Early American Days

I arrived in the United States roughly one week ago, to attend a summer course at Yale University. I moved from New York to New Haven, Connecticut, swiftly following the coastline, along a cityscape that hardly resembles anything else in Europe. I do not know if I would call America exceptional or astonishing, but it is different for certain. I remembered vaguely the feeling of alienation from my last trip to Virginia, four years ago. I saw things that are anywhere in my home country: houses, highways, gas stations… Banal things, and yet none of them completely matched my experience. It was strange, to some extent fascinating, to feel again the thrill of the unknown, the sensation that I was delving into a land that I only understand by similitude.

Yale University’s campus was built with a special taste for Neogothic. Funny enough, several of the main buildings were built from the early twentieth century, but they pervicaciously show pointed details of the same quality and taste of those employed by Pugin and Barry in Westminster Palace. Funny enough, again, the final effect does not quite match the European viewer’s visual expectations. The structures are bold, well organised, inherently utilitarian. I feel, to some extent, that Pugin himself would have compared them to a warehouse, as he did for St John’s College’s New Court in Cambridge. I appreciate New Court and so I also appreciate Yale’s campus, to be fair, but the striking similarity makes the comparison inevitable.

Yale’s students are organised in residential colleges. The system was an open attempt to emulate Oxbridge, although the result was quite different. Here, colleges do not have a constituent role, as in Cambridge or Oxford. They are supposed to host students and provide them with basic services such as housing and catering, but they do not have an equivalently strong role in the decision-making. Moreover, since the system is quite young when compared to its European counterpart, the colleges are not as heterogeneous. I have not lived here enough to say more, but I think that also the feeling of belonging on the students’ behalf is quite different. In Cambridge, I got to choose my college and it took me long to select it among the many alternatives. Here, the system allocates people randomly to each institution. I was admitted by a college, students here are admitted by the university.

In the next few weeks, I will engage in an exciting course on the sustainable preservation of cultural heritage (I hope to talk about this in more depth soon). I must say I settled in the college system pretty easily, probably as a result of the parallelisms with my university of origin. I expect the sense of alienation to decrease as time passes: routine easily shapes our feelings. In fact, everything here is known, and yet not quite the same. I feel like being home, but I cannot find the signs, the familiar smell in the air, the look on people’s face. I have moved to the other side of the world.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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