Architectural inconsistency

Polshek Partnership has recently unveiled plans for the new student center, which will replace Baxter Hall. While the new interior spaces are quite exciting, and clearly a vast improvement over the current Baxter, there are serious issues which still need to be addressed regarding the exterior appearance of the building.

The site of the student center is one of the most sensitive that can be found anywhere on campus, especially due to its centrality and proximity to important architectural symbols of Williams: Chapin Hall, the Frosh Quad, and West college. The immediate architectural environment is also perhaps the most stylistically coherent, a rare characteristic at Williams. Chapin, Williams, Sage, West, the President’s house, and the congregational church are all basically in the Georgian style.

In spite of this uniformity, the architects have created a design that will look very out of place. They have taken an intelligent approach to the general massing of the building, but have given no attention to the issue of stylistic consistency with the neighboring buildings.

The most salient departure from the traditional architecture of Williams is the extensive use of it; over half of the façade facing Baxter lawn is to be composed of glass. It is uncertain, at this point, how this expanse of glass will be treated. What is clear is that it will not be like anything that has been constructed on campus before. Further, the architects have planned a large two-story portico running the length of the main (east) façade, with the justification that it will be “in the spirit” of the portico on Chapin. It is true that they would both be porticos, but the one planned for Baxter is a flimsy modern version, much like that of Brooks House, which fails to live up to the standard set by the venerable old porticos of the other row houses.

The one concession the architects make to context is a long brick portion which is intended to mirror the long side of Sage Hall.  But this appears crude in comparison to the sophisticated proportions of the Freshman Quad.  The most unfortunate aspect here is the flat roof, which is as inelegant as that of Sawyer. Indeed, the appearance of the whole building could be greatly improved simply by using a pitched roof. While adjusting these features would be beneficial to the design, a comprehensive re-examination of the outward appearance is necessary if this building is to be truly appropriate to its site. The fact is that this has been a defiantly modern building from the beginning, with no intention of fitting into its surroundings. This is not appropriate here.

Williams has been often criticized for its lack of architectural consistency: the result of many different architects working in their own preferred styles, seemingly oblivious of the environment in which they were working. It seems that architects see the diversity of architectural styles on campus as an excuse to do whatever they like with their own projects. Instead, we ought to be all the more careful to preserve and extend our one stylistically coherent architectural core. This is, of course, the very cluster of buildings which the new Baxter threatens to disrupt. We can’t afford to lose the visual integrity of this most central and symbolic space on our campus.

Making the necessary changes to the plan will be challenging at this point, because the method of design essentially ignored the whole issue of outward appearance until the entire interior had been planned out in detail; elevations weren’t even made during the initial planning stages. This being so, it now becomes very difficult to make any substantive changes to the exterior without upsetting the whole scheme.  Nevertheless, the issue must be confronted, and it will be far easier to do so now than after the building has been completed.

The architects have been quite eager to solicit student opinion regarding the function of the building, but have made no inquiries as to what students or faculty believe would be most suitable in terms of its appearance. On the contrary, they seem determined to build a modern building, whether or not this is generally supported by the faculty and student body. I propose that the architects submit elevations showing several different options for the exterior of the building, in order to obtain an accurate sense of what people feel is best for the campus. It will also be useful for the college to more fully understand its options. We need to realize that there is more than one way to design a successful and impressive student center. We should demand a building that is not only a great student center, but one which clearly belongs at Williams. This can only be accomplished if the new Baxter is made compatible with those buildings that define our architectural identity.

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