UpScale/DownScale: New Dorm Designs for Mead Way

"Problems By Design : Contemporary Architecture"
Advanced Architecture Seminar with Joseph Forte

With the support of Micheal Rengers, Director of Operations, and Tishan Hsu of the Visual Arts Department, students were given access to resources and information on the program, site and specifications of the proposed new structure: a dormitory on a sloping site facing the houses on Mead Way. The choice of site was conditioned by infrastructural needs, rebuilding a steam pipe that heats the pre-extant dorms, like Titsworth, and the demands for more singles, doing away with the triples that awkwardly housed students on campus. Four design teams were formed and were asked to function like architectural firms, dividing tasks according to interests and skills. Each team composed an image bank of sources and inspirations, a site analysis, and a graphic design and 3-D model. Each design included 90 dorm rooms, classrooms, faculty offices, and public space and should have an unexpected component that could act as a signifying element. Preliminary presentations were done in the first weeks of April. Presented here are the four final designs.

Two challenges were immediately apparent to all the design teams: the steep slope of the site and the question of context. The steep grade of the hill precluded monolithic solutions and placed a premium on inflecting the designs toward the slope. This was achieved in two ways: through an emphasis on circulation and by arranging the mass of the structures in discrete units along the hill. In both cases, designers had to think about the question of connection: how the user might make a path between functions and structures, how the site limited certain simple solutions like axiality and insisted on forms reflecting the broken terrain.

Given these factors, each team sought how best to achieve a unified effect. Preliminary compositions ranged from staggered high Modern white blocks (Balin, Castriota, Foster, and Nichols ) terraced elegant postmodern hybrids (Fahrner, Tackett, Morris), tongue in cheek, yet carefully planned, approximations of 60’s European Rationalism (Barnevik-McKeige, Hezel,and LaSalle) and a monumental neo-classical combination of a nomadic yurt and the Pantheon in Rome (Greiche, Hempel, and Lange,)—a University of Virginia on Mead Way.

It was clear that Polshek Partnerships’s Heimbold Visual Arts Center designed by Susan T. Rodriguez had transformed the architectural context for all subsequent Sarah Lawrence structures. The mock Tudor of the original 1920’s campus gives way to a 21 century situated modernism: inspired by the phenomenological method of establishing the aesthetic experience of place, sited by sensitive diagrammatic analysis of the whole campus realized in the internal and external composition, combining the vocabulary of the modernist architecture with an integrated use of man made and natural materials. And like the LEED certified green Heimbold, all designs expressed the need for sustainable practice. Mead Way itself was a crucial element in the final designs, acting as a vector for movement, a barrier for breaching, a composition for emulation or a backyard for play. In short these student designers demonstrate how the creative and intellective, the free play and contextual discipline of the Sarah Lawrence method can be effectively used to develop imaginative solutions to complex architectural problems.

—Joseph Forte
June 16, 2009