Rerouting campus design

In recent years, the proliferation of automobiles and the introduction of new buildings have fragmented the Williams campus and undermined the school’s social and academic life. The administration could address these problems by developing a set of more energetic policies to improve the design of our campus.

Approaching campus from the direction of North Adams, it immediately becomes apparent that Route 2 runs through what used to be the emotional soul of Williams College. Several of our grandest architectural treasures face the road. Griffin, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings in New England, appears first on the left, followed by Thompson Chapel, then Morgan on the right. This vista reaches a crescendo with West, Williams’ original schoolhouse, which stands magnificently at the crest of a hill.

If you have not yet had the opportunity, I encourage you to visit the Student Activities Resources Center on the second floor of Paresky. Among the many interesting photographs on display, a landscape image of Route 2 around the year 1900 merits particular interest. In those days, Route 2, which follows the path of the old Mohawk Trail, was little more than a dirt path. Given that traffic rarely exceeded a trickle of horse carts and buggies, students would casually stroll down Route 2 beneath a canopy formed by majestic English Elm trees. This was the heart of the Williams campus, and the orientation of the buildings built in that era toward Route 2 emphasizes its importance to the community.

First, the Dutch Elm Disease took away our elms for good. Then, the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 made automobiles the primary mode of transportation in the United States, supplanting the railroads. In this new era, country roads like Route 2 received asphalt surfaces and began to service considerably more traffic. As a result, many thoroughfares that had once primarily served as walking paths became busy, dangerous places. Where Route 2 once served as the main artery tying our community together, it has since become a wall that divides the campus.

Johns Hopkins and Columbia faced similar problems when the proliferation of cars turned the paths running through their campuses into busy roads. They acted decisively, obtaining city ordinances to shut the roads off to traffic. While Williams probably could not obtain permission to close off the Mohawk Trail, we might be able to divert it around the center of our campus. This would certainly be expensive and time consuming – and probably beyond our resources in these recessionary times. As our endowment recovers, however, and the school finds itself more flush, I think we should make redirecting Route 2 a priority.

In the realm of architecture, Williams suffers from a bad case of celebrity worship. Through conversations and research, it has become clear to me that the College does not have a clearly defined policy for seeking out and evaluating proposals for the design of new buildings on campus. Instead, the College has generally approached the most expensive and famous architect it could afford, paid outrageous amounts of money for designs and then built by the plan to justify the sunk cost.

For example, have you ever wondered why the entrance to Sawyer Library is so peculiar? In order to get to the basement, you have to enter on the ground floor, go up to the second floor and then go down three flights of stairs to get to the basement. Shortly before he retired last spring, Professor Dalzell told me that when the College decided to build a new library in the early 1970s, it followed its standard procedure. They hired a famous architect, Harry Weese, and paid him an enormous sum of money for a design. On a lark, someone in the administration decided to show this design to the art history department. After exceedingly brief deliberations, the art history faculty agreed that the proposed design would make Sawyer Library one of the ugliest buildings in the world and that the College simply could not build it. Embarrassed, the administration responded that they had already paid for the design and had no choice. As a compromise, they accepted the department’s recommendation to push the building two stories underground so it at least would not tower hideously over the rest of campus.

Similarly, the College spent nearly $4 million to hire a famous architect to design the Paresky Center, a building that, in my opinion, is nearly as useless as it is ugly. For $4 million, the architect may have prevented the dining hall line from spilling into an important artery. The most popular space, old snack bar, follows the floor plan of the old Baxter Hall.

To avoid such design catastrophes in the future, the College should approach projects with the goal of creating buildings that will best serve the community’s needs, not with the aim of finding the most famous architect. To pursue this goal, I would recommend that the College give first consideration to design proposals from alumni architects. While the College may miss an opportunity to get featured in Architectural Digest, an alum will know why Willy C is always one of the first first-year entries to get picked in the Junior Advisor lottery or why students consider Dodd Circle so desirable that they risk living in Tyler Annex. The College should focus on obtaining designs that will serve the community, not on getting the names of celebrity architects that add only marginally to the school’s prestige and contribute absolutely nothing to the experience of living and learning at Williams.

Kevin O’Connell ’13 is a history major fromLarchmont, N.Y. He lives in Prospect.