The College has been in talks prior to the financial crisis in the late 2000s to build a new, College-owned bookstore on Spring Street. Talks that have proven fruitful, resulting in the publishing of a Final Bookstore Committee Report on Apr. 8, 2015, confirmation of a location on the Wilmott Lot directly across from the Log and hiring of Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) as its architect.
Talks that have proceeded smoothly – without any proposed images or architectural renditions having been released to the public or student body, however. And with ground set to break this spring, this is surprising.
The most recent rendition of the plans, dating from February, show the proposed bookstore as bringing a Paresky Center architectural vocabulary to Spring Street. The use of wood, brick and glass was decided upon by C7A to have the new bookstore fit in with the material quality of Spring Street; it is indeed in line with the use of brick on the Chandler and Danforth Buildings (where Pappa Charlie’s Deli and Spring Street Market & Café are, respectively). However, the large glass windows and protruding forms do seem non-vernacular for Spring Street, which raises the question: Given that the new Williams Inn is to also be built by C7A, what do we want Spring Street to look like in the future?
Currently, there is a special, small-town character to Spring Street. It is something the College has maintained even when it has done bigger buildings on the street. The architectural vocabulary has remained traditional – architecture firm Burr and McCallum’s B&L Building (which houses Tunnel City Coffee) works with brick and punched windows that are modern, yet modest. It is not about size; rather, it is about the scale and use of materials, the placement of Sawyer Quad architectural assumptions and ambitions on Spring Street.
The decisions regarding the architecture of the bookstore have not proceeded without lengthy discussion and insight, however. Professor of Art E.J. Johnson sits on the Design Review Committee and has provided input since C7A came back to the Committee with its first design.
“[The new bookstore] is not going to be ugly. It’s a contemporary building, and it has every right not to be like everything else on Spring Street,” Johnson said. “I think this is a reasonable attempt to make a building that is both different and sensitive to [its location].”
It is understandable that student and community input would slow things down, as the College has been planning the new bookstore for several years and desires to have it finished and open by Aug. 2017. This raises two questions, however: Why was the building process not made more open to the public at large earlier? It would have been a good idea for C7A to explain their thinking as they began the design process. Why is this the first image of the new bookstore we are seeing – provided upon request, no less?
“Every project is an iteration, we sometimes go through 10 to 15 iterations before we hit on the one that seems to work,” said Rita Coppola-Wallace, Executive Director for Design and Construction and member of the Design Review Committee. “Each iteration of the design was given to the Bookstore Committee for their review and comment.”
This is not to say C7A’s proposed bookstore is bad; rather, it is to question if it is the right building for Spring Street. What is unexpected is how the design process has almost completely happened without any broad student or community notice, given that the Bookstore Committee currently consists of professors Karen Shepard ’87, Kerry Christensen and Alan White; staff members Lee Park, Matthew Sheehy and Chris Winters; and Jochebed Bogunjoko ’16 and Caitlin Buckley ’17. The Design Review Committee, on the other hand, consists of Coppola-Wallace, art history professors Johnson, Michael Lewis and Marc Gotlieb and Provost Will Dudley ’89, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives Amy Johns and Facilities Senior Project Manager Michael Briggs.
The design of the bookstore, of course, is an issue wholly separate from its proposed function. “Personally I think it’s [just] a building – I’m more focused on the function in making sure it meets needs for our students and community than I am on other aspects,” said Sheehy, who is the Associate Vice President for Finance and a Bookstore Committee Member.
I want to be clear that I fully support the idea of a new College bookstore and predict all the services that it is offering will only be beneficial, and well-received by students. It is indeed strange that there currently is no central student bookstore on campus, that Goff’s sells apparel but not books and Water Street Books textbooks but not apparel. Besides convenience, the bookstore will further become a hub for students on campus, opening up to Spring and Walden Streets directly and energizing the Street with an outdoor patio.
“We’ve always intended to do a space for lectures, because we’re having a difficult time bringing authors to campus – Water Street’s a little out of the way,” Buckley said. “There’s also going to be a meeting space and study areas for students upstairs.”
Concept-wise, the bookstore will indeed be a boon.
“[The new bookstore] gives a fresh way of continuing to evolve and vitalize the business district, and I think that’s what architecture should do,” Coppola-Wallace said. “It borrows from its neighbors and yet it speaks about the program inside it, [while looking] a little forward.”
The concern, then, is with what the building looks like, and how it will define – and ultimately change – Spring Street.
It is true that there have been community forums hosted by the Bookstore Committee in the past, wherein student attendance was low – two faculty members and one student on Dec. 2, 2014 and more faculty, but no students on Dec. 4.
But these forums were based on the planned function of the bookstore itself, rather than its fit in its proposed location. Furthermore, without an architectural rendering or proposal image presented, the bookstore existed only as an idea – students would not have noticed or gone.
At the end of Jan. 2016, the Committee reached out for student input on what to name the new bookstore – but again with no architectural rendering. In retrospect, it seems an aside from what is a crucial point: given that the new bookstore will be a place designed to be used by students, there should be student input on the design and how it affects the off-campus location students frequent most.
In regards to architecture “fitting in” to a certain place, Johnson said the following: “To what degree does one have to be responsible to the character of what’s already there, and who is going to define that, and according to what standards?”
The public should, according to some sort of consensus at least.