Guest Column - July 2014
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Design Corner

Object Lesson
Ensuring Campus Projects Fit Their Context

By David Rose

Once completed, buildings are never viewed in isolation. For that reason, they shouldn't be conceived in isolation. Yet, sometimes, in spite of the best intentions of architects and their clients, things go astray.

Architects always look to adjacent structures, local landmarks or regional influences for design cues that could inform a new building's aesthetic. But, here's what can happen: Campus administrators, as well as the donors whose dollars are footing the bill, want to be wowed. They want something distinctive—and architects are only too happy to deliver. It's what architects are trained to do and, if asked, what many would say they were born to do.

Ideally, your architect has his or her feet on the ground, but failing that, you need to be the pragmatic counterweight to your architect's visionary tendencies—particularly on university or prep school campuses, where there is usually some sort of consistent architectural language in evidence. In our experience, the most successful campus projects result when administrators have a clear understanding of how they want their new building to fit within the overall context.

Textbook Buildings

Working concurrently with two such clients on two very different projects served to heighten our appreciation of the importance of contextual clarity—and, more than that, to demonstrate how surprisingly elastic the definition of "distinctive" can be.

The buildings, polar opposites stylistically, were completed two years apart. The Pete Hanna Center looks like no other modern arena, but blends seamlessly with the existing architecture on the Samford University campus. The Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts looks like nothing else on the Endicott College campus, but fits aesthetically within the contemporary norms of performing arts buildings. Among the things they have in common? Neither can be fully appreciated out of context.

The classical understanding of context derives from a time when most buildings were built in urban settings and were either connected to their neighbors or at least in extremely close proximity—meaning that two and sometimes three faces of these so-called "fabric buildings" (as in urban fabric) were hidden. The rare building that stood apart from the urban fabric — a church, for example — used that separation as a means of gaining distinction. So-called "object buildings" can be approached from any direction, meaning that every face (or nearly every face) of the building, being visible, must get a similar amount of design attention.

Both the Endicott arts center and Samford arena are of a different class of object building, centering as they do around performance spaces that are very large and closed to the light. Further complicating their design, both building sites are more centrally located than is typical—many of the destination buildings that we specialize in, athletics and recreation facilities, are large and sprawling, and situated on the campus perimeter. These building types, even surrounded by green space, often function as fabric buildings, featuring a very prominent and welcoming entry, with more monolithic building forms (gymnasium, natatorium) behind. Neither the Endicott arts center nor the Samford arena could "hide" these large spaces from passersby.

Extreme Design

Endicott's Beverly, Mass., campus is atypical in its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, but it is otherwise like most college campuses in that its diverse range of architectural styles is a result of construction projects and real estate purchases that were engineered over many years by many different administrations. Its 235 acres include a tavern built in 1750 that is now student housing, a former carriage house converted into a healthy-living dormitory, a 105-bedroom apartment-style building constructed in 1906, an estate that has served as a residence hall since its purchase in the 1930s, a Georgian-style president's home, a conference center designed in an Italianate style by Guy Lowell (designer of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts), and a residence hall that began life as a stable and later served as a gymnasium, theater and children's center.

In essence, Endicott doubled down, telling us from the start that its new arts center should look like nothing else on the campus. A destination building because of its two performance halls, the facility could also be called (to coin a phrase) a "journey building," since its location on a prominent hill sits directly atop a well-traveled path between the lion's share of student housing and the center of the academic campus. That inspired the three-story atrium that is the building's centerpiece and serves as both a connective and a social space (by presidential decree, the building is open at all hours to students).

The facility's contemporary architectural style is unconventional for Endicott, yet puts it squarely within the traditions of arts buildings, featuring steel and curtainwall construction, large sweeping bands of glass in two colors, and glass-fiber-reinforced concrete that is horizontally scored to add texture and is slightly curved to bring a more modern rendition to the building. Inside the atrium, balconies and landings are executed as thinly as possible, with glass railings used to further heighten the transparent feel. The result is an open, light and airy building—not overly adorned, visually sustained in a sculptural way, and perfectly suited to its forested, ocean-view location.