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Commentary: The Evolving Landscape of the Smith Campus

By Gretchen Schneider ’92

Do you remember the first time you stepped onto the Smith campus? For me, it was a late October afternoon, 18 years ago. It was getting dark, as late October afternoons do; I remember leaves, lots of leaves. Garrison Hall (where the admissions office was in those days) seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, and the building was locked. I was a high school senior, not at all sure that I wanted anything to do with this “all girls” thing; I had no clue about the process of college visits, and I was entirely intimidated. But the porch provided me a place to wait, and then this student came and took me with her to Thursday night dinner at Baldwin House, where the dining room was decidedly bright and lively and my story with this campus began.

I came to Smith because of its campus. I’ve known the landscape of the Smith campus as a student; I know it now as an architect and as a faculty member.

The changing landscape of the Smith campus provides rich material for teaching architecture. Eighteenth-century Sessions House stands next to its Victorian “annex,” with the high International Style Cutter and Ziskind houses and unabashedly turn-of-the-21st-century Campus Center across the street. Architectural examples from throughout the past few centuries of American building sit here. The campus is my classroom. I start my introductory studio each September by taking the students on a walk outside our door.

What do you think of when you imagine the campus? Is it a particular structure, or is it the trees and the pond and the lawns in between? The Smith campus is an eclectic mix of buildings that for better and worse speak of their times. (How we define “better” and “worse” changes with the times, too.) The landscape -- Olmsted’s design, and now Shavaun Towers’ and Cornelia Oberlander’s -- is what holds it all together. Some campuses attempt coherence by adhering to strict architectural style codes. Stanford’s mission style, Harvard Business School’s neo-Georgian, and University of Virginia’s deference to Thomas Jefferson come to mind. The Smith campus takes a different approach. Yet even with our broad variety, when you step on Smith grounds, you certainly recognize that you’re “there.” It’s the space between our buildings, rather than our buildings, that makes our campus gel.

The Smith campus is not stuck in time, and this is an extraordinary message to send our students as well as to all who work and visit here. This is also a campus that has been intentionally intertwined with the city of Northampton since its founding. College Hall purposefully sits at one end of Main Street. When the Great Quadrangle was built in the early 1920s, half of the 2,000 Smith students were living in boarding houses and apartments in the surrounding neighborhoods. The first freestanding college chapel was not built until the 1950s; for the initial 80 years of the college, students were expected to attend one of the many churches in town. Unlike the University of Massachusetts or Hampshire College, more “stand alone” campuses at some distance from the center of town, the city of Northampton and Smith have literally grown up around each other. As plans progress for a science center in the area of Green and West streets, we are reminded that this growth is not always easy.

The last major expansion of the campus was the Quad, nearly 85 years ago. Since then for the past 50 years, Smith’s new construction has slowly filled in its campus. Wright Hall was nestled on the hillside between Neilson Library and Chapin House. McCon­nell and Sabin-Reed, and then Bass Hall, completed the Science Quad. A generation ago, the separate Victorian structures of Hillyer, Graham and Tryon were combined into a single big new one; five years ago, the Fine Arts Center was completely transformed again.

The Brown Fine Arts Center, the Olin Fitness Center, the Lyman Plant House, the Campus Center -- all of Smith’s recent major projects have been renovations or have filled in campus gaps. The Campus Center took over a parking lot. Olin sits on the roof of Scott’s former pool; its large transparent room is stitched on top and woven between the existing gymnasiums. The Plant House addition is mostly tucked underground, allowing clear views from the Campus Center to Paradise Pond and the Holyoke Range. In very different ways, this permeability into and across our campus is a common characteristic of all Smith’s new buildings. One can stand on the sidewalk at Elm Street in front of the Campus Center, for example, and see -- and walk -- through the building to Chapin Lawn. The entire structure is based on a sky-lit path that connects the city and the college communities, day and night. The upcoming science and engineering building promises similar strategies.

Among Smith’s architectural variety, a few things are constant. Our buildings use solid materials -- wood, brick, stone, glass, steel -- that suggest a permanence, regardless of style. The textures and rhythms of these materials create fine-grained patterns and a daily cycle of shade and shadow lines. Frequent, regularly spaced openings and windows provide multiple ways to see the activity, inside or out. Doors face paths and sidewalks, not parking lots. Smith architecture supports the landscape in which it sits, meaning that lawns, grass and trees have a presence; plants are much more than something to decorate a building.

These sound like little things, but collectively, they’re powerful. While we can all think of mid-century exceptions, as the Smith campus evolves, this is something that’s getting better and better.

Through my faculty eyes, I now look at Smith’s architectural mix and suggest that the diversity of buildings and spaces reflects the college’s commitment to diversity in general -- encompassing people and opinions as well. Years ago, as a scholarship student new to the East Coast college world, I simply somehow sensed that Smith was an approachable place, which I felt the more singular neo-Georgian or collegiate Gothic campuses were not. Smith’s mix offered me an opening.

Gretchen Schneider teaches the architecture studios in the Smith Department of Art. This year, she is also working with Rogers Marvel Architects in New York City.

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