’Urban’ Baxter criticized

Polshek Partners Architects presented the latest revisions of and considerations for its plans for the new Baxter Hall last Friday in an open forum for faculty and students.

The presentation focused primarily on aesthetic and design characteristics of the project and was met with mixed enthusiasm from faculty and staff. Richard Olcoltt, a partner in the firm, presented a series of preliminary floor plans and elevations and tried to convey a sense of how the finished project might look and feel.

The architects largely addressed concerns that a modern design might clash with surrounding structures, describing a tiered design-approach which match the scale of surrounding buildings. The South and West sides near the President’s House and Park Street, are lower (two stories and a basement) to match the “residential dimensions” of those areas. A third story will be added on the North side of the building to more closely match the level of neighboring Sage Hall.

Use of ornamentation and materials will also help the structure fit in with other buildings on the campus. Current plans call for a timber-frame construction like that of the Snack Bar. Combined with large sheets of clear glass, the building will be contemporary in style, but still warm and inviting, Olcoltt said.

Still, early sentiments were not complimentary. One audience member noted that the building looked “really, really urban” and seemed designed in the “neo-George-Jetson” style. After wincing at the reference to the space-age cartoon, Olcoltt reminded the audience that it was “2003, not 1903” and that even though the style differed from the current Baxter, much of the character is similar.

Much of the discussion focused on the effects the large porch flanking the East side of the building would have on the overall visual appeal. On an aesthetic level, the porch serves to tie the various visual elements and scales into one cohesive structure. Functionally, the porch provides a welcoming entryway and three-season social space which could be used as outdoor seating for the Snack Bar or tabling, currently relegated to the mailroom.

E.J. Johnson, Class of 1955 Professor of Art, argued that the design of the building took away too much from the visual presence of Chapin Hall. “Chapin should be the dominant form. This building should defer to that – it doesn’t,” he said. Johnson emphasized that the scale of the porch is too large and that the dual function of the porch as a gathering place and entryway is contradictory.

Olcoltt shook off some of the criticisms that the modern character of the building was inappropriate, saying that there is a distinction between “the Williams of the mind – Hopkins Observatory, Griffin Hall, West College – and the Williams of reality.” He emphasized that the new building is going to be the Student Center and thus should not be buried in the background.

Heather Clemow, director of public relations at the Office of Public Affairs, agreed with the architects’ vision. “This is a huge building,” she said. “If you tried to put that much square footage into a traditional structure, it would end up being one big ugly block.”

The architects emphasized other considerations, including the way traffic will flow through and around the new building. Part of the long-term campus plan calls for a major East-West campus axis other than one bordering Route 2. The building is designed so that traffic can flow into the Park Street entrance, through a mailroom and campus offices and an exit near the current Sage-side doors.

Nancy Roseman, Dean of the College, who moderated Friday’s forum, reminded the audience that the final design was still several months away and that faculty and student concerns would definitely have an impact on the finished product. According to Roseman, the project is still in fairly initial stages, with numerous exterior details and interior-design issues still to be decided in the coming weeks.

Earlier forums targeted primarily at students provided the architects with considerable feedback on spatial arrangements and designs, such as opening up the basement pub to the social lounge. Adjustments reflecting these desires were incorporated into the presentation.

Further concerns were raised at this meeting, specifically by members of Cap and Bells who wanted to know if a basement multipurpose room would have dressing rooms and preparation areas. The architects said that incorporating such features was definitely a possibility, but that space was very tight and final decisions were still in the works.