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From Modernist to Modern

March 21, 2011

AMHERST, Mass. -- The Society for College and University Planning's North Atlantic regional meeting here sent decidedly mixed signals about just how much the economy is affecting the daily work and the mindset of the group's members, who are campus planners, architects and administrators focused on facilities and sustainability.

Dozens of architecture and construction firms were here to schmooze with the college and university attendees, and to judge by the meal-time conversations about exciting new construction projects planned or under way, one was hard-pressed to sense that economic peril is upon us or around the corner.

Take, too, the fact that the meeting took place mostly in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's spectacular new Integrated Sciences Building, and that a new laboratory building is one of several other major projects in the works on the campus.

But the group's members hardly seemed to be living in la-la land. With weekend headlines like "Penn State Halts Construction Worth Millions" providing fresh evidence that the threat of another round of large state budget cuts may make funds for facilities projects (and everything else) harder to come by for the foreseeable future, even as enrollments on many campuses continue to swell, many sessions on the agenda acknowledged the changed circumstances: "Doing More With Less -- Marrying the Budget and the Plan," "Planning and Building Through the Great Recession," "Integrated Planning Strategies to Manage Campus Facilities in Difficult Economic Times."

Even sessions that lacked an explicitly economy-related theme had austerity or at least prudence embedded within them. At one well-attended presentation, officials from Lafayette College and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth discussed their efforts to transform massive (and in many ways outdated) Modernist libraries at the heart of their campuses into modern, technologically advanced, sustainable centers for learning. And, importantly, they described how they had already done so (in Lafayette's case) or were in the process of doing so (in UMass-Dartmouth's case) at a far lower cost than would have been possible by replacing the buildings entirely.

Lafayette and UMass-Dartmouth are far from alone in facing this situation, said Robert J. Miklos, president of designLAB Architects, the designer of both projects. Hundreds of colleges (in Canada as well as the United States) were built or underwent rapid expansion during the 1960s, in the heyday of the Modernist (and Brutalist) architecture movements that took advantage of new innovations in pouring concrete and favored a blocky, rough exterior (hence the "brutal" in Brutalism).

And given the importance of the physical library to the core business of students and faculty members in that era, those massive structures have been the "centerpiece, focal point of many American college campuses" for the intervening 50 years, said Miklos.

Yet on many of those campuses, the Modernist structures had long since become viewed as liabilities -- visually (with many modern-era students considering them eyesores), and operationally, with the facilities often lacking the common spaces colleges often desire for collaborative learning and dedicating too much space to book stacks that are no longer necessary.

Lafayette's Library Liability

"Skillman Library served us well for the first 30 years of its life," Neil J. McElroy, dean of libraries & information technology services at Lafayette, said of its 1960s-era centerpiece. But by the mid-1990s, it was "no longer suitable," due to the librarian's changing role "from steward of collections to educator" and the advent of the World Wide Web and digitization, he said.

Photo: Ann Beha Architects

The original Skillman Library

Like many campuses that hope to extend the life of outdated facilities, Lafayette started small, removing the card catalogs and instituting a computer lab, but soon concluded that it needed it more substantial solution, said McElroy, who is also special assistant to the president at Lafayette. "The '60s-era building just didn’t give us an opportunity to do what we wanted to do" in terms of social learning, he said, given its lack of an "active center." Plus, he said, "it was not a beautiful building," unfortunate given its centrality on the Pennsylvania campus. Skillman was "the least-utilized building" at Lafayette, Miklos said.

College and university officials facing dilemmas like those with outdated Modernist libraries often wrestle with the question of whether to build from scratch or renovate, and in flush times, many campuses may choose to start over entirely. "But in the last five years, people are really taking on buildings of this era where they were ready to discard them," said Miklos, whom Lafayette hired (while he was at a previous firm, Ann Beha Architects) to remake Skillman. "It's still vastly more efficient to renovate than to replace." (The project cost about $165 a square foot, significantly less than a rebuild would have cost, Miklos said.)

While the renovated Skillman is bigger than the original, at 75,000 square feet compared to 58,000, the most significant changes involved better utilizing the existing space and radically altering the exterior. The original library had a staircase at its center, so that "people entered and immediately had to be dispersed, which seemed to be the function of the building" -- to send people off to the facility's various collections of works, Miklos said.

Photo: Ann Beha Architects

Skillman Library, post-renovation

By removing the staircase and relocating the main entryway to the building, "we could create a larger center that then became what we call today a learning commons," said McElroy -- "to gather people, so they can work and learn together," added Miklos. Since the renovation, which was completed in 2005, Miklos noted, Skillman "has eclipsed the student center across the lawn as the most-used building on the campus."

Concrete Jungle

The situation at UMass-Dartmouth is similar to Lafayette's -- only more so. The public college campus was built in the early 1960s, and its primary architect was one of the grandfathers of the Brutalist movement, Paul Rudolph, who headed Yale University's architecture school from 1958 to 1965.

The campus's concrete-dominated architecture is a love-it-or-hate-it feature of the institution, and while some students would prefer to see it go, Salvatore G. Filardi, UMass-Dartmouth's associate vice chancellor for administrative services, said he believed the university needed to embrace rather than radically change its unique architectural legacy.

Practical considerations also could not be ignored, said Miklos; demolishing and clearing a concrete monster like the university's Claire T. Carney Library would cost in the neighborhood of $10 million, on top of the price tag for building a replacement. The total projected cost of renovating the library is $31.1 million, at about $207 per square foot.

The library at UMass-Dartmouth

When the construction that begins this spring is completed late next year, much of the concrete exterior will have been stripped away, and several external areas that are now dark and damp breeding grounds for mold will be captured and turned into new, bright spaces for students and scholars to gather, read and eat (since every new library today must have a decent cafeteria, said Catherine Fortier-Barnes, UMass-Dartmouth's assistant dean of library services. "Food is a key component to keep people in the library," she said. "If they have to go across campus to get a meal, they’re not going to come back."

In an era when colleges and universities must continue to improve their facilities to adapt to expanding enrollments, advancing technology and changing missions -- but must do so with constrained resources -- more and more may try to "convert Modernist liabilities into something that's a contributing asset," Miklos said.

"Creative reuse of these buildings," he said, "can represent a really good value."

 

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