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Best-Laid Plans? Champlain College builds a case for urban architecture


Published July 24, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Jordan Silverman

The word “entrepreneurial,” when used in association with architecture, is usually a harbinger of disaster. Those who fancy themselves entrepreneurs tend to build expecting a fast return on the buck, and that inevitably leads to cheap design and construction.

Thus a tip of the cap is due Champlain College, which prides itself on being a scrappy, entrepreneurial institution. It is striving, in fact, to become a high-tech, higher education institution in step with the times, and the future. A look at plans for further expansion suggests that college officials have decided good architecture attracts students and is thus worth the investment.

This has significant consequences for Burlington — particularly the residential neighborhood around the school. Cham-plain College is poised to begin a $30-million construction project that, if completed as planned, will add three major new buildings to the historic Hill Section. Construction on the $10-million Center for Global Business and Technology was slated to begin on Maple Street until a last-minute Act 250 appeal — lodged on procedural grounds — stayed the groundbreaking.

A new $13-million Student Life Complex, to replace the dismal and boxy, uncontextual Hamrick Hall, is also advancing through its permitting processes. The Main Street Suites and Conference Center is currently on hold, presumably in order to finish raising the necessary $6 million. College officials promise the project will move forward.

All three buildings are the work of venerable Burlington architect Tom Cullins, of Truex Cullins & Partners. He also designed Champlain College’s Miller Information Commons, which was completed in 1998. Miller is a good reference point for envisioning how the three new buildings will fit into the cityscape.

At most other schools, Miller would be known as “the library.” But Champlain, which wishes to embrace technology and educate students in using it, has a dearth of books and thus opted to build a big computer center. The architectural challenge for the building was its chosen site on Sum-mit Street, between two elegant, dignified, former mansions — one of which, Aiken Hall, was designed by A.B. Fisher, the dean of Victorian Vermont residential architects. The site also directly adjoins a tranquil garden long cherished by the neighborhood.

With the able assistance of his associate Mike McCann, Cullins put the building’s few stacks in the basement and, aboveground, crafted an edifice that manages to pay homage to its Victorian neighbors while embracing a distinctly contemporary design sensibility. Beau-tiful and harmonious, Miller is a fitting backdrop for the public garden it overlooks.

One need not look far to discover failed attempts at integrating the old and the new on area campuses. With Bicentennial Hall, Middlebury College strove to evoke the feel of its distinctive signature building, Old Chapel, but ended up creating an outsized, grotesque parody whose fortress-like ambiance disfigures that college’s skyline.

The University of Vermont turned its glorious Billings Library into an underutilized relic by constructing an unremarkable addition and rechristening the complex a student center. Most real activity was consigned to this addition, and the life was sucked out of a masterpiece by H.H. Richardson, the greatest American architect of the 19th century.

Champlain College has its share of graceless or nearly graceless buildings, too. The aforementioned Hamrick arrogantly ignores its context, perhaps because architects of the ’50s and ’60s thought they were reinventing architecture from scratch. Two 1980s buildings, Alumni Auditorium and the Hauke Center, apparently proceed from the equally dubious hypothesis that one can make a modern building look sufficiently Victorian just by slapping on a big pitched roof. Oddest of all is the Joyce Learning Center, whose east and west façades look like big, green, wooden billboards framed by brickwork and a pitched roof.

Cullins says he avoided these pitfalls by bearing in mind that what makes Victorian architecture great is its elegant details — the textures evoked by green-painted shingles juxtaposed against red brick and pink granite; the elaborate fenestration; the division of the building mass itself into discrete modules that form a harmonious composition. But rather than imitate these things, the architect strove to create “current and future-oriented” details, using technologies and gestures that had not yet been invented in Fisher’s time.

Principally this is achieved through the use of glass. Circular windows are playful, plentiful and artfully positioned. A stair tower overlooking the garden is housed within a rounded curtain wall of glass. Particularly in the upper levels, where the views of Lake Champlain and the Adiron-dacks are among the best in town, glazing is likewise ubiquitous and welcome.

Although Cullins does not use the word “postmodern” to describe Miller — probably not wanting to associate his creation with that discredited retreat-into-the-past characteristic of 1980s design — the building does achieve its novelty in part by some odd allusions to architectural history. The brackets that seem to support the roof are characteristic of the eclectic “stick” style that flourished in the 1860s and ’70s. The overall rectangular building form, with its temperately pitched roof culminating in a ring of overhanging eaves, evokes the early prairie-style homes of Frank Lloyd Wright. Adding these elements to a Victorian context is amusing and ultimately successful. If you want proof that Cullins can design in an unabashedly modern idiom, check out his U.S. border station at the north end of Interstate 89.

The student center promises to be the most interesting of the three new buildings, according to architectural plans. McCann calls the design “a real shoehorn,” given the designated site on the tightly planned campus. Much of the needed square footage is underground, with atriums and skylights to bring natural light into the athletic facilities at subterranean level. The form of the building is more straightforwardly modern than Miller, and the ghost of Hamrick will persist in the flat roof above the gymnasium.

The architects’ idea is to make this roof an earthen one, since the sloping site could make the space accessible as a lawn or garden. The building is engineered to make this possible, if Champlain ever raises the money. Here’s hoping it does. Earth makes great insulation, and creating architecture in this manner literally makes buildings at one with their surrounding landscape.

Residents of Harrington Terrace cannot be overjoyed with the prospect of their private lane being transformed into a collegiate thoroughfare — the Main Street Suites and Conference Center will be built at what is now the road’s dead end. Whether or not the students make good neighbors, they will at least inhabit good architecture. Cullins massed the building so that its two main elements align with and thus punctuate the rows of tightly packed houses that line Harrington Terrace.

To avoid the stultifying symmetry this plan could generate, an artful arrangement of brick, clapboard, stone pediment and porch will break things up, making the building the most pleasing of the firm’s at Champlain. Further, it will be a dignified and energetic stride by the school onto the prominent Main Street corridor now dominated by UVM.

Only the new Center for Global Business and Technology warrants some aesthetic concern. Consistent with the college’s long-term campus plan, this building will close the quadrangle formed by Miller, its two adjoining mansions and Hauke. Maple Street travelers will likely miss the open space; the hillside lawn leads to a sweeping view of Miller and its west-facing tower, which was meant to be read as a kind of lighthouse of knowledge. To make the business and technology center fully contextual, the architects had to replicate the awkwardly aggressive roofline of Hauke, to which the new building will be connected by an enclosed pedestrian bridge.

Aligned with this bridge is a loggia along the south face of the building. Together these features will add a sense of serenity while providing welcome shelter from the elements for those who pass through the quad. They also make this addition to the campus a success from a visual standpoint.

The new buildings at Champlain are not exciting or innovative enough to win the biggest architectural awards; those laurels are reserved for projects that swoop and soar in the manner of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Spain. But collectively the Cullins work achieves something perhaps even more remarkable — solid architecture that adds to its historic neighborhood without merely imitating the established fabric.

According to Cullins, credit goes to Champlain College president Roger Perry for waging a successful struggle against expediency and mediocrity. In turn, Perry credits his family heritage. “I was brought up in a family business that specializes in paintings and restoration,” he ex-plains. No wonder, then, that good buildings are among his priorities.

College presidents notwithstanding, many a great campus building project has been ruined by a school’s trustees, who shoulder significant fundraising responsibility and thus often have veto power over architectural decisions. Along those lines, Perry refers with evident glee to a trustee discussion that occurred when the Miller project had gone over budget. When the inevitable call to scale back was made, Perry recalls one trustee proclaiming: “Gentlemen, this is no dump that you and I build commercially.”

Amen! Some day, perhaps the commercial districts of the greater Burlington area will also be built for the ages. Meantime, we can thank Champlain College for doing exactly that.