Budget problems allow time for positive reevaluation

For all of the griping over the past few months about the proposed exterior of the new student center, there seemed to be general agreement that the interior programming proposed by Polshek Partnership, the College’s student center architect, was more or less headed in the right direction. The discomforting, if not unexpected discovery that the plan initially put forth and discussed within the community would lead to a building $6 to $7 million over budget has forced a rigorous reevaluation of the proposal. Essentially, this development indicates that the “dream” student center envisioned by the College is no longer on the table, and a less expensive building will have to be built. However, the demands of a limited budget do not necessarily imply that the College’s dream be similarly limited. There is no reason for Baxter to become a less ambitious project. Indeed, we believe if the College and Polshek keep in mind the strengths of the current Baxter as well as the strengths of the proposed building that were embraced by the community, then this reexamination will ultimately be a constructive exercise.

Baxter currently works best as a student center at midday when the hallways and dining areas are packed with students. At lunchtime, Baxter is already the hub of campus life in the same way that the College envisions the new student center will be on a 24-hour basis. Much of Baxter’s success at this time is simply due to the energy that comes from student activity, whether it be tabling, socializing or running errands. Another factor propelling much of Baxter’s lunch-hour motion is Grab and Go, an offering which has become highly utilized for social gathering. The flow of students in and out of Grab and Go makes it an ideal location to see people and interact in a way that models the “close-knit” community we seek to achieve. The Snack Bar becomes an important social space at night for similar reasons.

Finding a way to replicate these successful institutions on a larger scale that would thrive throughout the day should be a crucial consideration for the architects. Bob Volpi’s vision of the future Baxter dining experience (reported in our front page article) hits the nail right on the head. His vision of a fluid dining experience in Baxter that allows students to get meals sufficient for any time of the day shows an understanding of what currently works in Baxter and how to make it work even better in a new student center.

With four dining halls offering sit-down cafeteria-style meals, a marketplace-style dining space would both provide variety to students and draw students to Baxter from all corners of campus. Perhaps most crucially, a more flexible food-court style dining area could prove to be significantly less expensive than a full-service traditional dining hall. Though the choice to construct a more flexible meal-space may be a cost-saving measure, it is also the type of outside-the-box thinking that will lead to an exciting student center.

One of the most exciting aspects of Polshek’s first vision for the student center was the basement pub, the plan for which will most likely remain unchanged in the second Baxter design. The pub would be another crucial element in keeping the student center busy after daylight hours, especially if kept next to the multi-purpose room, which could be used for parties, lectures, movie screenings and other student activities. Currently, the Snack Bar is the only feature drawing students to Baxter at night, and for the new building to be a constant nexus of activity, there must be a number of night-time options bringing students to the center. For these reasons, we hope the new design will keep the various subspaces currently present in the pub and multi-purpose room, making cost eliminations in traditional dining space, as opposed to in swing social space.

While interior elements such as the pub made it clear how well Polshek understands how a great student center can work at Williams, the outcry over the building’s proposed façade showed that the architects may not have fully grasped how the community visually identifies with Williams. On the one hand, the new student center should be an architecturally brilliant building that reflects the importance of student life to a liberal arts college. On the other hand, the new student center must be a “good neighbor” to the buildings that surround it. Balancing these competing objectives is difficult, but Polshek – a world-class architecture firm – is up to the task, despite the shortcomings of their first attempt. On this note, the new plan to make the building two stories rather than three will do more than just cut the plans’ cost; it will also soften the modern building’s visual impact.

In short, it’s possible that the budget problem with the current Baxter design could act as a positive force, encouraging the architects and administration to reassess the building’s purpose and function. In spite of budget cuts, this new building has the capability to be a world-class campus center, buzzing with students coming and going at all hours. However, we find it curious that while the College is cash-strapped to build a $36 million student center of its dreams, it found at least $14 million more for a theater and dance complex not intended for daily use by the student body as a whole.