In other words, they neither had the capacity nor the central location to organize protests. Just like Harris-Mills’s alternating stairways, L&L’s architecture seems to be way too good at hindering students to be indeliberate. Whether or not L&L’s design is deliberately hostile remains to be seen. The only thing I know is: L&L has always been a massive goddamn headache – and probably always will be. 

Categories: around town, nov 14, Vol 27