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Boston Society of Architects

Renew Feature

Course of action

Amherst College is a paradigm of how to update a campus while honoring a sense of place

RENEW Jan-March 2020

Amherst pp10 11 edit

Amherst College is interwoven with the town from which it takes its name. The Octagon, the President’s House, and Morgan and College Halls are at lower left. University of Massachusetts at Amherst towers can be seen in the distance.

Photographs by Ralph Lieberman from Amherst College: The Campus Guide.

How do you renew a college campus? For years, this was the answer: “Bring in the starchitects!” Their novel designs, aggressively sculptural though not necessarily functional, promised to generate publicity, boost enrollment, and “rebrand” a historic campus. The results, however, have been mixed. At best, the starchitects are like jazz musicians who riff off one another, creating a lively conversation of past and present. At worst, they give us a series of unrelated statements that descend into self-referential cacophony—to switch metaphors, an architectural petting zoo.

My alma mater, Amherst College, a distinguished liberal arts institution whose campus sits 90 miles west of Boston, has taken a different path to renewal, one that stresses architectural evolution, not revolution; reuse rather than replacement; and the revitalization of common spaces, including both landscapes and building interiors. In 1969, when Architectural Record devoted an article to Amherst’s then-new music building, its designer, Benjamin Thompson, acutely identified this approach, remarking how it differed from the one pursued by Yale and Harvard, which were importing global stars such as Eero Saarinen and Le Corbusier to make signature architectural statements. Said Thompson: “I await the historians’ verdict on the past 20 years and its cult of architectural autograph collecting.”

Having written a new campus guide, which is timed to coincide with Amherst’s bicentennial next year, I think the college was wise to pursue this unfashionable course. Instead of stodgy contextualism, it has produced lively new expressions of the essential elements that have long distinguished Amherst’s 1,000-acre campus: elemental simplicity, robust materiality, a vital landscape, and an intimate scale that reflects the college’s identity as a close community of learners, not a vast and impersonal university. Granted, Amherst still faces enormous challenges, especially the need to provide common spaces where its increasingly diverse student body of 1,800 can interact. But the college nonetheless provides a template for other liberal arts institutions confronting the vexing question of how to remake themselves and respond to today’s needs without sacrificing their core identity.

It would be an exaggeration to observe that Amherst’s campus was conceived in the drafting rooms of Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, but the influence of Boston-area architects and landscape architects on the college has nonetheless been profound. From Charles Edward Parkes, who in 1860 designed Amherst’s first gymnasium in a provincial version of the Boston Granite style, to the elegant Revival styles of Putnam and Cox’s mansionlike fraternity houses of the early 1900s to the gentle Brutalism of Thompson’s music building to Payette’s biophilic new science center, Boston architects have had a significant impact on the campus, bringing their tradition of carefully crafted, place-defining architecture to the hills of western Massachusetts.

Boston’s landscape architects have had an equally profound influence. In 1870, Frederick Law Olmsted suggested to Amherst’s president that the college, whose original cluster of buildings is organized in an outward-facing “College Row,” should turn inward and orient itself around a leafy quadrangle that would link up with a nearby railroad line. When the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 roared through Amherst and tore up a beloved allée of trees that ran east-west across the main quadrangle, Arthur Shurcliff, who had worked in the Olmsted office, redesigned the quad on a north-south axis, directing the view outward toward the magnificent panorama of the Holyoke Range to the south.

The campus that has emerged from these interventions is best understood in contrast to Harvard: It occupies a spectacular hilltop site, surrounded by softly undulating ridgelines in almost every direction, rather than the flats of Harvard Yard. Its buildings tend toward clean, sharp lines rather than the picturesque frills and elaborate silhouettes of Victorian Gothic edifices such as Harvard’s Memorial Hall. And Amherst, unlike Harvard, is almost entirely without gates and fences that seal it off from the outside world. Town and gown flow without interruption into each other, reflecting how townspeople, including the lexicographer Noah Webster, gathered on Amherst’s hill in the summer of 1820 to erect the first building, the red-brick, Puritan-plain South College. In that austere Federal Style structure, some student rooms doubled as classrooms, and the entire college library, about 700 volumes, was contained in a six-foot-wide bookcase.

Beneski Earth Sciences Building and Museum of Natural History: modern but contextual with a projecting pavilion that suggests the drawers visitors pull out to view objects in the collection. Payette, 2006.
Photographs by Ralph Lieberman from Amherst College: The Campus Guide.

Amherst long ago escaped its early poverty—its endowment in 2019 was reported to be $2.47 billion—yet it has not abandoned its architectural past. The college has viewed its architectural legacy as a springboard, not a burden. The campus, in this view, is an intricately interwoven fabric of buildings and landscapes rather than a collection of flashy, stand-alone objects. Examples of such creative contextualism abound. Payette's Beneski Earth Sciences Building and Museum of Natural History, clad in red-orange brick and terra-cotta, relates intelligently to the shape, color, and proportions of Amherst’s best building, Fayerweather Hall, a Renaissance Revival standout by McKim, Mead & White. Yet Beneski, which opened in 2006, still presents a distinctly modern showcase for its contents, including skeletons of Ice Age mammals. Similarly, Wieland and King Residence Halls of 2004, by William Rawn Associates, Architects, use granite cladding, gentle curves, and large expanses of glass to put a contemporary spin on the old Boston Granite style. Thompson’s music building set the standard for these efforts by balancing the bold structural innovation of cantilevered concrete waffle slabs with the soothing contextualism of water-struck brick façades laid in Flemish bond. Here, in contrast to the typical starchitect modus operandi, the new speaks to the old rather than endeavoring to outshout it.

Fayerweather Hall (originally Fayerweather Laboratory): a jewel of Renaissance Revival design. McKim, Mead & White, 1894. Renovated by Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, 2002.
Photographs by Ralph Lieberman from Amherst College: The Campus Guide.

Amherst has also excelled at another aspect of renewal: finding creative ways to reuse its old buildings. Originally a physics and chemistry laboratory, Fayerweather in 2002 was successfully turned into the home of the college’s art and art history department. In 2014, inspired by the conversion of former factory buildings into the acclaimed home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the college hired the firm responsible for that project, Cambridge-based Bruner/Cott & Associates, to transform another McKim building, a rugged coal-fired steam heating plant, into the Powerhouse, now a vibrant student social center. Still another reuse project, by Boston’s Shepley Bulfinch, converted a building that was originally a gym and later a natural history museum into a dorm in 2007, saving its eclectic combination of restrained Richardsonian Romanesque and flamboyant Châteauesque design.

Because of such decisions, Amherst “is fortunate to possess one of the most outstanding and varied collections of early higher educational architecture in the New England region, rivaling that of Harvard,” Bryant F. Tolles Jr. wrote in Architecture & Academe, a 2011 survey of the pre–Civil War architecture of New England colleges. I agree with that assessment, though I quibble with the word “fortunate.” Saving the best of the past is a matter of good judgment, not good fortune.

It’s a cliché to say that the greenest building is the one you already have, but Amherst has shown the underlying truth of that maxim by making renewable energy an essential part of its renewal strategy. The college has done so by restoring and modernizing historic dormitories and athletic buildings as well as former fraternity houses (now residence halls). The renovated and new structures invariably prioritize sustainability, none more so than the new science center, which last year won an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Award. The building is expected to reduce energy usage by 76 percent compared with that of a typical research building. Nevertheless, it has run into unexpected speed bumps. According to The Amherst Student, the campus newspaper, a recent study by two professors revealed that at least 46 birds died over a 90-day period after flying into the building’s glass walls. Moreover, the building’s considerable size, which was necessitated by the need to put several science departments under one roof, departs from Amherst’s tradition of intimate scale. Renewal, it’s safe to say, is a constant struggle.

Inside the Science Center: A skylit internal street provides a vibrant gathering place, while upper-level pathways hang from the steel-framed roof. Payette, 2018.
Photographs by Ralph Lieberman from Amherst College: The Campus Guide.

That is especially apparent when it comes to the challenge Amherst faces in shaping common spaces that will draw together a student body in which, it’s often said, there’s a sharp divide between athletes and nonathletes, as well as those from privileged backgrounds and those on Pell Grants. In this case, the verdict is still out despite encouraging signs such as a soaring, skylit street inside the science center that’s already a popular student gathering place. Also on the plus side, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, with offices in Brooklyn, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has remade Amherst’s east campus, once a dull tableau of grass and trees, into a landscape that strives to be a destination, not simply a passageway. Among the features of this new landscape, called the Greenway: amphitheaterlike mounds and hollows that could be used for outdoor performances and concerts, as well as curving paths that endeavor to slow down pedestrians rather than speeding them along like the straight lines of Amherst’s older quads. Similarly, the college announced last year that it has hired Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron to design a new student center to replace a Postmodern 1987 student center by Boston’s Perry Dean Rogers and Partners that has flopped as a gathering place.

Herzog & de Meuron are starchitects, of course, but even starchitects can be responsible team players. In announcing the selection, Amherst stressed that the firm “has a longstanding practice of using much smaller projects to refine their expertise in the areas for which they are best known: creating nuanced environments attuned to human experience, and developing spaces that heighten, rather than mask, the specifics of a place.” Moreover, the college said, “The firm’s projects feature materials and shapes in thoughtful dialogue with their surroundings and strong connections between indoor and outdoor spaces.”

Will this crucial project succeed? We’ll see. In the meantime, as Amherst marks 200 years since those townspeople gathered to erect its first building, its campus teaches time-tested lessons about how small liberal arts colleges can renew themselves by taking, to recall the words of the poet and longtime Amherst professor Robert Frost, the road less traveled.