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‘This is the future of the campus’

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Planners and architects unveil a plan to make the Hill whole

by James Leach

Not long ago, as some of the nation’s leading architects were vying to design Colgate’s next three major building projects, Ernie Cross realized something was missing.

As the vice president who has guided the college through its most active decade of building and renovation, Cross is charged with seeing that the various pieces fit, that changes and additions enhance a physical plant and setting that are seen to be among the college’s greatest assets. Next on the building agenda are:
  • a building that will help define the future study of art and art history;
  • enhancements to the spaces that support student activities and social life;
  • and the expansion and renovation of Case Library, in what will undoubtedly be the most expensive building project in Colgate’s history.

Most of that activity will be clustered around an area that is now a parking lot between the existing library and student union at the bottom of what generations of Colgate people know as "Cardiac Hill." Architects and planners know the hill euphemistically as "an opportunity."

Different architects are involved in each of the projects: Chad Floyd, of Centerbrook Architects, is planning the building that will provide the college with the additional space it has long needed to teach art and art history. Malcolm Holzman, of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, is looking downhill at the Student Union and uphill at O’Connor Campus Center to determine what will work best to support student life outside class. And Geoffrey Freeman, of Shepley, Bullfinch, is planning how the library might change under the influence of new information technologies.

Vice President Ernie Cross

"It became clear that the complex nature of these projects demanded an overall plan," said Cross. "We needed a sophisticated master planner to pull it all together."

Cross sold the idea of a planner to President Neil Grabois, then sought the advice of the architects about who might do the job best.

In addition to Floyd, Holzman and Freeman, Cross asked for suggestions from Tai Soo Kim and Herbert Newman. Kim designed Persson Hall, which opened in 1993 and began to redefine Cardiac Hill. Newman’s Colgate designs include an addition to Case Library in the 1980s.

"We wanted a master planner with the knowledge, imagination and prestige to direct the work of these major architects," said Cross, "someone who they would listen to and whose general direction they would follow."

A search by a committee of students, faculty and staff led to Cooper, Robertson and Partners, a New York City firm that has developed plans for the city’s financial district and for Yale University, among other clients. Partner Brian Shea is the chief planner for Colgate, working with colleague Randy Morton. "They are just right for us," said Cross.

Open space of dramatic form

Shea has a reputation among architects as someone who can understand a site’s potential. "You have to understand how the whole campus works," he says. He and Morton began their analysis of Colgate in the summer of 1996.

"Colgate has an incredible presence with the campus stepping up the hill to the chapel," he says. "There are strong ideas about what a Colgate building is. You could spot one a mile away. So there is a language in place for the architecture of the buildings."

He identified the three distinct campus areas familiar to Colgate people: the upper quadrangle "distinguished by an ordered, orthogonal grouping of buildings set on flat terrain"; the middle "hillside" campus, "where buildings are more widely and informally arranged, generally following the contours of the hill"; and the lower campus with its plain, Taylor Lake and fields that "sets the character of Colgate’s front door."

The lower campus — the front door — was the focus of Cooper Robertson’s master plan. Clustered around the space are buildings (Case Library, the Union, Persson, and Ryan Studio) that Shea found "have very little relationship one to the next," despite their proximity. The Administration Building and Dana Arts Center on the flanks of the lower campus further complicate the mix.

The preliminary plans for the new buildings that would front the space reflected "programmatic requirements," Shea wrote, but "the building group that results is not a very coordinated ensemble." He looked 50 years to the future and imagined a lower campus that was "more than just an accretion of buildings added over time."

"What is missing," he found, "is an attitude about making a special place and how each of these buildings will help frame a new campus open space." His plan establishes "the rules by which the buildings can relate to each other, and be-come good neighbors." It will trans-form the parking lot into a terraced lawn, an inviting entranceway with sightlines and pathways that bring the campus together.

The open foreground created by the lake and fields reminded Shea of "an Olmstedian Park. The dilemma was that the campus started and stopped at that parking lot behind the Student Union. Willow Path, College Street and Whitnall all converge at that spot. But when you got there, there was no there there."

Brian Shea of Cooper, Robertson and Partners conceived the plan for a renewed lower campus.

As Shea and Morton walked the campus they began to develop a sense of buildings organized along the contours of the hillside. "The key to Colgate was understanding topography," said Shea. One element of their plan became a "Transverse Walk" that will follow the contour of the hillside from the administration building (Colgate Hall) to Dana Arts Center. Though the two are at approximately the same elevation, the only routes from one to the other at present are up and down, or down and up. The hillside Transverse Walk would also connect to a new entrance in the expanded library, to an upper entrance in the new art and art history building, as well as providing easier access to Persson Hall from the downhill side.

The planners also explored sight lines from the lower campus to the upper campus, centering roughly on the steeple of Memorial Chapel. As they presented their preliminary findings to campus groups they illustrated the views up Willow Path or across Taylor Lake, through what is now the parking lot, to the campus above. And they formulated a plan that would replace the parking lot with "an open space of dramatic form, topography and character," an attractive, inviting space that would link the lake and plain to the hill and the upper campus.

Design principles

Shea, like all the architects planning Colgate’s new buildings, praised the work of Tai Soo Kim in the design and placement of Persson Hall. "It was the first place to be developed in a long time that was parallel with the contours," said Shea, "and it was halfway down the hill. It was the first academic building off the hill, the first in a while to return to the traditional materials and elements of Colgate buildings. And it was one of the first to celebrate movement up and down the hill."

Cross and Grabois describe Persson as "the linchpin" in the design of the lower campus. Shea concurs: "With Persson in place the plan locked onto that site."

Cooper Robertson’s charge was not to design the new buildings, but to recommend a plan of design principles that would bring the new buildings into harmony and reinforce the beauty of the campus. Among the design principles they recommended:

  • The general ambience and character of the Colgate campus is casual and relaxed and should remain so;
  • The abundance of nature and buildings situated in the hillside landscape should remain the dominant view;
  • The lower campus should have a key open space, "The Terrace," around which the new buildings should group;
  • The pedestrian environment should be enhanced and extended . . . circulation should be arranged to allow comfortable walks up and down the hill;
  • The architecture of the lower campus should remind one of the Upper Quad, with stone walls, cream-colored trim, and pitched roofs.

The plan recognizes that new buildings will be phased in over time, as funds become available. Landscape architects Quennell Rothschild are at work designing a loop road around Whitnall Field, near the lower campus site, where parking will be relocated consistent with the plan.

Construction of the new road is projected for the summer of 1998. As parking is relocated from the lot between the Union and Case Library, it will allow for the beginning of site work in the lower campus.

Nicholas Quennell and his associate Mark Bunnell are superimposing the Cooper Robertson plan over the existing survey of the site to determine how the infrastructure must be altered. Services such as steam and electrical lines must be redirected to allow the space to be recontoured. Plantings and grading must be planned to keep the hillside in place and provide proper drainage. "We are bringing detail to the Cooper plan," said Quennell. "It is remarkable how well the program fits the site."

A new building for the arts

Building on a lead gift of $3.625 million from Board of Trustee Chairman Wm. Brian Little ’64 and his wife Judy, fundraising for the new art and art history building is proceeding at a pace that will allow for groundbreaking in the summer of 1999 and completion by the fall of 2000.

Cooper Robertson’s plan subtly reoriented the initial siting of the arts building to create a dramatic wall framing the south side of the new open space. The building will be set into the hillside, at right angles to the Student Union and adjacent to the Ryan Studio Building, accenting the splay of open space from Persson down the hill to College Street.

The new art and art history building. Click here for the full image.

Centerbrook architect Chad Floyd describes the art and art history building as "one whole wall of a magnificent room," with the room being the open space defined in the lower campus plan. "The room has an important doorway at one end in Persson, which takes you into another set of campus spaces up the hill. But without the art and art history building, that wall to the south is not established. It is an important first piece that has to set a tone. It needs to be similar enough to its neighboring buildings to create a visual continuity, or the room would feel very uncentered. And yet it has to make a statement in its own right."

The new art and art history building extends and complements the Dana Arts Center and the adjacent Ryan Studio building on the lower campus, both in terms of function and esthetics. Designed by Paul Rudolph, the Dana Arts Center has stood for more than 30 years as a signature building and a strong statement of the college’s commitment to the arts. Ryan Studio, built 25 years ago, provides facilities for teaching studio art as well as practice and rehearsal rooms for music and drama. Over the years, interest in the arts has outgrown the two facilities.

"The first challenge of the new structure was to put an addition on Ryan, the program of which has to be bigger than Ryan," said Floyd, "and to do it in a way flatters and enhances Ryan." The program for the new building requires 35,000 square feet of space, significantly more than Ryan. "So you are presented with an addition that dominates the thing you are adding to," said Floyd.

Architect Chad Floyd says the art and art history building will be "a comfortable mediator between the simple, strong, wonderful architecture of the old quad, and the architecture of Dana and Ryan, which is a more contemporary statement about the arts. This building has elements of both."

Then there was what Floyd calls "the stylistic matter." Ryan is austere, built on strong, simple shapes that take their cues from the brutalist style of Dana. Following the principles of the Cooper Robertson plan, the new building would draw its architectural statements from more traditional Colgate structures, constructed of bluestone, with cream trim, in familiar shapes.

"Because the lower campus will be a major space that connects the student union to the top of the hill, the addition would have to participate in that vocabulary," said Floyd. "And yet it will be connected to a building that participates more in the vocabulary established by Dana. That was a kind of schizophrenic problem."

The building he designed "has all the detail and character of the traditional Colgate buildings, but establishes itself with strong and memorable shapes that are in keeping with some of the simple thrusts and parries of Dana and Ryan. It will become," said Floyd, "a comfortable mediator between the simple, strong, wonderful architecture of the old quad, and the architecture of Dana and Ryan, which is a more contemporary statement about the arts. This building has elements of both."

The art and art history building will also be the first to define the contours of the lower campus. As the building steps down the hill it will offer entrances at various elevations, including one from the Transverse Walk and another, 16 feet further down, on a plane with entrances to the library.

Concerned that simply running the building out of the hillside would make the downhill portion appear too massive, Centerbrook arrived at a solution that divides the building into two parts. The larger, uphill section is relatively simple and straightforward. The downhill piece turns slightly and is one story lower, with sloped or "battered" walls that taper from the ground upward. The downhill structure, says Floyd, "is like a great dam holding back the rest of the building. The building steps down, along with the hill, and we have this expression of solidity and strength holding this piece in the hill."

Windows that face the terrace vary in height as the building moves into the hillside, and a stepped walkway alongside the building further communicates the change in elevation. In turning the lower section, the architects created an invitation to enter the space that leads to Dana. "It is a subtle way of saying, ‘This is the route to the world of the arts. Please come in,’" said Floyd.

That thought is echoed by art department chair John Knecht, who says the building will "bring the arts into the academic community, into the academic center of the campus."

A tower on the main section of the building picks up the vertical elements of Dana, but also relates to Persson up the hill. A smaller light tower on the lower section reinforces the relationship to the larger piece up the hill.

The new building attaches to Ryan through a narrow connector that creates space for a sculpture court that helps define the relationship between the old and the new. Floyd expressed a hope that, "Someone just arriving on campus might think that Ryan was built as an addition to the art and art history building, or that they were built together with Ryan being a more simple wing of studios connected to a piece that fronts the world."

Just as the exterior of the art and art history building is shaped to a definition of the lower campus, the interior reflects the careful planning of the Colgate faculty. Knecht explained that the faculty’s first concern was for "a functional building and not a monument."

He and his colleagues provided the architects with a fine-tuned list of program needs, "right down to where light switches should be located and what the finishes should be. We gave them the needs, and they designed this beautiful building around it," said Knecht.

"John and his department provided us with thought-provoking and clear direction," said Floyd. "Art is a constantly evolving situation. There are things happening in art studios at colleges today that no one could have imagined 20 years ago. Who knows what people will be doing in another 20–30 years? It is far more conducive to have spaces that are strongly generic and rectilinear, simple, unadorned, loft-like spaces that are flexible as needs evolve.

"John Knecht uses the image, ‘Like the inside of a camera,’ and that’s been our approach. The interior space will be carefully crafted, very functional, unadorned. Elegant but simple, with durable finishes, not fussy."

The interior, and especially the studio space, is designed like a loft building with studios for printmak-ing, drawing, film/video, and combined media, as well as a mod-ern computer room. From a 1,700 square foot gallery the plan offers easy access to a 150-seat auditorium. Two art history classrooms will be equipped with the latest projection facilities. A seminar room above the gallery will look out across Whitnall Field. The top floor will hold faculty offices and a large slide library. Lobbies on the second and third floors will offer space to display student art. Throughout, the play of light will be carefully controlled, as directed by the faculty.

Floyd has enjoyed the interactive nature of the design process, including meetings with Cross, Shea and the other architects to fit the building into the campus plan, as well as conversations with the faculty in art and art history. "This has been a great project at every level, he said, "and it goes right up the ladder to include the trustees. The result is a richer solution." Few colleges, he said, are in position to take such a comprehensive view of a building program.

"What Colgate is doing is to think through all the way to the end. A good master planning process goes to the finished vision and then works back from there to the practical stages."

Space for student activity

One of the great challenges presented by the hill is the placement of space for student activity. The Colgate Student Union on the lower campus houses the offices of student organizations, the staff who manage student activities, Donovan’s Pub with its snack bar, and large and small meeting and activities spaces. O’Connor Campus Center off the upper quadrangle houses the bookstore, mailroom and a large snack bar/cafeteria that is a popular gathering place during the day.

The daytime/nighttime, uphill/downhill influences have been the focus of studies to determine how Colgate will improve its student activity spaces. Those discussions are resolved with a decision to concentrate on expanding and improving services at O’Connor, at the same time reordering some of the spaces in the Union to make it more accessible and useful for the kinds of activities it attracts.

The discussion of student activities space relates to the lower campus master planning not only because the Union opens onto the developing space ("Every time I see a photo of the lower campus, the Union is in it," says architect Holzman), but also because the Union affects movement up and down the hill, and because patterns of use there will change as the master plan is fully realized. So Holzman is a regular participant in meetings with Cross, Shea and the other architects.

"The Union will change as activities around it change," said Holzman. "The development of the lower campus will directly affect use of the building." At this stage, he explained, plans for the Union would improve activities on the first floor and make it more lively. "We will be trying to make it easier to get into the building and also to get to the food services there (Donovan’s Pub), but also easier to get through the building and out the other side."

O’Connor — known popularly as the Coop — is heavily used now and receives most of the attention in the planning for activities space. Holzman describes "major transformations at the Coop centering around a new heart to the building."

In adding 20,000 square feet of new construction to the building he projects a new hub that will provide "space to congregate and meet friends, socialize, read mail." From the hub, students will have access to a new convenience store, coffee bar and meeting rooms, but also to the bookstore and to a reconfigured cafeteria/snack bar. Moving the staff offices that support student activities into O’Connor will increase traffic in the building.

From the outside, the building will be faced in stone and new win-dows will be more in keeping with the traditional architecture of the upper quadrangle. Skylights over the new hub will pick up one of the elements of Olin Hall, a neighboring building visible from O’Connor.

Changes at the library

The days when libraries were considered dusty repositories for the collection of the printed word have been in decline since the unveiling of early computers. The onslaught of "information technology" has transformed the way the world manages the storage and retrieval of information and is reshaping popular thinking about library design.

"As a result of the wisdom and insights of trustees and staff, we have looked at the entire lower campus project in a collegial and responsible way that respects the beauty of the campus and makes every effort to clone that beauty in this important area."

President Neil R. Grabois

Colgate’s main library, named for President Emeritus Everett Needham Case, was opened in 1958 and added to in 1981. Library expansion will depend on gifts and other available funding, but clearly the time frame is in the coming five to ten years. One of the country’s most experienced architects of college libraries, Geoffrey Freeman of Shepley, Bullfinch, is assisting with the planning. The relationship of the exterior of the building to the rest of the lower campus will be influenced by the recommendations of Cooper Robertson.

The library footprint suggested in the Cooper Robertson plan shows major additions to the building along the sides facing the union and the uphill. The plan suggests a grander entrance for the building as it fronts on the lower campus, perhaps a "Colgate Colonnade" aligned with the Willow Path, creating the north wall of the room of open space suggested by architect Floyd. The plan will include more entrances, making the building more accessible but also addressing the developing continuity between the upper and lower campuses.

Said Freeman, who has been a participant in discussions with the planners and other architects, "The idea of how to integrate the library needs to recognize where the library is and the centrality of its function." In terms of the library’s relationship to the rest of the lower campus, he shares a commitment to "create a presence of the library on the lower quadrangle."

Shepley Bullfinch’s work on the library at this stage is "pre-design," focusing on what fits for Colgate and acknowledging, in Freeman’s words, "that dollars tell you a lot of what you can do."

Modern library planning must consider how people work collabo-ratively, said Freeman. "Libraries are being rethought as these enabl-ing facilities. They are no longer just places for the storage of mat-erial, but places where people go to interact and develop their thinking. Libraries provide the keys and pathways to working together, as well as access to primary sources. Libraries promote critical thinking, and when you begin to pull in information technology and new media, they are vital contributors to students’ intellectual experience and growth."

President Grabois describes the library expansion as "the physical manifestation of our long-term plan to bring information technology and the library together."

Ways and means

"The lower campus is extraordinarily important," said Grabois, "both in the way it relates to the rest of the campus and in its appearance in and of itself. As a result of the wisdom and insights of trustees and staff, we have looked at the entire project in a collegial and responsible way that respects the beauty of the campus and makes every effort to clone that beauty in this important area."

He also recognizes the importance of raising the money to make the plan a reality. "The development of the lower campus and the expansion of O’Connor comprise the major capital needs of the college for the next decade.

"Brian and Judy Little and others have provided extraordinarily generous funding for the art and art history building, but more gifts are needed to complete that project. The capital needs for the library expansion are as yet undefined, though we know it will be the largest single project the college has ever undertaken."

Given the long-term nature of the plan for developing the lower campus, the completion of that project is likely to fall to another generation’s president and vice president, both Grabois and Cross acknowledge. But they are reassured that the efforts undertaken on their watch have put a handsome plan in place.

"This is the future of the campus," says Ernie Cross.