Design: Designing Sarah Lawrence

Although conscripted by creationists in the eighties and nineties, the term “intelligent design” is worth redeploying to cover the myriad ways in which design, as noun and verb, combines purpose, planning, and execution.

Design is an intelligent address to the future. Sarah Lawrence College was designed with an idea in mind—education focused on the individual, an open curriculum, seminars and independent student work mentored by faculty dons, and the belief that academic life should not be sequestered from the rest of campus life. The physical design of the campus, built around the Lawrence family’s initial gift of Westlands, their home and surrounding 12 acres, was propelled by this educational vision. The human scale of the buildings and the way they house a mix of faculty and administrative offices, classrooms, and dorm rooms are testaments to this educational ideal.

Yet good designs deal creatively with constraints and are open to adjustment. The special demands and properties of both a science building and a visual arts building naturally led the College to depart from its concept of mixed use. The aesthetic effect, not to mention the health hazard, of awakening to the smell of sulphur from the chemistry lab or paint from the studio demanded a change of plan. Similarly, the College’s goal of dealing with the whole student—not just the intellectual well-being—necessitated a building dedicated to physical sport and exercise.

To maintain its mission and to manage growth, the College developed a “master plan” in 2000 to explore future sites for housing campus activities as well as natural spaces. On a 40-acre campus, a physical plan must be intelligent and efficient, since all components are in such proximity. Intelligent design led us to purchase the Rwandan Embassy on Wrexham Road to house our graduate and continuing education programs, and to acquire Hill House, addressing a severe shortage in student housing. Intelligent design also must embrace sustainability, which has led to the “greening” of Warren house this summer (see Sustainability at Sarah Lawrence).

As we plan for our next major fundraising campaign, another mixed-use building is needed. The growth of the student body has led to overcrowding in our residential facilities and the “tripling” of almost 40 rooms which were originally meant for two people. Growth has also prevented us from maximizing communal spaces for our students, including informal spaces for serendipitous gatherings. The Board of Trustees, advised by its Facilities Committee, has approved this new building project as part of our next campaign, and a small, ad hoc committee of staff, students, and faculty is beginning to discuss the functions and scope of the building. The design planning comes later, after we have secured the necessary funding and have formed a committee to select an architectural firm.

As crucial as the design of the physical plant is to a college like ours, the concept of intelligent design extends well beyond it. I recently read an article by the president of Clemson University, James Barker, entitled “The Architect as University President.” President Barker actually happens to be an architect, so his title is literal. He believes that his training as a designer of spaces for human interaction prepared him well to design a university community. As a teacher of literature, I cannot make the same claim, although, when given a chance, I will argue that studying the architecture of a novel can teach us something important about the “design of life.” The point is that designing a college community includes its human as well as its physical dimensions. Each year one of our most important architectural feats is to design a first-year class both exciting and diverse.

As we begin the new academic year, the entire campus community, including our extended community of alumnae/i, is invited to participate in designing the future of our College. Most of the goals outlined in the 1997 strategic plan have been accomplished, and we are embarking on another plan to address our strengths, challenges, and opportunities. You will be hearing more about this process over the next academic year, as we extend our Deweyan past into the future. Rest assured that Sarah Lawrence College will always be a place that encourages the anomalous and the adventurous. Our planning process will strongly support our historical mission and spirit as we address our future needs. I look forward to further conversations with all constituents of the Sarah Lawrence community on just how we will accomplish these goals.

Karen Lawrence

Karen Lawrence

Karen Lawrence on Bloomsday

Photo by Chris Taggart

On Bloomsday (June 16), President Karen Lawrence gave a presentation about James Joyce to the Bronxville Rotary Club, complete with a Chinese translation of Ulysses and her favorite Joyce T-shirt.