May 12, 2008

Sticking it to the Man

[img id="80600" align="alignleft"] Books are good things. Libraries, like books, are good things as well—they give the books a nice roof to save them from inclement weather and provide other books to keep them company; they also give those of us with eyes and opposable thumbs a pleasant place in which to enjoy our reading. The prospect of a new library, then, is a lovely one, but it became clear yesterday that the newest campus library will be like no library before it.

Yesterday morning, President Zimmer unveiled the finalized plans for the long-awaited addition to the Regenstein. Thanks to a $25-million donation from U of C alumni Joe and Rika Mansueto, some 3.5 million volumes will nestle in the soft East 57th Street soil in a sort of literary dungeon that will be ruled, managed, and guarded by a single monstrous robotic claw. Above this pit of despair, a massive glass atrium will stretch oblongly from 57th Street to the entrance of Max West, forming a vast transparent igloo known as the Grand Reading Room.

Helmut Jahn’s architectural vision is the 21st-century equivalent of the 1958 epic The Blob. In that film, an amoeba-like alien erupts from a meteor and oozes across a small town, ingesting everything and everyone in its path. What will it mean for the U of C when Jahn’s amoebic creature lands just outside the main quadrangle? How much of a stretch is it to foresee the dome seeping across campus, picking up students, gargoyles, and small dogs? Snell-Hitchcock and Harper: enveloped; Pierce and Bartlett: obliterated; Kim Goff-Crews: inhaled.

And this is to say nothing of the portion of the library beneath the blob. In a cave over 50 feet high, millions of books will be stored in dank claustrophobia. Patrons within the blob will be able to summon the help of an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS, or “the Beast”) similar to that used by Amazon.com, which will retrieve the book within five minutes of the initial request. While this sounds good in theory, given that a man-eating blob may well be on the loose by then, I’m wary of any colossal, crane-like beast built for its strength and speed.

Lest we forget the significance of the ground in which these new books will be deposited: It was there that Enrico Fermi and his team caused the first self-sustained nuclear reaction in 1942—in the same ground with the same gophers and the same earthworms. Forgive my trepidation, but the thought of being attacked by a radioactive gopher while writing a paper worries me. Worse,still, the lingering effects of the reaction may be all that the ASRS and the blob need to break free.

Insofar as it remains sedentary, the Mansueto library (affectionately known as “the Man”) will be in good company. With this last glassy garnish, the block will finally resemble what must be the University’s ultimate goal of a sort of terrifying postmodern playpen. Max Palevsky, for all its Technicolor fervor, is the stuff that drug-induced psych-ward dreams are made of, and the Reg may quite possibly be the ugliest building in existence. One can only assume that the administrators have had it with the Gothic architecture and impressive stone walls draped in ivy and capped with spires—who needs beauty when we can construct carnivorous alien pods?

While the Louvre’s pyramid deflects the wrath of the weather gods with its steep, angled walls, the dome will allow hail, snow, brimstone, and whatever else Chicago sends our way to pile up along both ceiling and walls, creating a hellish ice cavern that will house yetis and That Kids alike. With only one way out, the ASRS could easily seal wayward students into its (his?) Grand Reading Room of Terror, trapping them in with Plato-wielding Sosc students in a scene worthy of The Shining.

The University has embraced the Man, and we—and our tennis courts with us—are surely doomed.

Claire McNear is a first-year in the College majoring in international studies. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.