Social Space pt 2: Keefe Campus Center

(Craig Campbell)– Last night I toured the dark halls of Keefe Campus Center in order to inspire this post. I wanted the proposed changes to the floor plan to spring to life as I contemplated the function of the existing spaces. Unfortunately, my trip through our student activities building left me more perplexed than satisfied by the proposed plan.

On Saturday, Matt DeButts wrote an article about the way that labeling a space (MRC, CCE, Rainbow Room) discourages its use and denudes its broader accessibility. He commented on the Keefe plan’s curious lack of student input, and how the changes were decided without a referendum.

The administration is rapidly evaluating the problems inherent in the physical and cultural building blocks of Amherst; in a rush to rectify these issues, I fear that the powers-that-be will lose sight of the difference between nominative and substantive changes. As I mentioned in my last post, the way we interact with space is extremely informative to the way we interact with the institution as a whole. Here, of course, this needs to be modified, but we should remain skeptical of cursory changes and demand comprehensive answers to the questions that arise with the redistribution of space in Keefe. For instance, the AAS’s proposal states that the Multicultural Resource Center would “always be open.” As I wandered the basement last night, I noticed that the current MRC is only open for 3 hours per day – full time service would be a massive change to their operations. Are they equipped to handle it as soon as next semester? The Women’s Center, tentatively moving to the second floor, is being given more space than it currently uses – but will their resources be equivalently expanded? How, exactly, will the added space help address its current issues in a meaningful way?

The AAS has and continues to solicit student input; I have a few concrete comments, without reference to the controversial moves of the Women’s Center, MRC, and Game room, about the way Keefe serves the student body. I’ll progress through the building from top to bottom.

Second Floor

Although our student center advertises accommodating hours – open until midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends – my 7 p.m. stroll felt like an intrusion when I entered the completely dark 2nd floor.

Two lounge spaces border, from above, the entry room. They have couches, chairs, and floor lights – they are designed, ostensibly, for studying. Currently, though, all of the furniture is arranged around the perimeter of the walls, creating an awkward empty space in the center. One of the lounges has a beautiful, functional fireplace. By simply rearranging the furniture closer to and facing the fireplace, with adequate lighting and a supply of firewood we might animate the space for its actual intention – a comfortable lounge space.

Did you know that Keefe has a second floor balcony? Probably not, because there’s little reason to use it. By adding patio furniture and a small fire-pit to the area, the space would immediately become a viable outdoor social space, perfect for fall and spring gatherings reminiscent of high school bonfires, complete with a view of the distant mountains (and the Socials).

With the exception of athletic facilities, the Friedman Room is probably the single largest non-study area on our campus, and it is one of the only rooms with a stage. But it’s unlabeled and out of the way – stumbling into it last night, I thought I was opening a closet door. What message does the school send when its largest social space is effectively hidden? The Freidman Room, as well as the other rooms behind anonymous doors on the second floor, should more obviously state its presence and purpose. The room most closely resembles the old ballrooms that once filled the campus, and so it should be outfitted for a similar purposes. Installing a chandelier, for instance, would in part combat the feeling of sterility. Additionally, the hardwood floor that currently sits only in the middle of the room should be expanded – adding this touch of elegance would make the space more conducive to small concerts (aka dancing) and other large social events.

First Floor

The seating areas that flank Schwemm’s Coffee House represent both a great success and unfortunate failure in the way Keefe serves students. The room immediately off the building’s entry room, with its central fireplace, offers a warm and cozy environment. It is situated in a fairly open space between the coffee shop and the current game room. The entrances surrounding it are large, obvious, and completely unobstructed. The small tables encourage intimate meetings, and the natural lighting from the large windows set a gentle and friendly tone.

Regrettably, like many other spaces on this campus, it is essentially blocked off from its second half. The room behind Schwemm’s is entirely wasted space. While the tables-for-two befit the middle area, these not appropriate for this room, leaving no incentive to utilize the area. While retaining its seating capacity, the room should be a more self-conscious study area, with rectangular tables that seat 6-10 people, soft but bright floor lighting, and prominent outlets.

The space that greets students as they enter their campus center needs to better accommodate advertising for the rich assortment of student activities at Amherst. That is, it should be equipped to handle multiple organizations tabling at the same time. Currently, in one corner a grand piano is hidden behind the events calendar; in two others, small, seldom used tables spill out of Schwemm’s and line the walls; two small couches fill the last. All four corners of this room should equally accommodate club tabling; four main tables, all facing inward, would allow for a sense of cohesion among diverse groups that make up the student body during peak tabling hours. In addition, this symmetry is, on a basic level, more aesthetically pleasing. Clubs more often table at Val because it receives more traffic than Keefe, but, by definition, the student center should be the ideal place for advertising a student activity.

The MRC is being relocated to a more “important” and “prominent” space on the first floor. It follows, then, that the first floor staff offices, in their prominent position, are viewed as more important and deserving of preferred real estate than the game room, other student activities, and social space. If rooms 112 and 114 were eliminated, space would open up for one of these purposes.

Although the MRC and the CCE serve very necessary functions on campus, they are rooms that are separate from the rest of the integrated space. Part of the problem with labeled spaces, as Matt pointed out, is that they are entirely sectioned off. As it stands, students only enter the CCE if they already have an explicit reason to be there. If the CCE removed its exterior door, the space would immediately become more inviting to students. In its new location, the MRC should be sure to do the same – which would mean the elimination of the Campus Center Manager office.

The mailroom, with its gentle lighting, wood paneling, and friendly staff functions perfectly for its purpose.


The basement seems, at this point, a lost cause. The current Women’s Center and MRC will be vacant – our current approach to the restructuring of Keefe asks how to fill the rooms. But filling the rooms with something else, whether a new organization or a conference table, maintains the unfriendly atmosphere of a single-hallway design. Unless the space is vastly restructured to create (as I’ve heard suggested) a large lounge/bar area, the basement will remain a sad, dimly lit hallway strewn with student activities offices.

I realize that all of these proposed changes cost money, which is a fact that many students seem to ignore or misunderstand. Yes, we pay an expensive tuition bill; yes, we have a billion dollar endowment; yes, we have a lot of resources – but there is a widespread and fallacious assumption that we have infinite resources. We must keep that in mind before haphazardly demanding changes to the space. However, because resources have already been committed to the project, we should absolutely suggest ways to better put them to use. I urge you all to make your voices heard at the open meeting at 8 pm tonight in Merrill 3 to discuss Keefe’s propsed changes.

In closing, I’ll leave readers with images of student centers at comparable institutions that put their space to much better use.

Smith Campus Center at Pomona College
Paresky Student Center at Williams College
Paresky Student Center at Williams College
Smith College Campus Center
Smith College Campus Center
Effective tabling space at UMass Boston