New campus planner looks toward future
In a move that signals a new era for the historic Bowdoin campus, the college has selected Philip Enquist of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, an urban planning partner with the firm that designed the Sears Tower, to create a master plan to guide campus development for the next decade. This is the first time the college has conceived a comprehensive campus plan, according to William Torrey, Bowdoin's top strategic planning official.
The college is in final contract negotiations with SOM and hopes to reach an agreement within two weeks. Torrey would not comment on the cost, except to say it will be "under a million dollars." He expects the school will initially work with the campus planners for a year, but expects an ongoing relationship.
Enquist's selection comes at a time when a college committee is examining how expanding the student population would impact the core mission of the school. President Barry Mills cautioned, however, that the hiring of a campus planner does not mean the college has committed to his proposal to expand the student body by 250.
"We probably would have [hired a planner] anyway," Mills said. "The goal is to create a relationship so we can think about future development comprehensively."
The move also shows a renewed commitment to creating ambitious architecture, he said. "We have to think about future buildings as important architectural statements that reflect the stature of the institution . . . and that enhance, enable and stand for what our academic life is about. It is vitally important that our facilities support Bowdoin's interdisciplinary nature through their form and function."
With the planners, the college will consider its limited options for meeting the facilities needs of the next decade, including the feasibility of relocating the hockey rink to the Farley Fields to free up space for a new academic or residence hall, completing the Stowe-Howard quadrangle by constructing new dormitories, building in the open spaces in front of Chamberlain hall and at the site of the financial aid office on Maine Street.
The choice of a modernist firm known for drafting black box cityscapes for corporate America rose some eyebrows across campus, but administrators said the hiring was for planning and not individual building contracts, and reflected the strength of the planner himself more than the character of SOM.
Scott Meiklejohn, a college development officer, said one of the chief pulls of the SOM team was how quickly they grasped Bowdoin's unique challenges as a small college with lots of neighbors. Meiklejohn's own office is tucked beneath the eaves of a converted residence on Federal Street. On his desk sits a copy of a front-page story from the Portland Press-Herald that's headline to a story about the new Psychology building that blares, "Cramped Bowdoin using up its room for growth."
"The firm understands that Bowdoin is a fairly complex place in terms of its relationship with Brunswick," he said. "We're right here in the middle of a developed neighborhood . . . and our planning challenges are similar to those of a much larger city, a Cambridge or a Chicago."
Enquist has worked in both cities. He recently developed the North Campus Plan for Harvard University and engineered the revitalization of Chicago's State Street, "that great street," in a pursuit to morph the lonely transit mall back into a vibrant urban avenue.
Jill Pearlman, an architectural historian and Bowdoin professor, hoped SOM's master plan would not eclipse the landscape plan Carol R. Johnson Associates drafted in 1996. "It's a wonderful document with some terrific ideas and I think Bowdoin still has a lot to gain from it. I'd love to see us put in some of the public spaces she has suggested."
Mills said the hiring of a campus planner would not sever the college's relationship with Johnson's firm. "We will figure out ways to use both [of the plans] to get the best result for the college."
"In many ways [the campus] is a public trust. The walk across the quad to Massachusetts Hall is what people remember after they graduate," Mills added. "The campus is a link to our history, to our future. Everything we do has to be respectful of what's here and as ambitious as the college's architecture has been in the past."
Torrey noted that creating a campus master plan could preclude a repeat of some past oversights.
"There had been several mistakes over the previous fifty years that don't leave you with many options today," he said. "In 1950, Bowdoin was struggling to fill the class - trying to get five hundred men up here in order to survive," so the school didn't worry so much about its physical makeup.
"Now we need to think carefully about utilizing space well, about making sure our buildings don't just face inward to the quad . . . that they are as welcoming as they can be, with a face to the town as well," he said.
Pearlman was unsure whether, working with a planner, Bowdoin could have avoided mistakes such as dropping the Visual Arts Center in the middle of the college's main entrance. "If you'd hired a master planner at that moment, [the planner] might have loved what [Edward Larrabee] Barnes did. Certainly, planners at that point were promoting the same kind of design sensibility Barnes had to offer," she said. "What may seem to us great now, may not seem so in a decade or two."
SOM was selected by Torrey's committee from among five finalists. Meiklejohn called the vote unanimous.
The other contenders were Venturi Scott Brown, Sasaki Associates, Philip Caldwell and Wallace Floyd, according to Torrey.
Pearlman said a good college campus is important for the role it can play in shaping American architecture and society - from the skyline to the strip - for years to come.
"We've made a mess of much of the physical landscape in the U.S. in the past few decades," she said. "Drive out to Cook's Corner and you'll see what I mean. Much of our world looks just like it, or worse."
"Bowdoin students," she said, will be among the people "deciding what kind of world we'll live in over the next few decades . . . enlightened citizens of tomorrow [with] a major voice in their communities. If Bowdoin can set an example with its campus of what good planning and design can do, that will contribute mightily to students' education and hopefully, to the future of the communities our students will live in."