A Quaker aesthetic in campus art and architecture

The iconic Big Chair is a coveted spot on campus, especially when the sun shines. But the larger-than-life Adirondack chair that graces our beach is more than a source of sunbathing, snuggling, and snapshotting: it’s a sculpture — perhaps the most prominent of many pieces of art on campus. Made by Jake Beckman, a 2005 Swarthmore alum who also teaches as a visiting professor of studio arts, Adirondack chair first appeared at Swarthmore during the reading week of spring 2002, when it was secretly brought out in the middle of the night. Another of Beckman’s works on campus is Flow of Time, the big iron clock that most of us observe daily in the Science Center Commons. Flow of Time was presented to the school as a class gift in 2004.

The appropriately named sculpture Garnet by Robert Murray, a garnet-colored piece made from pieces of painted metal, sits in front of Lang Music Building; it was given to the school in 1974. We’ve all seen Sappho in front of Sharples, an abstracted bronze reclining woman that was given to Swarthmore in 1967 by an alum. Sappho was made by Alekos Kyriakos, a Greek sculptor who received training in Athens before coming to the U.S.

Swarthmore’s architecture has a long history as well. The school built its first edifices in the 1800s following Quaker principles of architecture: utilitarian yet elegant. The first building on campus (which considerably precedes Swarthmore’s founding) was the Benjamin West house, built in 1724 and birthplace of painter Benjamin West in 1738. Swarthmore College bought the house, along with its farm, upon the college’s founding, and Parrish Hall was added in 1868. Other early buildings, all made of local gray gneiss and schist, include the Friends Meeting House (1880) and the first academic building on campus, Trotter Hall (1881). An emphasis was placed on Quaker principles of architectural balance, classic proportion, and simplicity. In the past century, Swarthmore has moved beyond the traditional toward modernist architecture that reflects the original architectural values of minimalism and harmony without ostentation.

Kohlberg Hall and the Science Center, both designed by Margaret Helfand ‘69,  were added to the campus in the 1990s to satisfy a growing need for space on campus. The spacious stone buildings brought much more: innovative environmental sustainability, fresh, modern design that was still true to the history and style of the campus and space, not just for studying, but also for socializing.

Kohlberg Hall was completed in 1996. Architects Margaret Helfland and Stanton Eckstut and artist Mary Miss decided on a U-shaped building made of local gray schist featuring clean, spare lines characteristic of Helfand’s architecture while maintaining consistency with the gray stone that composes so many of Swarthmore’s buildings. Pink slabs of granite accent the entrance, and colored glass panels and a sundial adorn the tower at one end of the building. Helfand also designed the interior and nearly all of the furniture. With a “living room” and a café, the first floor of Kohlberg quickly became an important common space. Corridors, too, were given attention: Helfand made them wide and filled with light, with window seats built into the walls where students could, as she said in an interview following Kohlberg’s completion, “[get] away from everybody with a book.”

Behind Kohlberg can be observed one of the first pieces of modern art to come to campus, Back from Rio by Alexander Calder. The metal kinetic sculpture, which is stable but sways slightly in the breeze, was created in 1959 and given to Swarthmore in 1965. Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, and died in 1976. He is best known for his mobile sculptures, and his works include over 600 sculptures, both mobile and stationary, and thousands of oil paintings, jewelry, toys and household objects. 

After the success of Kohlberg, attention was turned in 1999 to Dupont Hall, the outdated science building at the time. In addition to being rated the ugliest building on campus, with its pebble-coated concrete walls, Dupont couldn’t meet electricity or laboratory ventilation needs. Helfand Architecture and Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, specialists in laboratory design, were brought in to refurbish and redesign the existing buildings. It quickly became apparent that most of Dupont would have to be torn down; parts could be saved for offices and classrooms, but a new building would need to house the laboratories.

Central to the plan were the concept of a large space reserved for socialization and, of course, environmental sustainability. The high-ceilinged Commons, walled with glass and filled with tables and armchairs, masterfully presents such a social space. Said Ronald Martinez ’69, a close friend of Helfand until her death from colon cancer in 2007, “Peggy insisted on putting a coffee bar in every building she designed,” because it would bring more students desiring a community space. In a 2006 interview, Helfand said, “If you create really inviting spaces, people will come.”

Fulfilling the environmentally sustainable piece of the puzzle, Engineering professor Carr Everbach led a green team within the advisory committee for the new building. The Science Center contains characteristics such as a butterfly roof that collects rainwater and directs it to an outdoor channel that pours it, waterfall-style, into a gravel box. The water travels to an underground cistern for reuse rather than into the Crum, where it would cause erosion. Certain panes of glass in the Commons were made translucent but not transparent to avoid birds flying into the windows; panels of compressed sunflower seeds, which are more renewable and sustainable than wood from trees, make up parts of the walls; and ventilation systems in the labs were designed so that no potentially contaminated air would be recycled back into the building. 

Completing Helfand’s vision of an airy, spacious building, Cornell Library basement was renovated to contain a wall of windows facing the Crum. Other notable features include the math department’s own lounge that opens onto a courtyard garden, and the shapes of professors’ offices: to make more space, offices weren’t made rectangular. Instead, they alternate between being wider at the door and tapering towards the window, and vice-versa. Finally, the astronomy observation deck features a concrete telescope mount that is not connected to the building, to reduce vibration from the telescope.

The most recently added buildings on campus are the boldly designed Alice Paul and David Kemp dormitories. AP was completed in 2004 and designed by William Rawn Associates, who also designed DK four years later. Alice Paul was conceived as a sustainable building that would offer alternative living options, such as two-story doubles on the third floor, a balcony, a spacious lounge, and an outdoor plaza. Four years later, DK was added in the same modernist style, featuring a wall of glass opposite the stairwell. Both buildings have green roofs covered in sedum and other plants, which provide insulation, lower surrounding air temperatures, and create a habitat for wildlife.

In 2010, a piece of modern art joined the courtyard at the foot of AP: Red Steelroot by Steve Tobin, donated anonymously by a member of the Scott Arboretum. The Modernist Steelroot collection features large steel models of tree roots in various sizes and colors. The collection was made with the intention, as the artist said in a 2011 interview, of “worshipping nature and the figure, but more as a concept.” Tobin’s hope for the root sculpture is that the viewer will contemplate its evocation of our own hidden roots and mysteries that are not “readily apparent” on our surfaces. 

Our most recent piece of art is the mural on the southeast wall of the Science Center. The mural was conceived as a representation of Swarthmore’s dedication to global education and its importance in the world. David Craig, a mural artist from East Belfast in Northern Ireland painted the mural between October and November. Craig was aided by willing students who attended a lecture prior to the start of the mural. In addition to painting the mural, Craig was at Swarthmore and surrounding colleges as part of a series of lectures and public conversations regarding murals and peace and conflict in Northern Ireland.







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Ronald Martinez ‘69



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