Today’s post comes from Taylor Shoolery, Vassar College Class of 2012 and Vassar Center Student Docent.
Often times when an art historian examines a building, he or she isolates the structure from its surroundings. Yesterday, Nicholas Adams, Mary Conover Mellon Professor in the History of Architecture, discussed the way buildings at Vassar speak to each other. For the penultimate installment of the weekly Insights on Site series, the group convened outside Rockefeller Hall, brandishing umbrellas to combat the drizzle on a less than ideal day for an outdoor talk. But my displeasure with the weather soon evaporated as Mr. Adams explained how the discerning eye might view this intersection of buildings. At the first glance of Rockefeller Hall, the Thompson Memorial Library, its two additions, Raymond House, and Chicago Hall there does not seem to be much in common. But Mr. Adams urged us to ask the question what were the architects originally trying to do? Standing outside Rocky, as the building is fondly known, facing the Library we asked why, in 1905, would the architects, Allen and Collens, have designed the library in a Gothic style? Rocky was seven years old at the time and perhaps Allen and Collens wanted their building to be distinct from the Dutch influenced building across the way. But from where we stood, Rocky and the Library were possibly the least bizarre juxtaposition of styles.
Our eyes were drawn to Chicago Hall, the home of Vassar’s foreign language department. In an effort to avoid the rain, we ducked into the atrium of this wacky building. If you’ve spent any time on the Vassar campus you will have seen the odd lattice, large glass windows, and rolling rooftop that constitute Chicago’s exterior, but unless you’ve got a passion for studying Russian, French, or the likes, you may not have stepped across the threshold. When the building was renovated an attempt was made to brighten the stark space. On the list of changes made to the building that Mr. Adams would “wish away” were the white paint slathered on the cement walls and the rusty-red paint on the window frames. This renovation project perhaps ended up detracting from the original goal of the building. The interior originally mimicked the gothic library, not in architectural style, but in character. Mr. Adams reminisced about Chicago prior to the renovation: “It reminded me of walking through casemates of a medieval castle.” Now perhaps that isn’t the ideal academic environment, but it is a neat effect. Adjacent to several impressive structures, Chicago’s exterior was supposed to be thin, light, and practically invisible, “like a series of billowing tents,” said Adams. The peculiar lattice structure was inspired by the shapes scientists encountered when they peered for the first time in the 1930’s into electron microscopes. By 1959, when Chicago was built, these shapes were very much in architectural style.
The last buildings we examined were the two additions to the library, the Helen Lockwood Library addition, built in 1977, and the Martha Rivers and E. Bronson Ingram Library addition, built in 2001. The Lockwood addition is a brute, fortress like, concrete building. n its own odd way, it bridges the gap between the surrounding architectural styles. It both mimics Taylor Hall on the far side of the library while being aware it is located next to the concrete Chicago Hall. The architects on the project, Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, were primarily involved with corporate work in the 1970’s, which seems to have noticeable effects on this geometric building. The Rivers and Ingram addition, designed by Hugh Hardey most directly drew not from the Lockwood addition or the original library, but from Raymond House. The red brick exterior mirrors that of the dormitories on the residential quad. Incidentally, Hardy is the only architect to be a member of the set design guild, a spot on his resume that is embodied in this building in the way that the corporate experience of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum is in Rivers.
Mr. Adams concluded, “Every building is an idea of its own time and an idea from its own time.” Each of these buildings is certainly rooted in its chronology and its relationship to the surrounding structures.