Arrival (not the movie)

When I was 13 or 14, I got hooked. No, not on a gateway drug (this wasn’t a D.A.R.E. scenario), but on a computer game. Here’s the gist: you’re a special forces commando, and it’s the future, so naturally, you’re wearing this bionic suit that turns invisible and what not. You’re sent to an island in the South Pacific where the North Koreans have inexplicably taken over and are terrorizing the populace. Soon it becomes clear that something much stranger is afoot. Perhaps, even, something not of this world. Near the climax of the game’s plot line, you find yourself underground, exploring the depths of a local mountain cavern. Suddenly, you round the corner to find … an alien spaceship! embedded in the rock!

This moment from preadolescence had entirely left my brain — that is, until a recent visit to Sterling Memorial Library. Intending to hit the Periodicals Room, I rounded the corner to find … the new Center for Teaching and Learning.

“What’s this?” I thought. “I knew the competition to recruit Yalies is fierce, but did Apple really need to set up a satellite office?” However, I soon found my apprehension to be unfounded.

“We’re pretty tech-agnostic,” said Jennifer Frederick, Executive Director, in an interview earlier this week. (A few feet from where we were sitting in the Center’s expansive central study space, a reel of video interviews — including one with Frederick herself — flashed across a wall-mounted display. Nearby onlooker (and eavesdropper!) Tom Cusano, TC ’18, the Herald’s own former Editor-in-Chief, later told me that the stereo effect, hearing video-Frederick in one ear and live-Frederick in the other, disoriented him considerably).

The center does, of course, use a lot of digital devices. Each room comes equipped with a wifi-connected screen and a custom iPad, fastened to the door frame, which lists its daily availability. But these apparatuses, like the architecture in general, are only important insofar as they further the Center’s mission, what Frederick described as an “in situ experiment” in deconstructing the classroom. In fact, if you try to reserve a space, you won’t find the word “classroom” (or “study space” or “conference room”) used at all. “We realized that those labels limit flexibility in the ways that you think about things,” Frederick explained. Instead, they’re simply referred to by size: small, medium, and large. (Around this point in the interview, I realized that the CTL’s postmodern cred far surpasses my own. And I’ve read Infinite Jest!) Faculty and teaching fellows have only used the center for a few weeks now, but so far, the experiment seems to be going well. According to Frederick, several professors have commented that the space’s design is inspiring new ways to think about their teaching. (The astrophysics professors especially must feel that whole new worlds have become available to them).

This success has long been in development. The CTL was founded in the summer of 2014 with the goal of uniting various teaching departments, heretofore scattered around the university, under the belief that their sum could very well be greater than its parts. Now, employees for different departments easily collaborate and share expertise behind the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of their open-floor-plan offices. “We see so much more of each other,” Frederick chimed.

Here as before, architectural form followed organizational function. A local New Haven firm, Newman Architects, needed a design that followed the center’s values of transparency, flexibility, and experimentation. “The challenge of the project was fundamentally to make those qualities … come to life in the space available,” Richard Murray, principal architect at the firm told me via email. Their solution? Moveable wall partitions, staff offices that are distributed throughout the Center, and the multi-use teaching spaces so straightforwardly named by Frederick’s team. Even the Spartan interior decorating plays a role: it doesn’t distract. “The people and the ideas provide the color,” related Frederick. “When it’s busy and happening, you don’t really notice that it’s so neutral.”

Despite my initial skepticism, the CTL has steadily grown on me. The hallway that connects it to the rest of Sterling seems less jarring than it once did. In particular, I’ve started to appreciate what the Center left untouched. Like artifacts in a museum, scattered architectural details — a stained-glass window or an impressive wooden door — recall the Center’s history as a back office for the older, more venerable building in which it resides (even if ultimately, they fail to rid the impression that you’re in an Apple Store). Go check out the CTL soon! You never know — it still may take off.

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