Swarthmore College science center

NOTE: All criticism in this post is directed at individual buildings, not at Swarthmore College. I am currently applying to colleges, and Swarthmore is one of my top choices because it values the type of critical thinking that I feel a post like this is based upon.

There’s no doubt about the fact that Swarthmore College is beautiful. Its rolling landscape and stone buildings have a charm that is at once grand and intimate. And one stunning modern building — the Lang Music Building, by Romaldo Giurgola — adds another level of intelligent design (not referring to God) to the campus.

But for architects hired by the college to design contemporary buildings, this beauty is a challenge — it increases the temptation to design ersatz faux-old buildings. Architects in recent years have tried to fight that temptation, settling instead for a sort of Renzo Piano deferential — ‘classy’ — contemporary design vocabulary. The architect William Rawn, whom I blogged about before, did two dorms, which manage that style successfully. They are slightly boring to me (I blogged about my predisposition to boredom the other day) but Rawn’s cleverness and sureness of hand do lend them a unique and not at all unpleasant air.

No, Rawn’s dorms are not the big problem at Swarthmore. Rather, it’s EYP Architecture’s Unified Science Center.

The building tries so hard. So hard. It has broken-up forms, flat roofs and two different stone claddings. It has lots of elegant wood strips on the interior, along with exposed concrete floors, and plenty of glass for architectural transparency. It is LEED certified. It has a dedicated ‘outdoor classroom,’ as well as a number of open interior gathering spaces for informal interaction. It asserts its modernism with dramatically rising metal-clad roofs above the entrances and atriums.

Though there are a few nice elements of this building, and it does seem to be making a valiant effort, it’s ultimately a failure. Its modern details feel forced and contrived — conceived not as a part of a holistic design but out of a nervous need to assert modernity on a quaint old campus. Good contemporary architecture comes from a powerful idea of expression; this building expresses, above all else, a fear — one held probably by both the college and the architects — that the college’s traditional elegance could be spoiled, and that no contemporary building can match it in beauty or sheer power.

This fear manifests itself throught the Unified Science Center. In the ‘tasteful’ use of different types of stone along with steel and concrete, in the nervous breaking up of the building’s forms. In its absurdly kitschy contemporary details, all of which seem to have been ripped directly fromt the pages of Dwell Magazine.

Here an outdoor stone pathway leads away from an entrance of the building. In the upper left-hand corner of the photo you can see the end of a gutter leading into an infiltration bed, used for harvesting rainwater. Though the idea of harvesting rainwater is an honorable one — it exemplifies Swarthmore’s commitment to the environment — the way this gutter and bed are designed is truly unfortunate. The entire design of this area of the building smacks of pretentiousness and showing off, as if the college is more interested in looking environmentally conscious than being environmentally conscious.

Precious details like this gutter system and the stone path can be found throughout the building. After a little bit of time spent in and around the building, it’s almost nauseating.

“Look at us,” the college seems to be saying through this building. “Look how we care for the environment and give our students a progressive education.” At Swarthmore, both of those things are true. The education a student receives has a great deal more depth than this ostentatious, superficial building.

Photographs courtesy Jeff Goldberg of Esto.

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