Not set in stone: Unclear vision for marble project

This is the second in a series of stories exploring how the College undertakes new building projects. The stories were originally produced for the course ANTH 232, “Town and Gown,” co-taught by David Edwards and Chris Marcisz, and revised and abridged  for publication.

Last October, Erin Hanson ’19 created an online petition titled “Williams College: Sell 4-5 marble slabs to pay for a new therapist at the health center.” The petition described the deficit in mental health support services at the College, which were largely due to a lack of funding and limited professional staff. It directly protested the tremendous amount of money the College funnels into building projects, particularly the recent 143-piece marble quad landscaping reaching from Frosh Quad past Paresky Student Center to Sawyer-Stetson Quad. The petition demanded that the College sell four or five slabs and use the money to hire an additional therapist for students. In under 48 hours, the petition had over 500 digital signatures – more than a quarter of the total student body.

The white slabs of marble strewn across the Sawyer-Stetson quad have become some of the most controversial icons of campus. Skeptical professors referred to the slabs of marble as “Falk-Henge” and students dressed up as the scattered pieces of landscape architecture for Halloween. How did marble landscape architecture create such a polarized and intense response across students, faculty and the administration of the College?

The Project

After the Sawyer-Stetson project was completed in 2013, the College began to search for an architectural landscaping firm to create a landscape for the new quad space. Bruce Decoteau, senior project manager in the College’s facilities department, acted as the head project manager of the Sawyer-Stetson Quad project. He explained that the committee for the project was comprised of two students, a small group of professors, a sustainability representative from the Zilkha Center and an administrative representative from the president’s office. The first collective step of this committee was to create a framework of goals that the architecture and landscaping of Sawyer-Stetson Quad would meet. The committee found it critical to reflect the College’s commitment to environmental sustainability. In addition, the committee wanted a quad that had “flexibility for multiple uses, infrastructure for tents and events with ways to run power … complementing pedestrian access, a space to create community, a lesson in simplicity and a heart of the campus at the center of the campus,” Decoteau said.

Decoteau explained that with this list of goals in hand, the committee invited six firms to pitch their ideas for their design of the Sawyer-Stetson quad’s landscape. When Stephen Stimson Associates pitched their project idea – marble ledges, a storm garden and a tree-filled quad – “the committee fell in love,” Decoteau said, and voted unanimously on the design. Decoteau noted that he was thrilled by the proposal and that it aligned very closely with the goals laid out in the project, making the decision process “simple” for the committee.

As the project became more detail-oriented, it grew significantly in magnitude, both spatially and financially. Originally, the project only included the area from Chapin Hall Drive and east toward Stetson Library, but expanded by closing Chapin Hall Drive to through traffic and renovating Chapin Hall Plaza and Frosh Quad. Decoteau said that the “huge project just kept getting bigger and bigger” and referred to this as “scope creep.” He explained that the magnitude of scope creep was likely due to the desire of the current administration, which wanted to make the central quad much more pedestrian friendly and create a new, state-of-the-art center of campus.

In total, the Sawyer-Stetson Quad project cost the College $12.5 million. Of that $12.5 million, approximately $800,000 went directly to the design firm for their work in planning and design and about $1.4 million was spent on site improvements, furnishings and the marble associated with that part of the project. Decoteau estimated that the marble slabs portion of the project cost between $600,000 and $800,000, with each large block of marble priced at around $4500, including installation costs.

Design

Stephen Stimson Associates is an architectural design firm run by Lauren and Stephen Stimson. Lauren Stimson was the face of the firm at the College – she presented the firm’s pitch to the Sawyer-Stetson Quad committee for what she has called “the best project of [her] career.”

The project tasked her with “defining and designing a 21st-century quad,” and in the early stages of creating a pitch, the Bates geology graduate became immersed in the geology of Williamstown. She was “unimpressed by the environmental and sustainable landscape” of the College, especially given its ranking and commitment to sustainability.

Stimson explained that when she was visiting the quad site at the College, she “tripped over a piece of marble sticking out of the ground by the Bernhard Music Center.” This inspired her research of the local geology, and she began to discover the vein of pure white marble that runs along Route 7 – a regional characteristic that exists in few parts of the world and that became the foundation of her design.

Stimson noted that the marble landscape was invisible to most who did not know the natural history of Williamstown, and she wanted to bring the marble to the surface, in the process redefining what the central quad at the best liberal arts institution should look like.

When Stimson started her research on the marble, she came across Danby Quarry in Vermont, one in a small handful of white marble quarries in the world. The scrap yard is stacked full of second-tier marble, unusable for the quarry’s standard sales. Stimson saw real value in the rejected marble that could be cleaned up for the quad. By sourcing locally, Stimson was able to use the building budget to stimulate the local economy and find an economically viable recycled substance as the centerpiece for her design. After discovering the quarry, she decided that her design would feature white marble exclusively, that “it was marble all the way.” She said that there was “no push back from the committee for the marble” and that they unanimously supported the design after she presented a series of images for the committee, which “ran the gamut of things from wild forests to urban plazas.”

The two student committee members, however, were almost never present in project design meetings. One of the former students on the committee, Hannah Smith ’15, mentioned that meetings “conflicted with ski practice so [she] didn’t really go except to the first meeting.” She also commented that “it was never explained why [they] were selected.” She mentioned that the one time she and the other student tried to give their input into changing the quad space into an area with terraces, gardens and quads, they were told that their ideas “were not really in the budget” and the committee settled for a smaller scale garden landscaping.

Ultimately, the design committee, with little student input, chose a design that was “wild” towards Chapin Hall with the ledges of marble, and became more polished as the design approached the library. The committee also chose a stormwater garden, filled with native plants, that would filter out run-off from the quad and return it to the groundwater supply without polluting the Hoosic River. The design included two major walk paths – one with wheelchair access that led directly from Sawyer Library into Paresky Student Center, and a second that would bring the wanderer winding through the ledges, inviting them to explore the landscaping.

The ledges themselves were designed to reflect the mountains and ledges that surround the Purple Valley. Sassafras and oak trees lined these chiseled marble ledges. Stimson likened her design to Central Park and noted her hope that it would showcase that the College cares about the environment and its identity as a mountain school. The final architectural landscaping design reflected the local ecology and geology of the region – the Taconic Crest, the meadows of Williamstown and the Hoosic River, paired with the “cultural landscape of the village,” she said.

During the final stages of the project design, the architectural landscaping plans went through the Design Review Committee, which consisted of three members, each a well-respected academic and expert in architecture. After the plan passed through the building committee and the design review committee, construction began. In a little under three months, the quad had taken shape.

Reactions

The general campus reaction to the marble was a mixture of shock and confusion, which rapidly turned to dislike. One criticism centers on the architectural design. Many argue that the design of the pathways violate the east-west axis of campus. Others protest that the marble material does not match other College architecture. Professor of Art History E.J. Johnson joked that the marble landscaping reminded him of an famous art critic that once called a painting “the explosion in a shingle factory.” He calls the quad the  “explosion in a marble quarry.”

Michael Lewis, also a professor of art history, noted that the marble ledges and trees are “all about the photograph” for the admissions brochure pamphlet. Lewis remarked that, instead of bringing the marble vein to the surface, the architect could have drilled deeper and created her design from magma from the core of the Earth. He also lamented that the design did not have the “wild” quality one associates with Central Park, which was the exact comparison that Stimson used in her description of the design. Ironically, these two professors were both members of the Design Review Committee that approved the design, but both said that they could not tell from what they were shown how rock-heavy the design would ultimately become.

Student responses to the marble quad have been intense and polarized. The rhetoric repeated across the student body is that the marble represents a poor prioritization of College resources, “both ideologically and monetarily.” One student noted that, “the marble is white and monolithic – it stands for the appropriation of native lands.” Perhaps more pointedly, given the College’s stated goal of fighting climate change, the marble resembles “melting icebergs.” The few marble slab lovers on campus fondly refer to it as “a playground for college students” and excitedly await the growth of the newly planted trees. Despite the criticism, students are frequently found lounging on the ledges by the Bernhard Music Center, especially since the advent of spring weather.

In response to the criticism, Stimson replied that the College “chose to invest in a green space that was different and progressive.” She said that “people frequently pick on landscapes” and that “people just aren’t placing a value on landscape.” One constructive purpose accomplished by the marble, unanticipated by the designer, has been to inspire some important campus conversations regarding the improvement of student health care and addressing priorities in College spending.

The slabs and surrounding landscape have also served as the subjects of academic essays, poetry and a number of photography pieces. One student made a sound art piece where she created sounds for marble slabs that represented the Anthropocene and climate change.

Perfect storm

The Sawyer-Stetson Quad project was the perfect storm – a designer given the project of a lifetime and a building committee that may not have been sufficiently representative of the campus community as a whole, may not have fully understood the nature of its mission and/or may have been swayed by a flashy PowerPoint and the enthusiasm and conviction of the designer.

Ultimately, while the architectural success of the marble quad project remains to be seen, it is certain that the campus-wide response was far more intense than anyone could have anticipated. The marble slabs have played a key role across campus conversations and even provided the inspiration for two freshmen, who decided to dress up as marble slabs for Halloween and who included, affixed to their costumes, price tags that read “$5,000.”