New Building Plans Speak to Swarthmore’s Future

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

New buildings are in Swarthmore’s future. In the next fifteen to twenty-five years, the College, guided by the Strategic Planning process, envisions two hundred more students, improved athletic facilities, and revamped and expanded student gathering spaces. While nothing is slated to be built just yet—funding won’t be addressed for some time—the college has commissioned the architectural firm Ayers/Saint/Gross to create a master plan, which will articulate the needs of the College and the possible ways in which the school can deal with them.

At the first Master Planning forum of the year, which took place on Tuesday, architects from A/S/G presented some initial ideas and brainstormed with the dozen-or-so students who attended. This meeting focused on residential life (academic buildings will be discussed later) and draws upon a Monday workshop with members of the administration and faculty. The same architects also spent some time on campus in the spring, speaking to students in Kohlberg and Sharples about their needs and ideas.

Executive Assistant for Facilities and Services Paula Dale said in an interview that “there almost certainly [will be a new] building or two over the next ten to twenty years.” But the slideshow presented by Adam Gross, a principal at the firm, showcased sketches of far more than two buildings. The Master Plan will be an imaginative, comprehensive document that Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain says will stop at the conceptual level. Hain says the Plan represents “a long-term vision done in such a way that it informs short-term decisions.” The last Master Plan was formulated in the early nineties, long before the Science Center was built.

Our campus is made up of many diverse buildings spread across the top, side, and bottom of the hill; the architects’ goal is to make the campus useful, comfortable, and logical, even for the imagined buildings that will never be built. The Plan only looks at footprint capacity and massing—in other words, the buildings remain rough outlines, 3-D in some images and simple outlines in aerial views.

New buildings, however, don’t just serve the students who will live and work in them. Judging by the way Gross explained the firm’s specific ideas, and the buildings will interact with the spatial experiences of students who merely walk by them, and they will also play a role as beautiful features of the campus, both up close and in a wider view. With that in mind, they are thinking carefully about entrances, archways, paths, landscaping, and quads. In many of the slideshow’s images, a single new building, paired with those that already exist, created a new courtyard for students to gather where before there had simply been an unwelcoming, unkempt space.

A/S/G has made a name for itself in planning at colleges across the country. Swarthmore’s plan will be rooted in four principles developed at the workshop that aim to get at the heart of Swarthmore’s community. As Gross explained, each one is a single word that represents both a planning concept and a broader liberal arts theme. They are “connect” (both campus layout and academic engagement), “sustain” (the environment and an appreciation for nature), “innovate” (using twenty-first century buildings and up-to-date academic technology), and “cultivate” (architectural beauty and intellectual life).

Asked about Swarthmore’s design philosophy, Hain said that “the conversation’s always been about simplicity and honesty in the use of materials,” and he stresses the importance of context in each building’s particular design. He adds that Alice Paul and David Kemp are the exception because their unusual shapes required unusual structural materials. Even ignoring AP and DK, there’s not quite a single architectural style unifying the campus. Consider the juxtaposition of LPAC and the Lang Concert Hall, or Martin next to the contemporary Science Center. However, almost all the buildings use local stone in some capacity.

Certainly, Swarthmore is going for its own unique look. In no way is the campus a mini-Princeton or Oxford; even Bryn Mawr’s castle-like buildings present a stark contrast to our own campus. Gross mentioned he’d understood from students that Swarthmore “has the rigor of Harvard but isn’t Harvard,” and the master plan and the buildings that eventually come into being will reflect that.

Exactly what Swarthmore will be can indeed be shaped in large part by the students, who have a say in the needs of the College and types of spaces that are appropriate. Further Master Planning fora will address other aspects of campus life before a draft is presented in February. On October 24, students are welcome to join a discussion about academic spaces, and on the following day, staff needs will be considered. It’s an on-going process, and several opportunities to participate remain.

This is part one of a two-part article on Tuesday’s Master Planning Forum.

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College.


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