BEP plans too late to save

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.

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