Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive


BEP construction to begin over the summer

in Around Campus/News by

When students return to campus in the fall things in the Northeast part of campus will look quite different. Construction on the Biology Engineering and Psychology Building will begin this summer with the demolition of Papazian Hall, which will start a game of musical chairs where departments will hoping buildings as construction is completed.

In preparation for the demolition of Papazian Hall this summer, the Psychology Department and some of the Engineering Department’s shops will move in May to the newly completed Whittier Hall, behind the Lang Center on Whittier Place,” said Jan Semler, Director of Capital Planning and Project Management.

Semler stressed that the BEP shows the college’s commitment to interdisciplinary programs and the college’s unique integration of engineering into the liberal arts curriculum.

“The three departments have outgrown their space in Martin Biological Laboratory, Hicks Hall, and Papazian Hall, respectively. Despite periodic capital investments in the existing buildings, all three departments need new space to meet their curricular needs and the research interests of the faculty,” said Semler.

The building will replace Hicks and Papazian Halls and will be finished in 2020, with part of the building, hosting the entirety of the engineering department and parts of the psychology and biology departments, opening in 2019.

“Hicks and papazian have a lot of historical significance so their destruction does sadden me. However, I’m more upset that the BEP building won’t be completed  until we are long gone. The addition of a large common space near the center of campus will help to alleviate the current overload on sci and kohlberg,” said Max Barry ’19 who is double majoring in engineering and art, “The construction will also allow for the, much needed, expansion of the CS department. There is definitely a need for a community makerspace open to all students and the addition of a new engineering building will foster that need.”

In addition to the new lab and classroom spaces the building will also add the John W. Nason Garden and terrace.

“[The terrace] will [provide] shaded seating for informal gatherings, outdoor study and relaxation. A grill area at the edge of the garden is expected to become a popular gathering spot for faculty, staff and students in BEP, Beardsley, Pearson, and Trotter Halls,” said Semler.

The destruction of Pappazian this summer and Hicks following may put classroom pressure on other near by buildings such as Beardsley which hosts the Art and Art History departments.

Despite the increased pressure the building may see on classroom space Barry believes that having more people in the building may benefit the departments.

“I think the exposure to student art that is frequently displayed in Beardsley will be a positive effect of any classes that are moved into the building while BEP is constructed,” said Barry.

After the BEP is completed the Art department will move to Whittier Hall and philosophy will move into Beardsley.

BEP plans too late to save

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Detailed plans for the school’s new biology, psychology, and engineering building have been drawn up. Unrealistic layered renderings have been commissioned. And now, according to college administrators, it is simply too late to stop or considerably alter any of it. That’s despite the fact that the plans haven’t even been made public (on the web or in open meetings), involve demolishing two historic buildings, and will force the philosophy department to go through a difficult relocation process. Oh, and the project is still rumored to be millions of dollars over budget. Is this the precious Quaker decision-making process administrators like to get so high-minded about?

At this point, I’m told, it’s a bit unseemly to speak dismissively about the project. A veritable Frankenstein committee of mostly professors and the school’s architects, Philadelphia-based Ballinger, have both worked very hard, and I suppose criticism might bruise some egos. But when a Swarthmore student writes an academic paper, and works very hard but ends up producing something subpar, do these professors give him or her an A just for the effort? And in this case, the architects are adults who have already been compensated, no doubt handsomely, for their work. So let’s not mince words here. The current design for the new building is an incompetent mess that will cost us all dearly in budget overruns and lost historic resources, not to mention insultingly poor architecture.

Ballinger is an architecture firm that specializes, regrettably, in designing buildings for large institutions that are so generic they are virtually guaranteed to be immediately forgotten and thus not offend anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities. Considered in the context of their recent work for the Wistar Institute and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, their design for Swarthmore is par for the course. At least our building won’t be clad in yellow terra-cotta paneling. Instead they’ve gone with an imported grayish brick, a phenomenally expensive idea lifted directly from two recent dorms at Haverford.

The brick is supposed to be contextual, but no amount of fussy surface material will make up for the building’s ungainly mass: it will occupy pretty much the entire site of both Hicks and Papazian and, at four stories, dwarf Trotter and Pearson. Hicks’ scale works well with its surroundings, but the Ballinger architects can’t figure out a good way to preserve it, and Swarthmore’s administrators don’t seem to realize how much more architecturally sophisticated it is than the planned replacement. Preserving Hicks while creating modern lab space may be a challenge, but Hicks is after all an academic building with decently sized floor plates: how could it be impossible to reuse it for the very same purpose? (To the school’s credit, it says it will at least preserve the currently covered murals on Hicks’ third floor.)

It might be all right to demolish Hicks if the replacement were decently designed, which similarly should not be so terribly difficult to accomplish. In recent years the University of Pennsylvania has completed several excellent new science facilities, most notably the Singh Center for Nanotechnology by Weiss/Manfredi Architects. Temple University’s new library, by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, promises to be one of the best new buildings in Philadelphia. Both designs are dramatic and symbolically expressive of the buildings’ functions and their users’ aspirations.

Ballinger’s, on the other hand, is a sorry mix of contemporary cliches. There are large expanses of glass adorned with horizontal metal louvers, random patterning of windows, and an excessive mix of cladding materials including granite, metal panels, perforated metal screen walls, and some kind of opaque whitish glass (in addition to the imported brick). Walls jut in and out at random angles for no apparent reason other than that that’s something the architects have noticed happens in some other contemporary buildings. The fussy complexity of all this suggests a serious inability on the part of the architects to contend with the building’s size and to craft a distinctive identity for it.

What does the design mean? It’s contemporary, but what else? I suppose its lavish materials suggest, appropriately but unintentionally, money being wasted—after all, the building’s immediate neighbors are much more modestly clad in concrete block (Beardsley), painted brick (Pearson), and simple fieldstone (Trotter).

In the distant past, Swarthmore did much better. Martin Hall, built in 1937, signified the modernity of the biology it housed through streamlined Art Deco styling: its main entrance is even adorned with small metal moldings of biological specimens. Hicks is less direct in its imagery, but its mix of Art Deco and Gothic styling suggests an interplay between the old and new. Trotter, the school’s first science building, has a stone simplicity that connotes Quaker modesty and recalls the homes of the Pennsylvania countryside.

Plan-wise, the Ballinger proposal is equally problematic. An oversized multistory atrium, the hoariest cliche of contemporary college buildings, sits sandwiched between the Nason Garden and the building’s main corridor. This is apparently envisioned as a gathering space, but it looks more like a glorified hallway, and no cafe is planned to draw people to the space. A “green wall” was originally proposed for it but that seems to have disappeared from the latest plans.

Several smaller multistory atrium-style spaces are also included (in case anyone misses the grandiosity of the first one), and throughout the upper levels there are odd openings in the floors and ceilings to levels above and below. I imagine this is the sort of thing that inspires reference to “fostering interdisciplinary connections,” though unless the college imagines biology professors shouting down at their psychology colleagues it is hard to see what practical use it might serve. On the upper levels, several rooms are inexplicably referred to as a “front porch” despite having no outdoor access whatsoever. Put all this together with the angled walls, imported brick, and demolition of Hicks and it’s no surprise the project is running over budget.

The larger picture that emerges here is one of a failed decision-making process. The first problem is that the architects both answer to and were selected by a debilitatingly large committee consisting mostly of people who know nothing about architecture. As the maxim goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Science professors certainly know their functional needs (and aesthetic preferences) but that does not mean they have the knowledge or skills to steer architectural decision-making. Much like biology, engineering, and psychology, architecture is its own specialized discipline and the college would do well to recognize that.

The second major problem with the process is the lack of public information. The school has effectively cut out the many people on campus who will be involved in paying for this building and will be affected by its construction—and now says it’s too late to make significant changes.

When I first heard the school hired Ballinger, I asked to be included in the design process and the facilities department agreed. I received a single email which set out a list of principles for the design process, including such pieties as “All participants will contribute to creating a culture of trust, respect and tolerance” and “We will take the time to have fun.” Have we regressed back to the level of seventh grade homeroom? Incidentally, one of the other principles on the list is that the project “will be designed and constructed within budget and on schedule.” Ha ha.

In any case, I never received another update on the project. Maybe my own blunt and opinionated manner doesn’t fit with that culture of Quaker tolerance, although I would counter that a genuinely tolerant culture would find room for critical thought. I think I might have heard at some point that that’s what the liberal arts are all about.

With BEP construction, College sneakily building box

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

There have been no campus-wide emails, no open meetings, no webpage offering community members a place to give feedback. But behind the scenes, Swarthmore has moved rapidly toward a final design for its planned new biology, engineering, and psychology (BEP) facility. A committee has been formed, architects have been selected, and a reportedly final decision has been made to demolish Hicks Hall to make way for the $120 million building. Naturally, according to members of the committee, the project is already seen running over budget.

First, major design decisions should not be made in such a secretive manner. If there were reasonable public feedback opportunities in this process, there would be no need to criticize the project at this stage in the pages of the campus newspaper. But since there have been no such opportunities and the clock is ticking, I’d now like to raise the point that if the current plans are carried out, Swarthmore will have made a grave architectural error at a tremendous cost.

I should note that this is not the fault of any single person: I know committee members work hard and give the architects valuable input, and that the architects see themselves as giving the committee what it wants. The problem is the architect selection process. As I argued in the Review earlier this year, that process is conducted by committees made up mostly of people who don’t specialize in architecture. The result is inevitably costly architectural mistakes.

The firm selected for the BEP project, Philadelphia’s Ballinger, has a frightening track record of mixing glass and brick together into bland boxes with ample room left for a donor’s name to be plastered across the front. They are an easy and deeply conservative choice for a job like this: they’ve designed many science-related buildings for universities without having ever risked a controversial design.

For the BEP project, they are proposing a four-story rectangular box on the current site of Hicks and Papazian halls. A double-loaded corridor will run the length of it, offices and labs off either side, with occasional openings to floors below and above. On the southeast side of the building there is to be a lower-level “commons” area open to two floors of offices above. Expect contemporary tedium: an echoey oversize atrium, incessantly bright LED lighting, ample interior glass, a simple and predictable floor plan. Universities all around the country have been building this exact building for more than a decade.

Apparently having realized both that their scheme isn’t interesting and that a huge box is totally out of scale with the existing buildings to the southeast of the site (Trotter, Pearson), the architects have taken many of the walls and adjusted their angles by a few degrees—you know, so the building looks “contemporary” or “edgy.”

The lack of serious thought here is concerning. Architects who seriously use striking angles and sculptural building forms, like Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, do not simply paste them onto otherwise ill-fitting boxes. Rather, they use them to transform how buildings are experienced and conceived: to suggest movement and disorder in a discipline often characterized by stasis and hierarchy.

A good building design is an integrated whole: a sensitive response to a specific problem whose various pieces come together to elevate the experience of the building’s users. The crux of the design problem for the BEP is this: how to create a building that serves the needed functions well in the context of an eclectic mix of small buildings, several around 100 years old. (This same problem was faced by the architects of the Science Center.)

The easiest—and probably cheapest—solution is to preserve the recently renovated Hicks Hall and build an addition on the Papazian site. I’m no militant preservationist: I just think we shouldn’t tear down a building unless we have good reason to think the replacement will be an improvement. Hicks, which was built in 1919 as the college’s second engineering building and designed by the architects Karcher & Smith (of Clothier Hall fame), already fits the scale of its surroundings. Its blend of Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco forms are a fun counterpoint to the stark simplicity of Trotter. And the large blank panels between the windows offer a great design opportunity for new symbolic facade elements.

Like the proposed new building, Hicks is basically a box (albeit a smaller one), so there should not be too much difficulty in reconfiguring the interior. It even already has an elevator shaft. Best of all, its preservation would reduce the need for costly and environmentally wasteful demolition and new material acquisition for the proposed replacement. Preserving the building might make it harder for the project to meet stringent LEED environmental criteria, but it has been widely reported that LEED criteria fail to take into account the environmental benefits of preservation. Economist and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Donovan Rypkema has drawn attention to the specific problem of architects using LEED to justify unnecessary demolition. So: does the college want a medal for being green, or does it really want to preserve the environment?

Furthermore, the multi-story atrium should go. Informal gathering spaces are of course fine, but they need not always be so large and exposed. Intimacy and comfort matter too: there’s a reason students value Underhill Library but rarely spend much time in the oversized LPAC atrium. More fun than such big boxes are networks of smaller rooms, with symbolic decoration, sequences of spaces, and surprises—in short, personality. At Jean Nouvel’s Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, for example, different brightly colored forms on the facade correspond to interior rooms rendered in dramatically different architectural styles.

But experimenting with styles means playing with symbolic meaning: daring to seriously engage with a campus filled with over a century of contrasting and overlapping architectural meanings. It means being willing to build something that will inspire strong reactions—and that isn’t something Swarthmore tends to do.

Meanwhile, the school has already rehired the firm behind the Danawell connector, Jacobs Wyper, for a new academic building near the Lang Center. A rendering has already been released online: it shows a blandly contemporary building of wood and stucco, with plenty of glass and a window pattern that is supposed to read as contemporary. Interested in providing feedback on that? Too bad. Once again no opportunities have been provided. The page on which the rendering is presented is a PR news release, and the message is clear: no discussion needed.

College moves forward with plans for new BEP building

in News by
Papazian Hall is one of several buildings that will be demolished by the construction of the planned BEP building.

In its largest grounds project to date, the college has slated its new $120 million biology, engineering, and psychology (BEP) building to be constructed in the spring of 2017, with an expected completion date of August 2020. Serving as an extension to the Science Center, the building will replace older facilities like Martin Biology Lab, which will be re-purposed for other academic needs. Papazian and Hicks Halls will also be demolished as a part of the project.

Stuart Hain, Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, explained that the project is part of the college’s long-term sustainability goals.

Hain said The College’s Environmental Sustainability Framework is being applied to the project with some elements of the framework equivalent to the Platinum level in the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED is a certification program of buildings that meet various environmental sustainability construction standards. There are different levels of certification based on a pre-requisite point system.

The LEED Platinum Standard is the highest level of construction sustainability in the program.Other elements of the project, however, will exceed the LEED Platinum Standard.

Post-construction, Hain noted, the building will continue to meet the college’s environmental sustainability goals, since the LEED guidelines only pertain to construction itself.

“The design of the project will include energy modeling to help identify the most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable means of operation,” he said. This includes a planned geothermal well-field to provide renewable energy to the building.

The project has become a necessity to departments whose current facilities meet neither current nor future needs like expanded space and updated facilities.

Nick Kaplinsky, associate professor of biology, explained that the Martin Biology Lab lacks many of the features of other modern research facilities. The department has even expanded into closets, converting them into growth chambers. He noted that the current needs of the department will only increase in the coming years.

“We will continue to cram things into every nook and cranny in Martin and we will share existing spaces using creative scheduling. Things will continue to be very tight until we move into the new building, a day we look forward to,” Kaplinsky said.

Likewise, Papazian Hall has made accomplishing the psychology department’s goals more difficult. In its most recent departmental review, extreme concerns were raised regarding the limitations of the hall’s capacity. Professor Frank Durgin, the psychology department’s representative for planning the BEP building, shared his concerns about Papazian’s reliability.

“Papazian has long been a challenging building for a number of reasons,” he said. “Although Facilities and the administration have sought to ameliorate some of the more pressing problems, they can only do so much; the current building severely limits our ability to teach and serve students effectively. This is a very urgent need for our department.

The school plans to construct a new building, the Whittier Place Academic Building, which will be constructed behind the Lang Center to temporarily house the psychology and engineering departments between the demolition of Papazian and Hicks and the construction of the BEP building.

“This building will provide more modern facilities to us than Papazian. Although the amount of space in the swing space [Whittier Place] is quite insufficient for the long-term needs of the department, we are able to accommodate this “double move” in order to achieve a better long-term result for the College,” Durgin said.

All of the college’s goals will not be accomplished without significant cost, however. The entire project has an expected total budget of $120 million that will be financed through both philanthropy and loans. In addition, the Whittier Academic Building will have an expected cost of $10 million.

Various alumni have already donated significant sums of money. Eugene Lang ’38, frequent donor to the college, has donated $50 million toward the project. His donation is the largest in the college’s history. During the fall of 2016, the college will officially launch its fundraising campaign, though the goals of that campaign have yet to be determined.

A few major aspects of the BEP project have not been totally determined yet.There is no formal name for it yet, though Hain says it is likely one will emerge in the coming years. The extremely noisy parts of construction, like the demolition of Papazian and Hicks, have been scheduled for the summer months, though a formal construction schedule has not yet been finalized.

College’s ambitious construction plans underway

in News by
The psychology department will move out of Papazian hall, above, upon the completion of the school’s new biology, engineering, and psychology building.
Photo by Sadie Rittman

This summer marked the beginning of a number of construction projects on and around campus. These plans include improvements and extensions to Willets Hall, the softball field, and the Dana and Hallowell dorms. Additionally, three entirely new buildings are being built: the “Matchbox,” Town Center West- which will house a campus bookstore, pub and inn- and the new biology, engineering and psychology building (BEP).

Of the projects planned by the college, the new BEP building is the most ambitious and least finalized. With construction slated to begin in 2016, the college has left plenty of time to discuss plans with the student body, alumni, staff and faculty. The building should be finished by the fall of 2018. The BEP building, when completed, will be the largest building on campus and is being implemented to match the increasing spatial demands of a growing student body.

“From biology’s point of view, we’re crammed to the gills in our current building, and even though we love it, we’ve literally taken over closets and other spaces that were never designed to be research facilities,” said Nick Kaplinsky, associate professor of biology and the department’s point person for the building. “The new building will solve our space issues, solve our mechanical issues and allow the department to expand and serve future biology majors.”

Each of the three departments that will occupy the BEP building will upgrade the amount of space they have on campus, and their old buildings will be reutilized for other departments.

In addition to the BEP building, the college is looking to build more student housing. Plans on this new dorm, or set of dorms, are still in flux, but it is likely that the new housing will be built near the PPR dorms on the south side of campus.

The school has already begun the process of renovating student housing. Over the summer, Willets underwent a series of construction projects. Most parts of the plumbing, insulation and electrical systems were entirely replaced. The bathrooms and lounges were also renovated.

“They were the original rooms, 50 years old, and the original plumbing, 50 years old. So we got to replace all that,” said Stuart Hain, vice president of facilities and capital projects.

In addition, Willets was taken off of the campus’ central steam system and given new boilers. The buildings furthest from the central steam system suffer the most from energy loss in using heat and hot water. In combination with improvements to the building’s insulation, the new boilers are supposed to significantly increase Willets’ energy efficiency.

While Willets was being revamped, construction on the new Matchbox building continued across campus. Nestled above the field house on the far side of Fieldhouse Lane, the Matchbox is the result of a funding campaign led by two married alumni, Salem Shuchman and Barbara Klock.

When completed, the Matchbox will be a student wellness and fitness center, as well as a space for the theater community. Construction on the Matchbox began last winter and was scheduled to be completed by the beginning of this semester, but the severity of last winter pushed that plan back. As of now, construction on the building should be finished by late September. The expected opening day is October 20.

As residents of the two dorms will attest, construction at Dana and Hallowell is underway. The final goal is a new five-story building connecting Dana and Hallowell. This building will replace the Danawell trailer, which previously served as a communal social space for the two dorms. In addition, the new structure will contain 68 new beds, designed to accommodate the college’s enrollment increases. The plan is for the building’s framework and foundation to be finished this fall, before the ground freezes.

Hain believes they will finish construction on Dana and Hallowell on schedule.

“We really believe we’ve built enough time into this schedule to make it work,” he said. “It could get so mean here that we get slowed down significantly, but there are some options about how we can accelerate that by working longer hours or longer weeks.”

Down the road from Dana and Hallowell is the softball field, which is being replaced. As of now, there are two fields. The old field is ready for fall play while the new field is being finished. The new field will have an adjustable netting system, as well as a new locker room attached to the home dugout.

“The outfield is pretty much in place, we’re installing an irrigation system and a drainage system to augment the system that’s there, [and] we’re building the dugouts,” said Jan Semler, director of capital planning and construction.

Town Center West is due to be finished by the end of the 2016 spring semester. It will contain an inn, a restaurant and retail spaces. The administration hopes that Town Center West will encourage a greater student presence in the ville, as well as support visitors and alumni. The bookstore will also be moved to the location.

“What we’re starting do now is actively think about what a bookstore, or a college and community store as we’re now calling it, of the future will look like. [Town Center West will] give us the opportunity to start thinking about how to repurpose the space that’s the current bookstore, since Clothier really is supposed to be a student center […] getting the bookstore out of there is going to be a huge help in terms of spaces that are available for students,” said Gregory Brown, vice president for finance and administration.

In addition, a new parking lot and a roundabout are being constructed by the Palmer, Pittenger, and Roberts dorms and Fieldhouse Lane. The parking lot will replace student parking in lot C and faculty parking by the train station. The parking lot will be finished and in use by the end of fall break. The roundabout is still in its beginning stages. Until September 12th, construction on Chester Road will operate at night from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. After that point, construction will shift to the daytime, but at least one lane of traffic will be available throughout the day. The administration is planning for two further periods of nighttime construction, but the dates for these are not yet in place. The asphalt work on the roundabout is due to end before winter in accordance with PennDOT guidelines, and the roundabout will be complete by the end of the school year.

Go to Top