Art or Art-rocity? The New Baxter

With the addition of the Theatre and Dance Complex, the expansion of Baxter and the renovations of Stetson and Sawyer, Williams will look very different to the eyes of current students at their 15-year reunions. Architecture, however, can serve as more than a physical presence – a well-designed campus building must reflect the patterns of campus social structures in order to be effective. And in a small community like Williamstown, major architectural changes have the potential to profoundly impact the town dynamic. Will the current plans be constructive additions to the College and the town? How will we weigh the choices we are making today in the future?

In order to examine the issues behind the new designs and their implications, the Record spoke with Williams College art history professors Michael Lewis, EJ Johnson and Sheafe Satterthwaite.

Before we talk about the building boom that’s going to happen in the next five or 10 years, I was wondering how you define the campus architecturally right now. What would you say characterizes the campus and what should these new architects look for specifically in their work here?

EJ Johnson: Well, this is a really heterogeneous campus, in that it has buildings from all the periods in which the College has existed, and a lot of open space between those buildings. The buildings, as disparate as they are, are all basically sympathetic to the others, because they all have a certain sense of scale. They use different materials, different styles, but I think most of the architects who have worked here have been sensitive in one way or another to the kind of character of the campus and have not plodded down great blockbusters.

Michael Lewis: The scale of the College was set by West, and if you think about it, West is an oversized house. And that scale persisted into the deep end of the 20th century: fraternity row, even Hopkins or Goodrich are essentially oversized houses, they’re not megablocks.

Sheafe Satterthwaite: [Also] the campus is. . . in the center of a town, or village, and as it has expanded, most of the original residential core of the village has been expunged.

ML: I’d also make one important point about what [EJ] said about the heterogeneous character of the campus. There is one great continuity besides scale, and that is two prolonged Georgian episodes. . . I think Williams would be a lot more fragmented and uncentered if [Ralph Adams Cram] hadn’t come and given us this great pageant of Georgian buildings – Chapin, Stetson – and in a sense, the building we’re in now, Baxter, is the last.

EJJ: [And when] Ben Thompson dragged Williams into the 20th century with Greylock quad and with Bronfman, he referred to that brick palette. And so those buildings, they take the. . . [same] modest scale and sense of color, although they were very modern. And I think they were a very successful essay in bringing Williams up to date architecturally.

In relation to that, how would you say modern or contemporary architecture has a place here at Williams?

EJJ: The College has always built in contemporary styles. The buildings – they have not necessarily been good examples of the most modern styles – but they have always been the most modern style. Morgan Hall was pronounced by one of the leading architectural critics of the day as a promising new direction for American architecture. So that building was absolutely up to date. I don’t think there’s any question that Williams has a tradition of building in the most contemporary style and I think we should continue that.

ML: But the truth is that Ralph Adams Cram was a great gothic architect who could easily have rimmed this whole quad in buttresses, but he decided against that since the essential campus here was not gothic. To me that’s the stroke of Cram’s genius, seeing that the essence of campus was not gothic, because that was a legitimate direction at the time.

In comparison to all this, how do you see the campus looking in 10 years as opposed to right now, with the addition of the Theatre and Dance complex and the new Baxter and the changes over at Stetson and Sawyer?

SS: They’re obviously going to be buildings of a completely new scale, the theater in particular.

EJJ: The new theater is going to make a huge impact on Main Street.

ML: Well, it already has with the building of the new parking garage. That’s the other thing – there’s going to be less green, fewer trees, more buildings and a denser campus.

EJJ: And [then there’s] the sort of leap in scale – as my wife sweetly put it, the best thing about the new science building is that you can’t see it – it’s hidden behind the old buildings, so even though it’s huge it doesn’t make much of an impact on the town. The huge athletic complex is also unseeable, because it’s hidden behind stores and broken up into various components, but the theater is going to be. . .

ML: . . .a beached aircraft carrier.

EJJ: I think of Moby Dick.

SS: What’s interesting, actually, about even just the new parking lot is that we’ve moved into a period of College architecture when the prime users aren’t the students or the College community itself. The theater, quite patently, is mainly for, I don’t know, a New York audience. And the new parking lot, at the moment, is largely empty. It may be that the new Baxter, in its architectural style, is more designed for tourists, for prospective students, rather than the community that’s already here.

How would you critique the new student center specifically, beyond the issue of scale?

SS: Well, what for some of us has come out of this is that Baxter, which was a rather maligned object, now seems to look pretty good by comparison! And one of the ironies of this is that Polshek. . . was a person who was unusually sympathetic to historic fabric and encouraging of the thought of preservation. And this very room, the Snack Bar, is really a remarkable evocation of a kind of 1950s collegiate.

EJJ: The College has a very shabby attitude towards historic interiors – they get trashed right and left. And all colleges do that.

ML: Colleges like to create and maintain the exteriors for returning alums who generally don’t go in the buildings. As long as the fiction of the exterior is maintained, the insides can go.

EJJ: But some interiors are wonderful and are worth saving. And this one I think has proved it. I arrived here as a freshman, I think the year after the building opened. The furniture is the same; it’s held up very well. . . Everyone loves this room. Well, as freshmen we hated the rest of the building. . . but they would be hard-pressed to design a building to work as well.

Well, in terms of these suggestions about the Snack Bar and other things, do you think that there’s a possibly that the architects might act on them? After seeing the plans now would you say it’s possible to change them?

SS: The concrete has not been poured yet!

EJJ: We were told that there were all sorts of decisions to be made about detailing and materials. I think we hear from the administration that it’s not a done deal yet. And there have been some useful conversations since the last presentation.

ML: I think that at the [Feb. 21] meeting they were given a strongly worded collective message that their designs were not good enough. If this building is being demolished, its replacement has to be at least as good as it is or presumably better. And this was not.

What were your major criticisms at the meeting?

ML: Lack of integration to the campus. Right now, Baxter is a link of a wonderful relaxed brick row that begins at West, takes you through Baxter, Sage, Chapin: a lovely continuity. It’s not a gem, it’s a background building. And in some respects, it’s average. But you can be average and still be a gentleman. . . [the new building] is an artistic egomaniac wandering its way in here. When Ralph Adams Cram designed Chapin, he. . . looked carefully, almost by the inch, at what his neighbors were. That was missing in the building we saw.

EJJ: I took a photograph of the model and walked by Morgan to look back here with the photograph of the design in my hand, which allowed me to see exactly what the design is going look like. It blocked the president’s house, overwhelmed it, it was a very bad neighbor.

ML: I would prefer a mediocre neighbor. . .

EJJ: It is possible to do beautiful background buildings, elegant background buildings, which are attractive in and of themselves but don’t destroy – or disenhance – what is already around them. You could build a modern building which really enhances what is already there.

SS: One of the problems, no doubt, is that the present Baxter has served about 50 years, and I don’t know about the time horizon for the new building, but it’s somewhat curious to me that the most touted space of the new Baxter is a great hall, which to me is somewhat suggestive of a McMansion out in the suburbs. . . is that the image the College wants to have in 2050? I think there’s a kind of sumptuousness or lavishness about it.

ML: The architects, when asked about this, insisted repeatedly that this is what a student center is today. This is a state of the art student center, with all these features: the porch, the great hall, the flexible seating areas. This troubled me more than anything else they said, because they are giving us a generic type, not a specific type. I can see that most student centers look like this, but I’d like to think that Williams is different than most places. And that the student center here would look more like a Williams building first than it would like a modern student center generically.

EJJ: Here, here. It seems to me that that design had nothing to do with whatever you might call College architecture. It seems to me completely insensitive to all the diversity that’s gone on here in the past. . .And there are these cheesy details: the bow in the façade repeated on the walls inside. . . kind of a meaningless quotation.

ML: I see a lot of the character here as neo-1950s – the slender lightness, the way it hovers over the ground. I find that to be delicious irony: They’re tearing down a real ’50s building for a faux ’50s building.

SS: One thing we’re not much discussing is that the building will be quite a bastion of illumination that the campus hasn’t very much had, and I think might be very uncomfortable for the President’s House.

EJJ: Well, do we know how the theater is going to be illuminated? Will it be equally bright in the night? There is going to be a lot of glass in the new theater.

Do you have any comments or complaints about the new theater, or since it’s a done deal has it not been worth articulating these?

ML: It’s a disgrace that the portico from the Adams Memorial Theater is being taken off the theater; it’s not necessary. EJ mentioned the heterogenous nature of this place. But there are a few patterns, and it’s the patterns that reassure you. And the pattern on Main Street is five lovely porticoes – Chapin, the Congregational Church, the Faculty club, the president’s house; and, to take one of them out, the first one you see, to me is a mutilation of the streetscape of this town, and all the more important because it is not necessary.

EJJ: It’s just a so-called artistic whim of the architect. . .. it’s not impossible to leave the old building and do a wonderful new building right next to it.

Well, back to some of the problems you’ve been mentioning: earlier you mentioned talking about the College as a client. What do you think of the process of how the College chooses its architects, and how the designs happen?

SS: One of the things EJ and I were talking about earlier is that it’s sort of remarkable how some firms the College has hired seem to do better work away from Williams than they do here. And one wonders quite why it is. I don’t really have an answer to that, but I wonder if the College is a poor client.

EJJ: I think Jack Sawyer was the only president who really threw himself into campus architecture.

ML: I think the job of a college president is different now. That sort of hands-on involvement in the architectural process is something that the modern president doesn’t have enough time for. They’re fundraising. We’re paying the price of that in that our buildings are left to what you really should call special interest groups. That’s fine, but what is missing is a strong collective voice of the College.

EJJ: Most buildings are built by committee. . . and it in part depends on who is the head of the committee and how knowledgeable that person is about architecture and how committed that person is. One of the best buildings we’ve gotten in recent years is the squash center, which is I really think an exemplary building in the way it fits into where it has to go. And that’s partly because [assistant professor of art history and men’s squash coach (on leave)] Dave Johnson, who was basically the patron there, knew what he wanted and got along very well with the architect. Between the two of them, they put together a very good building. . . Or there’s the studio building; Ed Epping had this very carefully worked out program and he really oversaw that very carefully and I think a building of some quality emerged from that. Great buildings require great clients.

Can the College be a great client?

EJJ: Well, it depends on how it sets up the business of seeing buildings through to completion, and I think the present system is hit or miss.

SS: One of the awkward aspects of the present is that the College has committed a fairly serious error in bowing so much to the large donor of the theater. . . that rather taints the subsequent building.

Do you think that some of these issues from the theater and Baxter might be avoided in the building project at Stetson and Sawyer now that the College has selected an architect and it’s early?

ML: I like to think that the Stetson-Sawyer committee is a good one, maybe because I’m on it. . . I’m very happy with the selection of Peter Bohlin because he is a different kind of architect than Bill Rawn or Polshek in that he treats with great respect the contextual obligations of the building. And he’s an architect who takes his cue from the client. . . So I think the client-architect process will be much healthier, reciprocal and even playful.

EJJ: The Stetson-Sawyer project probably isn’t going to make the same impact on the townscape and the campus visually as Baxter. Baxter is the core of campus, the visual center of campus. . . [and] if some god-awful building gets put here it is going to have a major impact on campus. And the new theater, which is really going to dwarf the west end of Main Street, is really going to make an unhappy impact there.

SS: EJ is right, what happens here is pretty significant. And presumably what happens here one would have to live with for some decades.

ML: This is a critical building in the history of the College. It represents a turn away from the fragmented living of the fraternity system for a collective identity in this building. And this building is a social lynchpin if the library is an academic lynchpin.

EJJ: You’re absolutely right about its historic importance. . . This building represents the first of a series of decisions the College made. It would not have been possible to admit women to Williams without having first gotten rid of fraternities. So the whole transformation which took place here in the second half of the 20th century really depended on that first move that Baxter made.

So [Baxter] is important historically as a structure, but would you also say that this is an important time for the College architecturally? Is this our biggest building boom?

EJJ: Well, Sawyer probably built more buildings, but they were not as big, nor so public. And they were certainly more reticent. He also may have had a better eye for architects.

SS: The one thing that has not been much discussed about Baxter is that it is a pull away from Spring Street. . . Spring Street is moving into more of a touristy commercial street. And maybe it isn’t particularly healthy to cocoon as you would at a preparatory school. . . [It seems that] the College is removing the community, of students at least, from the town.

So you’d say that these constructions will impact the people of the town as much as the students?

SS: Well, for booze, now students are obviously going to Spring Street unless they’re drinking in the dorm. And this building will. . . in some ways [keep] students off the street. . . I’m not certain that we’re trying to educate people about to go off into the communities of the world by keeping them from this community.

ML: Another thought: When you build for a commercial building, you build for the present. When you’re an institution that’s been around for two centuries you have to think in terms of centuries. Both these architects now convinced me that they are building buildings that are absolutely of the moment.

But when you are absolutely of the moment, you will look terribly out of date once 10 minutes have gone by. That’s the reason why Greylock and Bronfman still look good, but Mission and Sawyer do not look good.

EJJ: They’re quite simple, those buildings, they’re quite plain, which is something which characterizes much of Williams College architecture. . . This is a provincial backwater town and it’s not a place for fancy architecture.

I think one of the things the design of this building needs is a radical simplification.

There’s so much going on in that design that they don’t have under control. It’s just too busy.

ML: It’s an urban character – nervous, wirey.

EJJ: It doesn’t have that New England plainness, which is one of the great strengths of this campus.

Well, just to wrap things up, what hopes do you have for how the school will look in 10 years? How will the landscape work with these new buildings?

EJJ: Ivy is the admission of architectural failure. There may be a lot of ivy.

ML: I take heart from the subdued revolt two weeks ago when Polshek unveiled the design among the students. I think if there’s any hope here it will be from student activism.

SS: One of the tragedies obviously is that the College has an unusual and very large art faculty, and there’s a rather peculiar irony that the works of art or architecture aren’t often up to the standards of the faculty.

Find me another town in the United States of this size with the number of people curating and studying art, particularly between those at the Clark and the College. . . This is what we think about, live with, study.

EJJ: We also use the buildings. We have plenty of examples of what not to do, but it would be wonderful to have more examples of what to do.