Stetson / Sawyer; bold, innovative planning.

With construction of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance center well underway, the new student center deep into the planning phase and the project for a new Stetson and Sawyer in the midst of development, this campus is heading into a building frenzy. In fifteen years, many of these facilities will be not only updated, but also entirely replaced, creating a cutting-edge core of campus that many alumni might find unrecognizable.

Yet while all these projects look to update campus architecture as well as invigorate student and faculty life, the Stetson/Sawyer project seems to have an even greater goal. According to the latest plans, the project will attempt to unify a brand new set of buildings, creating a new fleet of academic facilities and physically reorganizing a major section of campus.

Though no official choices have been made about the new library and faculty office complex, Philadelphia architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson has offered the Stetson/Sawyer committee several ideas about how they might achieve its objective. Currently the firm has presented two options, the first of which calls for a major renovation of Sawyer, filling in the light-wells, reorienting the entrance and possibly adding an extra floor. Plan A also includes a new addition onto Stetson and the construction of a second faculty office building.

Plan B, however, is more radical, and suggests that the College tear down the current Sawyer and start almost entirely afresh. A new library would be built onto the back of the original Stetson, with the basement of Sawyer remaining as an underground book vault, covered over by a grass quadrangle. Faculty office buildings would be built to the north and south of where the current Sawyer stands, creating a new quad between the faculty office buildings, the new student center and the new Stetson library.

Stetson Hall would be returned to its original use as a library and a large amount of campus green space would be recovered. Additionally, the new building cluster would provide an interesting new spatial procession, as faculty office and classroom buildings would link the two most important campus centers: the new student center and the library. The faculty offices’ interior programming would follow a similar pattern, grouping student study space with classrooms and faculty offices, thus giving student-faculty interaction the potential to be a bit more casual and frequent.

With architects often offering big, bulky solutions to the College’s need for space, this option, which would create a cluster of buildings rather than a monolith like the unified science center or the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, seems both creative and appropriate.

The new green space would certainly benefit the area, as the campus currently does not have any quadrangles at such a large scale. And as long as the new faculty buildings are respectful of the surrounding landscape and existing architecture, they could make a nice addition to the campus’ other smaller central buildings, such as Hopkins Hall, Griffin Hall and the nearby First Congregational Church. The creation of a few small scale buildings would even set a new precedent for the College’s planning paradigm, and would diverge from the current tendency to create massive complexes by joining together more than one building, or adding space onto current structures.

Surprisingly, cost analysis also showed that, though more extreme, Plan B would still cost significantly less than Plan A, largely because of the enormous modifications required to the interior of Sawyer library. Plan B would also prove less expensive and more convenient in terms of displacement during construction, as students could continue using the original library until the new structure is built.

Thus as a result of both cost and design concerns, the Stetson/Sawyer committee is currently leaning towards Plan B, though little has been finalized. We heartily support this endorsement, and hope that budget issues do not impinge upon this impressive vision of a significantly strengthened campus center. This project could not only prove innovative in the greater spectrum of campus planning but also could offer a far better building than the current Sawyer.

It is admirable that the architects and the committee are willing to start afresh, rather than waste resources on an inadequate effort to mend the problems with today’s building. Though filling lightwells and adding an extra store would provide more space for books and special collections, such actions still would not solve many common student complaints about today’s library, most notably that it is difficult to navigate and that its sparse modern façade is an eyesore.

Likewise, the plan to change Stetson into a library, rather than an office building, seems wise. By giving the historic 1928 façade of the building an entirely new function and removing the ill-planned extensions on the building’s rear, the College will nullify decades of poor architectural decisions, as the additions have simply made the building more confusing and less desirable to spend time in.

So although the concept of overhauling an entire segment of campus may seem daunting, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s plan has potential to execute these significant changes successfully. If all goes well, this new quadrangle and small scale buildings could give students more state-of-the-art space, while developing a modern interpretation of the New England small college campus plan.