Dartmouth’s Newest Buildings

An artist’s rendering of the new Life Sciences Center, still under construction.By Benjamin M. Riley

The Dartmouth campus has a few features which one might term ubiquitous: green trees that turn blaze orange in the fall; clueless freshmen; black North Face jackets; and of course, Georgian architecture. Starting with the Dartmouth Hall cluster and continuing through in diluted fashion in most new constructions (let us not speak of the abhorrent Choates,) nearly all buildings on the Dartmouth campus are, at their core, Georgian. Indeed, Dartmouth’s campus features some of the finest examples of Georgian and Federal architecture in New England, high praise given the saturation of Federal style buildings northeast of New York. From the stark simplicity of Dartmouth Hall to the stout strength of Webster Hall, home of Rauner Library, Dartmouth’s buildings are superlative examples of the best of traditional American styles. 

As the campus has expanded, the College has done a more than adequate job of maintaining a consistent visual lexicon, creating a true sense of architectural harmony. And yet starting with the Choates, the College has often seemingly lost its way. While the buildings built in the 1960s and later are nominally Georgian, many seem out of place. Perhaps it is the fact that the buildings are increasingly built with the environment in mind or perhaps it is that modern architects lack the natural eye towards Georgian ideals that earlier ones did, but whatever the case may be, recent college buildings have been, for lack of a better term, a bit ‘off.’ Take 2006’s McLaughlin Cluster of dormitories as an example. The buildings feature the requisite nods to the Federal ideal yet are ultimately lacking the details that make Dartmouth’s buildings so great. Featuring strange lines and bereft of shutters, the buildings look out of place. Combine that with their location off the campus’ beaten track and they are not merely out of place but also out in space. A definite misstep by all accounts, except for those lucky freshmen who get to live in their carpeted two-room doubles and enjoy ample common space. 

And so after that slight yet critical digression, I now turn my attention to the ongoing architectural projects that plague the Dartmouth campus. Let me back up a second. Construction projects are necessary evils; buildings do, after all, need to be built. Is it not true, however, that construction projects on this campus seem to take significantly longer than necessary? It’s like I-287 in suburban New York, always apparently under construction and yet never finished. According to the official website of the College’s Office of Planning, Design & Construction, there are three projects currently under construction.

The first and most visible of these projects is the new, long-awaited, Visual Arts Center. Located behind the Hood Museum of Art, the VAC, also currently known as that large square hole in the ground, will house the Studio Art and Film & Media Studies departments. It will contain studios, an auditorium, classrooms, and much like every building on this campus, offices. Unfortunately, it appears as if the headaches that construction has caused (many have complained about the incessant noise and clouds of dust) will give the Dartmouth campus yet another off-point building. It won’t be a blight upon this campus: there is little chance of that with proven architects Machado and Silvetti of Boston at the helm. By the looks of the plans and renderings, however, it will be incoherent. Featuring strange protrusions of glass and a curious multicolored façade that seems to be a trademark of the architects, it will have almost nothing in common with the campus it abuts. Indeed, its closest counterparts are the Hood Museum, with its odd shape, and the Hopkins Center, with its misplaced frontal glass windows. Why is it that the buildings of the creative arts are those that are the most out of place on this beautiful campus? All three are newer buildings, which perhaps explains it all. I do not mean to be a paleoconservative philistine, but there are ways to integrate the Federal dialect into new designs, ways that were simply ignored. That end of campus is not hideous and yet it seems as if there were opportunities wasted in the past, and yet again wasted here. 

All that said, the need for a Visual Arts Center was, if not pressing, at the very least justified. Too long has the Film Department been sequestered in the corners of the second floor of Wilson Hall and for too long have Drawing 1 classes been plagued by students casually departing to grab Billy Bobs right outside the door at the Hop. In a gracious push-back against the burgeoning tide of the quantitative, the school has decided to throw a bone back to the creative side of Dartmouth. Too bad the aesthetically-minded will find themselves in a building that can hardly be called the same.

The next building being constructed is the “Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center.” While not perfect, either, it is much more in keeping with the architectural style for which Dartmouth’s campus is famous. Of course, unlike the Visual Arts Center, which sits in plain view in downtown Hanover, the new Life Sciences Center is tucked near the medical school, far from the eyes of any humanities students, except when fulfilling their TAS requirements. Tall and long, with a double longitudinal plan, the red brick building bears the heritage of the two hundred year old architectural traditions of this fine college than one might expect a sciences building to be. Two story windows rise from the ground, and it is topped by what will undoubtedly be a shimmering glass roof. While the plan can hardly be called either Federal or Georgian, it melds with the campus nicely. Though forward-thinking, it is not avant-garde and perhaps its success lies in that distinction. The building will house labs, offices, and classrooms and be a haven for Dartmouth’s current and aspiring biologists. 

As I have little knowledge of what goes on in current science buildings, I will not even attempt to detail what will go on in the new Life Sciences Center. As the study of biology requires space and equipment specific, however, I do understand the need for a new center to be built. I just won’t find myself there too often, if at all.

The final construction project to be discussed is not a new building, but rather a refurbishment and redesign of an old one. Yes, I’m speaking about the Class of 1953 Commons. At this point I expect the reader to look up from the paper with a puzzled look upon his face, brow furrowed, attempting to figure out just where said building is. Look no further than Thayer Dining Hall. Stripped of its dignified name and made, ironically enough, common, Thayer is now the Class of 1953 Commons. Whatever that means. Along with the name change comes reconstruction, which, while it saves money, required the closure of the dining hall this past summer, and which continues to disrupt DDS operations. Sections of both Homeplate and Food Court and closed off and it is not unusual to be strutting down the runway at FoCo only to hear a screeching drilling noise emanating from the center of the room.  Now, if the new construction on the building will save money, then of course the Review is all for it. But at least the school could have kept the name. No offense to the class of ’53, but Thayer was a fine name. It was easy enough to say with two simple syllables and evocative of Old Dartmouth. Most important, there was not a thing wrong with it. And so we are left with a mouthful and not a tasty one. It is not clear exactly what will be gained by the construction. Murmurs of dynamic stir-fry stations and hearth ovens abound but who can say? The College’s website for the project is down. Whatever it is, I’m still calling it Thayer.

Ultimately, building construction is an integral part of the much talked about ‘Dartmouth experience.’ There is hardly a time when a crane is not picking up something somewhere and dropping it another place, hardly a time when some power tool is not buzzing in some corner of campus. And of course it is impossible for the College to please everyone in the construction and renovation of buildings. But all we ask is for the upkeep of the old traditions, lest they fail.