Polshek and College need to pay attention

Comments by students, faculty and staff made at the most recent meeting with Polshek Partners, the architectural firm designing the new Baxter, raised a number of questions about the exterior design of the building. In this week’s Record, art history professors Michael Lewis, EJ Johnson and Sheafe Satterthwaite engage in an extensive critique of the Williams campus: its architectural history, its future and, most importantly, Baxter and the new design. The opinions of these noted scholars, who specialize in architecture (Lewis and Johnson) and college campuses (Satterthwaite) should not be taken lightly by the Polshek architects.

By and large, students seemed excited by Polshek’s innovations for the interior of the building; the pub, improved performance space and snack bar all positively reflect student input. But while Lewis and Johnson obviously care a great deal about the interior, the obvious bone of contention is the exterior and how the building will affect the Chapin quad. The professors do not deride modernity; indeed, Johnson says modernity could truly enhance the quad. However, insofar as the exterior appearance of the building is still under discussion, the question remains as to whether Baxter will be a “gentlemanly” neighbor to Chapin and the president’s house or the focus of the quad.

We vote for the former; the designs right now leave us unconvinced – and perhaps we will never be convinced – that Baxter should be the focus of the quad. The interior appears excellent, but the architectural style, while perhaps not the “tourist” building Satterthwaite sees developing, still appears decidedly un-Williams. To wit, Polshek and others closely involved with the project have mentioned that the large amount of glass that will be used in Baxter, making it visible from the outside, will have architectural continuity with the ’62 Center for Performing Arts. Yet, across the board people have derided the monstrosity that will be built next to the Greylock Quad. Are we sure we want architectural consistency with that building? We agree that we create a distinction between the “Williams of the mind,” and the “Williams of reality,” as Polshek architect Richard Olcoltt articulated. The existence of a “reality” versus a “myth,” however, means students yearn for something better than what we currently have. We would hope that the architects could design a Baxter to fit the student perception of campus, following the “myth” of Williams rather than the reality; while we may have a few out-of-place modern buildings such as Sawyer and Mission and the soon-to-be-built Theatre and Dance complex, this doesn’t mean we must continue this unsatisfactory tradition.

By no means are these three professors necessarily correct in all aspects of their critique – indeed, we disagree with them on a number of points. However, they have a breadth of experience and background that should warrant serious consideration by Polshek and their client, the College. Dean Roseman, who is the College’s principle spokesperson on the student center project, should not ignore the opinions of these professors and, just as importantly, the many students.