This week was a lively time for architecture enthusiasts at Williams. Wednesday evening Professor E.J. Johnson delivered a captivating and humorous lecture entitled “The Good and the Bad and Ugly: An Utterly Unbiased Account of the New Guggenheim/Bilbao and Getty Museums.” Then, on Saturday morning professor of art emeritus Whitney Stoddard delivered an equally entertaining and informative lecture about the architectural history of the buildings on the Williams campus.
In his three decades of teaching art history, Johnson ‘55 has served in various capacities on the Williams faculty. In 1971, he worked as the acting director of the Williams College Museum of Art. Today, he teaches the popular Art History 101 lecture. On Wednesday, Johnson’s popularity was evidenced by the large turnout at the Guggenheim lecture. Brooks-Rogers was filled past capacity with alumni, students, and professors, some of whom were standing in the recital hall’s aisles in order to listen.
Johnson presented his lecture in two parts, the first of which he gave in October. In that lecture he discussed the aesthetics of the exteriors of the Bilbao Guggenheim and J. Paul Getty Museums. During Wednesday’s installment, Johnson took the audience on a tour of the interiors of the museums. He began by addressing the plan of the Getty Museum, which is situated near the San Diego freeway near Los Angeles. One of the strongest attributes of the museum is the extraordinary and atypical design of the building.
Richard Meier, the architect who designed the Getty, used the freeway to orient his drawings for the building. Meier worked with two-dimensional grids to form a three dimensional axis. However, as Johnson frankly stated, “something went wrong” with his design. One axis runs into a wall. The other runs into a cactus patch that overlooks a Holiday Inn. Johnson stated that although the press was “almost universally laudatory,” the two-axis method was an “exercise in futility.”
Johnson focused this part of his lecture on the clash between Meier and the Getty administration. He suggested that the conflicts between them during the construction process were so volatile that a nearly palpable tension now disrupts the architectural design of the museum and therefore the effect of the artwork contained within it. A prime example of this tension is the Getty’s decorative arts gallery, which Meier did not design. In describing the inconsistency of the architecture and its contrast to the fine art, Johnson said, “It is as if Neil Armstrong strolling across the moon found himself in Versailles.”
Unlike the Getty, the Bilbao Guggenheim is located in an urban center. Designed by Frank Gehry, the building comprises 11,000 pieces of steel, none of which are the same size. Gehry is renowned for his use of curves to form snake-like, almost mobile abstract forms. The Guggenheim resembles a flower. Each of its varied shaped and sized petals is a gallery.
Johnson suggested that visitors to the museum have no sense of what they are entering. In describing the exhilarating experience of entering the museum, Johnson stated “you might not be sure what to make of it, but boy is it exciting.” He commented that the architectural design of the building “entices you to go find out what is there…However, the architecture overwhelms the art.” Johnson emphasized that the size of the galleries belittled the impact of the artwork.
Stoddard focused his lecture, “A Sense of Where You Are: A Unique Look at the Architecture of Williams and Williamstown,” on architecture that does not overwhelm function and therefore is often overlooked itself. The sizable crowd at Stoddard’s lecture was not surprising: his popularity and clear interest in the topic have made the lecture a tradition at Williams. Due to the enormous turnout, two auditoriums in the Bernhard music center were filled; the second gave students, families and even professors a chance to watch the lecture on a monitor. Even through the video transmission, Stoddard’s charismatic persona shone through.
Stoddard discussed most of the structures on the Williams College campus, highlighting the history and structural evolution of each building. In discussing Griffin Hall, he recalled the infamous incident in 1821 when the future founder of Amherst College left with a large percentage of Williams books and students. At the time, then resident Griffin raised money and students to resurrect the college. The president allocated funds for the construction of Griffin Hall in his honor; the hall’s prime placement on Route 2 reflects the college’s belief at the time that the building must stand out to reflect its namesake’s contributions.
Lawrence Hall, which today houses the Williams College Museum of Art, originally intended to be a library, according to Stoddard. It was designed, in fact, so that the librarian could stand in the middle of the library and see in all possible directions. This was done in order to prevent students from cutting pictures out of books, a problem which plagued libraries at the time. Stoddard pointed out that the construction of Lawrence hall cost 8,000 dollars, while the college that Lawrence had founded cost a mere 6,000.
Next Stoddard discussed Goodrich Hall. At the time the new chapel was built to replace the one in Griffin Hall. Its magnificent spires and gothic design marked it as the college’s major chapel until 1904, when Thompson Memorial Chapel assumed its role as the primary house of worship. In addressing the new Goodrich student center, Stoddard asked the crowd “how many college students have a snack bar with stained glass windows behind it?”
The lecture touched upon nearly every structure on campus, from the horrific confusion of Dodd House to the imposing arrogance of Chapin Hall’s columns. Stoddard addressed modern edifices as well, including the new squash courts, the art building and the hockey rinks. He was especially fond of the Greylock buildings, a set of housing facilities constructed during the 1960s. For Stoddard, they were “well designed because they are handsome in sight and fit into the terrain.” In stark contrast is the unwelcoming Sawyer Library, scarred by a “long facade that is dull.” Similarly unimpressive in Stoddard’s account is Baxter Hall, which “looks best during the night, when one cannot see it.”
Both Stoddard and Johnson succeeded in attracting and holding captive diverse and attentive audiences. In confronting academic topics without the often intimidating sheen of academia, both lecturers skillfully displayed both the nuances of their selected topics and the root of their great appeal.