Experiment Sparks Architectural Debate
new science center has a lot of weight to carry on its sandstone
shoulders. “[The center] is critically necessary to ensure…the
entire College’s intellectual strength and academic excellence,”
President Nancy Dye said in 1998.
But for all the millions spent on the construction of the building,
its success is largely dependent on student whimsy. The College
is crossing its fingers that Obies will throw Frisbees on the new
lawn, crack books open in the library and chat in the commons.
Clearly none of this merrymaking is possible, however, if students
think the building is an eyesore.
“[It] doesn’t fit in well with the buildings around
it. It’s still nice, though,” first-year Jaeda Couhtino
said, expressing a sentiment shared by some other students.
But exactly what kind of building “fits in” at Oberlin?
A walk around Tappan Square offers a virtual slideshow history of
the last 800 years in architecture, from the brawny Romanesque of
Peters, to the cereal box aesthetics of Mudd, to the whitewashed
neoclassicism of the Con.
In his brief history of Oberlin’s architecture, the late Professor
Geoffrey Blodgett noted that the individualism prized so dearly
by Oberlin has also produced a family of buildings which could be
aptly termed dysfunctional.
“The College has regarded its physical past, distinct from
its moral past, as something to be discarded and transcended,”
Blodgett wrote in 1979. “Each building is often architecturally
irrelevant to what had gone before or what [is to] come next.”
“The Science Center [adds] just another totally discordant
note to our campus,” Professor of Architecture Andy Shanken
Some students remarked that the new building should have been modeled
after Oberlin’s medievalesque structures, such as Severance
“I really like Severance partly because of its [rough] stone
and wooden floors,” sophomore Yepsen Rhodesey said.
But the ornamental facades and cut stonewalls that some crave are
longer feasible, according to the architects of the Center.
“We couldn’t aspire to emulate that older era of architecture,”
principal architect of the center Robert Schnaffer said. “[If
we did] it would have ended up looking like a cartoon of those buildings.
We just don’t have that kind of workmanship anymore.”
Schnaffer’s Boston-based firm, Payette Associates, crafted
several models of the center in the late ’90s before the College
made a choice. Many of these miniatures, detailed down to the streets,
trees and pathways of north campus, show vastly different buildings
than the one that stands today.
One discarded design features a lone tower above the commons; another
has scattered turrets jutting out of the roof. The original blueprint
envisioned the complex as a massive, fortress-like structure enclosing
a central courtyard.
“I rejected [this plan] because it did not mesh with the campus,”
president Dye said.
“It was too solid,” Schnaffer said. “Then it occurred
to me to break up the facade with stone boxes separated by glass
and steel. So now we have these little satellites.” He noted
that from afar the Science Center resembles a “village”
of buildings clustered as in a medieval town.
Shanken offers a quite different spin on it — “strip
“[The center] has this generic manner that has been incorporated
into a lot of institutional buildings,” Shanken said.
Students were also polarized about individual features of the facade.
“The sandstone is a total failure,” senior Neil Freeman
said, referring to the world famous Amherst sandstone (from an Ohio
quarry) which gives a Finney finish to Payette’s signature
crisp and modern style.
Few had kind words for the silver smokestacks rising above the roof,
which filter out fumes from the many labs in the building.
“[They] remind me of a factory,” Rhodesey remarked.
In general, students and faculty were more enthusiastic about the
interior of the building with its roomy lab and lecture spaces.
Obies raved especially about the commons, a wall-less lounge off
the library, which lights up at night as the brightest spot on campus.
A lot of the [College’s] energy has no place to go after dark.
But the commons gives a sense of ‘there,’” Shanken
The commons and the library were both central to Oberlin’s
goal: to bring the whole College into the science community. So
far these efforts are bearing fruit. Night finds a flurry of sleep-deprived
activity in both spaces. And massive science texts aren’t
the only things students are reading. But some students criticized
the flow inside of the building, bemoaning, for example, the steep
steps between Wright and the East Wing.
“It’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.
You don’t feel [like] you have any right moving between the
two buildings,” Freeman said.
The New Science center is not alone in its mixed welcome; few of
the College buildings erected in the last century have escaped ridicule.
In 1974, Mudd was the butt of all jokes, at least among architecture
students. This was before Obies discovered womb chairs and the world
If history is any indication, students will, before long, happily
tune into this latest “discordant note” on campus.