Weiss/Manfredi’s Smith Campus Center

My favorite new building in Western Massachusetts is without a doubt Weiss/Manfredi’s new campus center at Smith College. Like all of my favorite contemporary architecture, this building is driven by a central good idea — in this case the idea of the building as a pathway between a busy street and the heart of the college. In plan, the building has a small, narrow end which reaches out towards the street, clad in white-painted wood and subtly distinguished from the neighboring historic houses. On the inside, the path that starts here widens as the entire building opens outwards to the campus — on this side the building is appropriately a much more assuming, dynamic structure.

More after the break.

The building’s central element, the path, is excellently done. A sinuous skylight follows its entire length, connecting it aesthetically and conceptually to the outdoor paths so characteristic of the Smith campus. And while in some cases the device of a building as a circulatory route can become more of an agent for imposing movement on users than a legitimate conception of architecture, at the Smith Campus Center this is not the case. The path opens upwards, downwards, and outwards, inviting passers-by to experience other parts of the building. An elegant line of tables running aside it encourages people to sit and relax, and a row of multicolored rooms visible through a glass wall draws attention to the building’s various uses and users. Here, the path becomes a space for socializing — a heart for the campus — rather than simply a vehicle for moving from Point A to Point B.

The Campus Center’s exterior aesthetic is also worth mentioning. Simple, white-painted wood cladding is drawn into swooping, angling forms, creating a delightful contrast between the old and the new (and referencing two interesting white-painted Modern brick dormitories across the street). As the building opens out on the campus side, it breaks into several different forms, angling outwards to meet the campus in various ways. This ingenious shaping allows the building to serve as a campus entry from two points, in addition to effectively becoming an extension of the campus’s main quadrangle.

The interior is equally well done. Elegant rooms of various colors are connected with clever circulation routes and generous use of glass. A large, wood-paneled, upper level auditorium is a particularly outstanding space.

The building does, however, have its share of flaws. There is a slight awkwardness in the way it is so crammed into its site, and its shipping/receiving dock is inelegantly exposed to the street (this has drawn a good deal of ire from local residents). In addition, some of the interior rooms seem to be trying too hard to be ‘mod’ with their color-coded, designer furniture and matching carpets.

But on the whole, this is quite a building. It effectively shows why the best architecture goes its own way — perhaps nodding to the past, but never bowing down to it.

Note: photographs in this post were taken by Jeff Goldberg of Esto and found at ArchDaily.

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