Design Review Committee is Mistaken

Nobody directly asked me, but I feel an urge to comment on the current dust-up over the proposed Berry Library. I disagree with just about every point the Design Review Committee makes in their recently-publicized list of objections.

The Design Review Committee (DRC) alleges that the proposed building’s “massive length” creates a barrier between the existing campus and the proposed north quadrangle. The Berry design appears to me no wider east-to-west than the existing Baker Library edifice, a building that presently effects a dramatic division between the green and almost all points north. The proposed building could not possibly aggravate this division, and may indeed ameliorate it by providing another front for a building complex that now has an unsightly rear. (I almost wish the Berry design was even wider so as to require the razing of SAE.)

The DRC finds that the Berry design fails to relate “in a substantive way” to Baker. I disagree. The west and east ends appear to me to meld with Baker in both scale and in material, especially since recent alterations now call for more brick. The height of the building will not obscure Baker Tower from any angle, and I suspect that the tower will appear interestingly bizarre from the northern vantage over the top of Berry. The contrast between the mill-quoting design of the Berry facade and the neo-Georgian arrogance of Baker, the efficient-looking lines of the Berry with the insistently inefficient lines and spaces of the sprawling Baker, appeals to me. And the material quotations of the old in the new guarantee that these bold contrasts will prompt fruitful comparison, not just feelings of discord and disjunction. Baker speaks of a Dartmouth where substance took second place to appearances; Berry suggests the opposite without being snotty or condescending about it (even though I am).

The DRC’s point about the “clarity” of Dartmouth’s “Colonial past” escapes me entirely. I am not aware of any colonial period building of any architectural significance on this campus. Dartmouth Hall (1784) is very old, but not pre-revolutionary. Perhaps the handsomest buildings on the green, Rollins Chapel and Wilson, have nothing colonial about them at all. And as to the “18th-century Cartesian rationality” that the DRC thinks we ought to preserve (Descartes, however, was a pre-revolutionary thinker), the less we dwell on that, say I, the better. Cartesian dualism was due for a rest long ago, but Dartmouth failed to recognize that until quite recently.

The DRC cites Cummings Hall as a good example of reinterpreting the adjacent old with a spirit of the new. That’s fairly true, but Cummings Hall was never intended to be a major architectural anchor to any section of the campus. Berry is supposed to be just that, and as such, it ought to be big, singular and remarkable, not a mere “addition” either to an existing building or even an existing section of campus.

I find I disagree so sharply with the DRC largely because I cannot share their assumptions about what this project should be and what it should say. This project, the largest and most significant campus building undertaken since The Hopkins Center, should not settle for being nothing more than “a seamless connection between the original campus and the northern quadrangle,” especially since the original campus is either somewhere in Connecticut, or Dr. Wheelock’s first Hanover log cabin. The Berry Library, whatever else it might be, should NOT be just more of the same neo-Georgian doggerel. Dartmouth deserves a vision of a brighter, more adventurous future. A building “that fundamentally relates to Baker Library” would be a building that sends messages I cannot condone. Baker was never a good library building; it has always valued monumental arrogance over access to the collection, tower over stacks, portrait-laden hallways over bookshelves. The building sends anti-intellectual messages both inside and out. The Berry design should announce a break with those messages even as it acknowledges Dartmouth’s past.

Finally, the Dartmouth campus is not, never has been, and I hope never will be “experienced as a cohesive whole.” Any institution of Dartmouth’s age, over two centuries, ought to exhibit traces in its architecture of all the eras it has inhabited. It should not try to concoct a false uniformity or cohesion that obscures its age, its maturity, and its recognition of the contingencies of history in the life of an old institution. Visitors in the next century will look for signs of every era in Dartmouth’s rich and various past. Let’s not disappoint them by trying to pretend history, even Dartmouth’s history, is full of “Colonial clarity,” “seamless” connections, and a $40 million building without a “separate identity.”

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