Sawyer is not “the worst place” on the Williams campus, as a Record staff writer stated in the article “Students and alumni reflect on, reminisce about Sawyer Library” on March 19. Perhaps the ’70s structure is the least suitable for a library, compared to the others that serve the campus: Stetson with the new Sawyer, Lawrence in the past and from 2000, Schow Library in the science complex. Old Sawyer is being replaced by a combination of a refurbished Stetson, as a rare book sanctuary, supported by a contemporary multi-media center to last more than 40 graduations.
The aging Modernist building is a box that few love and many hate. Whatever its faults, however, it doesn’t deserve to be hated. Flexible, enduring and enveloped in pre-stressed concrete, Sawyer was designed to support heavy loads, resist earthquakes and withstand hurricanes. It was built to last; its replacement value is in the order of $30 million, yet it is condemned to be demolished. This will be neither easy nor simple to accomplish. There will be resistance from the concrete, which unlike steel, is not recyclable; when pulverized it increases greatly in volume. Imagine a convoy of trucks hauling away the fallen giant. Sustainability? Additionally, the heavy machinery and even heavier physical forces will spread to adjacent completed structures with unpredictable effects.
Ecologically appropriate methods to dispose of the debris exist. They are costly: precision saws for cutting and storing in the basement, a conversion into an underground cistern. The cost of as yet unknown collateral damage remains a matter of conjecture.
In the beginning of the millennium, architect Peter Bohlin and his colleagues attempted to save Old Sawyer as a library by cutting, pasting and redesigning new life into the resistant shape. They failed repeatedly. So they added east of Stetson, adhering to the planning principles set forth by Venturi, Scott and Brown a few years before. The new proposal validated the removal of the fault-plagued building. The appeal of an open plaza cinched the argument in favor of demolition.
A park to replace the Caliban-like Sawyer has been labeled the best feature of the New Sawyer: an open space from where to admire the grandiose New Wonder. The sedate Stetson, though, doesn’t need 1000 feet of perspective to be appreciated. This may be accomplished from the present Sawyer’s east courtyard, or the west, through the entry lobby. As for the south, east and north facades of the new glass structure, they can freely be admired from the south, east and north. There is ample room there. Furthermore, an iconic library is most interesting from its interior, especially when looking simultaneously inside and out. As the clearly defined functions of the new media center become apparent in the next academic year, The Williams Record staff writer may visit as an alumnus and find his bathroom on the first floor, a task that he failed to accomplish in the old Sawyer.
Sawyer building’s use as a library is over. But it could have another life housing alternative functions. Modest design changes could reshape circulation at the ground level through the existing south colonnade and an open vestibule in the sunken lobby level could provide access to Stetson from the west. Entry to the first level may be accomplished by means of two ramps through the east and west courtyards. The east ramp, from Stetson, would be gently ascending, the west, from the Student Union plaza, absolutely level. The 20-foot high basement and mezzanine floors could be open art studios or storage for books. Floors one, two and three could be refurbished as live-in studios, with 12-foot ceilings, (where did the staff writer see the oppressive low ceilings?) or as suites of dormitories. The proposed park could migrate to the roof, accessible by elevator based at the sunken lobby level, featuring glass plant conservatories and protective pergolas from which to admire spectacular vistas of Stetson and the new Sawyer.
Mixed-use repurposing of old shells are common in our 21st sustainability conscious century. Williams has exhibited brilliant examples of such hybrid restorative architecture. Reconstruction demands dynamism. Demolition only demands dynamite. If purple is really the new green, a demolition decision needs careful reexamination.
John Yani Counelis ’68 lives in Williamstown, Mass.