Vermont's most design-conscious campus hits the wall
BY DONALD KREIS - Seven Days - Dec. 4-11, 2002
Middlebury College professor Glenn Andres still recalls the day he picked up Robert Venturi at the airport and drove him to campus for a visit. As Andres remembers it, the famous Philadelphia architect-author got out of the car, took one look at the place, and declared: “You have what everyone thinks an American campus looks like but almost never does. It would be very easy to mess this up.”
Nearly $140 million in controversial new construction later, Andres knows better than anyone how right Venturi was. As a professor of architectural history, he is ideally positioned to evaluate how wealthy institutions use their building resources. And, as a part-time member of Middlebury’s facilities planning department, he has been party to the school’s recent architectural decision making.
So, when Andres invited Vermont architects and architecture students to campus last month, more than 100 of them showed up — presumably hoping that Andres and his colleagues would explain some of the recent choices that have transformed Middlebury from the bucolic campus Venturi saw to what it is today. The place is ringed by a series of fortress-like new buildings that seem to suggest Middlebury College is a kind of medieval estate in Addison County. But Andres’ talk was not about feudalism; it was about Middlebury College in a struggle — with its neighbors, with the limitations and challenges of its picture-perfect setting, with its architects and with itself.
Andres is loyal; he said nothing critical about his employer. He simply told his visitors the story that began back in the mid-1980s, when Venturi arrived to interview for the job of designing the College’s new Center for the Performing Arts. Despite Venturi’s memorable assessment of Middlebury’s physical virtues, the commission went to Hugh Hardy of Hardy, Holtzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York.
Hardy looked at the site of the project and instantly fell in love with the building nearby, Le Chateau. So he designed the performing arts center as a tribute to Middlebury’s maison française, mimicking its steep roofline and pinnacled turrets.
But then the college trustees decided that the spot next to Le Chateau was too small; they insisted on moving the whole complex across campus, to a site on South Main Street beside the field house. Since this neighbor is an ugly recycled airplane hangar, contextualism was out of the question. Hardy’s homage to the French renaissance remained, but his design, while rich with architectural meaning and full of luxurious performance spaces, has never functioned as intended. According to Andres, the building has been underused because only the showplaces — theaters, galleries, etc. — were moved across campus, while the classrooms and other traditional facilities were left behind in existing buildings adjacent to the original site.
This debacle got college officials thinking there ought to be more logic governing building choices than the momentary and potentially whimsical preferences of trustees or designers. So they hired an alumnus, David Wallace of Wallace Floyd Associates in Boston, to put together a comprehensive master plan that would guide Middlebury’s future expansion. His first draft was finished in 1995.
Wallace’s plan proposed minimizing impacts, maintaining the campus’s unique qualities, nurturing a close working relationship with the town and preserving views — the latter a particular imperative for a campus with rapture-inducing vistas of the famous mountain ranges to both the east and west. The plan identified an academic and social nucleus around the school’s McCullough Student Center and the adjacent Starr Library, which the College had singled out for a major expansion. All in all, it is a sensible and responsible blueprint.
Unfortunately, Middlebury College has ignored much of what the plan holds dear, validating Venturi’s comment about the ease of messing up a great place.
Down went the College’s ugly and unpopular Science Center, a big hunk of 1960s concrete brutalism that functioned as a giant barrier between Old Stone Row — the three iconic buildings that are the oldest on campus — and downtown. But now, inexplicably, the College is rebuilding the wall, in the form of a $40 million new library designed by New York’s Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.
Middlebury “agonized over this one,” Andres said at his talk last month. The college required Robert Siegel and his colleagues to work through eight different design proposals before settling on the winner, which will present a face to campus that vaguely resembles a round Shaker Barn. To the town, the new library will present two big walls — more varied than the blunt façade of the old Science Center, but walls nevertheless.
Gwathmey Siegel got the job on the strength of a proposal to transform the existing Starr Library by tearing down all but the century-old Beaux Arts core and surrounding it with a curved addition. The Shaker Barn idea made some sense in this context, which would have kept the library right where the master planners thought it should be. But the college’s trustees had other ideas. This led to pitched battles with townsfolk before the Middlebury Planning Board, with neighbors concerned about noise, light pollution and the big box of a building.
The college hosted, and videotaped, a town meeting before Gwathmey Siegel started the design. “The architects took it home and memorized every line of it,” Andres recalled. This speaks well of the architects and the process. But it’s useless if the real decision makers ignore the public input.
A similar scenario unfolded with the Ross Commons complex, designed by Tai Soo Kim Associates of Hartford. The new residential and dining complex, which recently opened on the western edge of campus, ran squarely up against the master plan’s imperative to preserve Adirondack views. Kim thought a transparent glass bridge would work nicely to preserve the views and connect his complex to the existing Ross Commons dorms to the north. But as built, the design brought the bridge down to earth and includes triple-glazed glass that leaves the walkway opaque and wall-like.
Seen from the east, the campus once offered a breathtaking mountain vista punctuated by small buildings. Now, there are just a few feet of open space between the Ross Commons complex and Bicen-tennial Hall — the science building completed for the school’s 200th anniversary in 2000.
The monstrous “Bi Hall” itself has been controversial. With a 215,000 square feet, the building now houses 40 percent of the school’s classrooms. Centralizing so much of a small, traditional liberal arts college in one huge building is the very opposite of the classic, American campus feeling Venturi experienced when he visited. How did this happen?
Andres admitted in his lecture that many — including townsfolk who live within sight of the college’s now-looming western skyline — find the scale of Bi Hall disturbing. Yet the commissioning of such a building was “not because of megalomania,” Andres insisted. The size is purely a function of efficiency, he suggested; separating the functions into a series of smaller structures would have required 25 percent more building.
This echoes the line taken in the Middlebury Magazine, the school’s official organ. The cover story of the Fall 2002 issue concedes that some have blasted Bi Hall for its vastness, but claims that “if critics of the building could hear faculty members talk about how it was designed around their input… their opinions might moderate.” The architects, James Collins and Bob Schaeffer of Payette Associates in Boston, “stood out precisely because of a willingness to meet real needs rather than displaying an egoistic insistence on an aesthetic concept,” the magazine noted.
But sometimes, architectural egotism is precisely what is needed. A good architect will listen carefully when meeting with the prospective users of a new building — like Bi Hall’s faculty denizens. But this same architect ought to be outspoken and persistent when dealing with out-of-town trustees who are inclined to wield their checkbooks in favor of choices that are harmful or arbitrary — such as placing a big building right at the crest of a hill.
Finally, egotism in architects is well worth suffering by clients like Middlebury College. Hugh Hardy may or may not be more egotistical than his counterparts at Payette, but his Center for the Performing Arts is intriguing and beautiful. Payette’s Bi Hall is an unsightly parody of the signature Greek Revival façade of Old Chapel, flanked by wings of repetitive windows and granite that are more evocative of a prison than a college.
Design divisiveness in Middlebury is not restricted to campus. This spring, Middlebury’s voters said no to a plan to move their cramped Town Hall out of downtown and into the strip-mall district south of the village on Route 7. The College had offered to donate the new site and to buy the old one for $3 million. It had hoped to tear down the old Town Hall, which occupies a wedge of land between College and South Main streets just at the edge of the school’s property and replace it with a lawn and a “Middlebury College” sign. In a protracted stand-off fraught with symbolism, locals turned the trustees down.
This is not just a town-gown problem; the conflict over how the campus should grow and change also rages within. The Ross Commons project, for example, is an ambitious program to transform the school into five residential communities and thereby move Middlebury away from its historic fraternity-based social life. So far, the effort at social engineering has inspired skepticism.
“Student reaction,” the Middlebury Campus student newspaper editorialized this fall, “remains complicated and, in some cases, very negative.” According to the paper, there is an “artificial air” to these communities, with students migrating from commons to commons in search of the best accommodations.
If the students are behaving like real-estate shoppers, perhaps it is because they must part with $39,500 for a year of college. That price tag may also explain why the new dining hall at Ross Commons resembles a restaurant, with curved ceilings of locally harvested wood, next to an indoor dorm-to-dining walkway. Where once the College could simply assume it was attracting students who enjoyed the outdoors, even in cold weather, now it apparently feels obliged to offer resort-type amenities.
Middlebury’s architectural ambivalence rears itself in another, less obvious, sense. In organizing an effort to engage Vermont architects in dialogue about the College, Andres clearly understands that such discourse is more than just good public relations; it can ground the College’s architectural choices in more indigenous sensibilities. But he could not coax the real decision makers — people like Executive Vice President for Facilities Planning David Ginevan, College President John McCardell or any of the trustees whose veto power is paramount — into participating.
There’s one positive sign. The next big residential-dining project, Atwater Commons, is rising behind Le Chateau. The site is actually designated in the master plan as appropriate for such expansion. Designed by Kieran Timberlake Associates of Philadelphia, this might be the best example of architectural art at Middlebury College since the Greek Revival of the 1820s.
The two dorm buildings frame the back of the Chateau, but in a gently non-symmetrical manner that responds to the topography. In form, these buildings pay tribute to the oldest building on campus, the beautifully austere Painter Hall, adding a syncopated window pattern that is distinctly contemporary. Adjacent, but not connected by an indoor walkway, is a delightfully radical exclamation point of a building — an oval dining hall, surrounded by what Andres calls “corrugated windows” and capped with a sod roof. This design strives to blur the distinction between the building and its earthly setting.
If Middlebury College keeps building such structures, critics might be silenced. Good architecture speaks for itself.
Donald Kreis, an attorney who writes frequently about architecture, graduated from Middlebury College in 1980.