Saving Sawyer

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.

  • ee

    Smash and build. No over indulgence is spared. Buy all within sight, and more as the area of vision expands through what you have purchased. Has been that way for a long time at Williams. The only safe buildings are historic, and even some of those are demolished to make way for monstrosities.

    The school once had a very natural feel and blended very well with the landscape. Plenty of open space. Places to be renovated if required. That has given way to parking garages, new theater buildings, new student halls… new everything all the time.

  • Brian Mullin

    I graduated in 1997. I haven’t been back to campus in over 10 years mostly because I won’t let my memory of open spaces be ruined by the explosion of overbearing and outsized construction I’ve observed online happening to campus. My favorite maples were destroyed to build the new science library, the Shapiro building, and Hollander. These open place were a refuge and wonderful to walk on snowy or foggy/rainy nights thinking about the amazing things I was learning about the world. Where do you get away WITHIN campus anymore now? It is interesting that the lawn from Sawyer to Route 2 was essentially a public commons. When Sawyer is wiped out, that open space will be “privatized” within the in-fill of these vast new buildings. Appropriation, anyone?

    Old buildings were much more efficient in terms of space. I don’t need soaring lines, perspectives, 20 foot ceilings or architectural inspiration at every turn. I went to an old school to enjoy classic space, not Tomorrowland..and really, how long will these buildings seem au courant? I guarantee that in 20 years, Paresky, Shapiro, Hollander, & “New Sawyer” will seem overwrought and wasteful…efficient they are not. But then aesthetically, I cannot describe the sadness of the loss of dignified class to the appearance of Route 2 from the replacement of the Adams Memorial Theater as well as the gutting of all classic early-20th century common area interiors in the frat house row. Century-old wooden and marble stairs were being gutted and replaced/covered by rubber dotted safety flooring even when I was there…where is the connection with history going forward? It feels more like these new buildings are a turning away from the past and earnestly jolting into a manic earnest vision for “responsible” construction. A building is an emotional space made by human feeling, not a pseudo-eugenic political statement…certainly not in a place that should be a neutral forum for all ideas as the campus must remain.

    In essence, Williams offered cultural and scenic continuity with the past when I went there only 20 years ago. It had discrete examples of 20th century’s archtectural ideation…but no recent style weighed profoundly as to set a tone. The salient subconscious expression I see in the new architecture choices now asserting themselves on the core of the campus since I left in 1997 is exuberant, clean, IKEA-like harmony with vacuous space…much like the people and culture now prevalent in society in general

    I look at the pictures of campus and see what feels more like an architectural display than a canvas…and I feel sad for the students having to battle the immediacy and sensually forced perkiness of the new architecture. You can’t have a conversation on a log or under an old tree, if that space or tree are removed and you are safely contained in spaces that cut you off from the real world while trying to “bring them in”.

    These new constructs defy nature’s stress and wear while cutting the cord with the past. I’ll take Griffin Hall before the clean-up in the 1990s…dirty, creaky…but I felt connected and part of a people….not above and removed from them….like people these days seem to….