Ways of Seeing Simpkins Hall

Originally constructed in 1938 as the university’s lab school, Simpkins Hall is festooned with symbols appropriate to its original—and continuing— purpose, education. Here we see two symmetrical bas reliefs of flowers and fruit, symbolizing education’s project of renewal, both in terms usefulness (the fruit) and its cultivation of, and care for, beautiful things for their own sake (the flowers). Both the fruit and flowers are signs of plenitude and stability. You can also see similar agricultural symbols on the front of the building, up by the eaves: the horn of plenty, a sheaf of wheat, a beehive, all signs of industrious and organized work. As with these interior decorations, the symbols repeat themselves on either side of the front door, creating symmetry. Symmetry is itself symbolic of a balanced order and a reminder that while education may challenge order, it is also foundational to it. Given the norming function of traditional elementary education, it is not surprising that Simpkins is highly invested in symbols of order and hierarchy, like the beehive. 

This photo of Simpkins’ south face shows a bas relief of four Corinthian columns, interrupted by three arched windows, recalling Greek and Roman classical civilization.  It was common for educational buildings to reference Classical architecture and for a variety of reasons. America’s founders looked to Greek democracy and the Roman Republic when looking for a “useable past” to justify America’s democratic and Republican experiment. Classical architecture is also heavily referenced in Europe, though for rather different reasons, not only to claim a cultural continuity with Greece and Rome, but also as symbols of authority, empire and the ability to project power. Certainly Greek and Roman architecture worked well in the early American context as they were both democracies that had slave based economies. 

Corinthian columns, like all columns in the classical context, are symbolic trees, meant to recall the groves of oak, olive, laurel, etc. sacred to this or that pagan deity. So the Parthenon is a sacred grove in stone for Athena. Closer to home, the Academy derives it’s name from the grove, sacred to Athena, goddess of, among other things, wisdom, where Plato taught philosophy. Corinthian columns are noted for the rams horns at the top. Some believe that these are reminders of animals that were sacrificed  to a deity when a temple went up. By decorating the building with their horns and teeth (the dentals you see embedded above Simpkins’ windows ) the sacrificial animal’s spirit is mollified. Others believe that the dentals and horns had become purely aesthetic designs by the time the great Greek temples were built. Certainly that is the case with them as found on Simpkins. Still, I like the idea of Simpkins as as a sacred grove. And education does require the sacrifice of time and effort and of illusions. 

Madness famously lurks in the temple of reason. I enjoy photographing the single minded, narrowing to infinity, obsessive and unrelenting linearity of Simpkins’ hallways, the kind of architecture that Kafka makes use of in The Trial.  The repetition of the overhead lights (reminiscent of the view from a gurney),  the multiplying rectangles lockers, the tiles on the floor, the mysterious grid at the end of the hall, all contribute to sense of orderliness that deliriously crosses over into camp. 

One of the nicest things about Simpkins is the number and variety of its windows. Every classroom has windows, as do the entrances and stairwells. This not always the case on campus. Simpkins’ windows have the practical effect of bringing light into the building, but they also serve as educational symbols of enlightenment and transparency. This window is one of my favorites, the way it brings the sky into the building. 

I love this window because of the way it is framed as a series of shrinking rectangles and how the window itself encapsulates both rectangles and squares. Also because of its recessed location it seems to glow.

Whereas the third floor hallway is campily  Kafkaesque, the simple addition of those two chairs made the first floor hallway feel like a haven of peace and stillness, almost monastic in its simplicity. 

I love this black square as a counterpoint to the windows in Simpkins 326. You can almost imagine it as a Jasper Johns painting. The square is blank, yet coiled with potential. It’s both comforting and disturbing. A refusal and an invitation. An example of the uncanny.