Roux and the architecture of authenticity
October 11, 2018
Rain drips outside, and the warm wood interior of the Roux Center for the Environment has a kind of hearth-like warmth. It’s Thursday morning, the day of the building’s dedication. I’m not here for class or for office hours, just to sit in the space and to look.
It’s easy to forget the beauty of architecture, even as we move through it each day, allow it to guide and define our existence within a place, particularly in the bustle and rush of life at Bowdoin. There’s a chance the Roux Center just might change that, if only temporarily. Students stop, just for a moment, and look at its form, its materiality and the way it inhabits the previously vacant lot on the corner of College Street and Harpswell Road.
The fact is that it doesn’t look like Bowdoin. Roux’s facade shares little with the iconic red bricks and white window frames. On Bowdoin’s southeast corner, Roux is disjointed in both geography and style from campus proper. This, however, is by design.
“I didn’t want to build a brick building,” said Timothy Mansfield P ’20, the principle designer of the building. “Environmental studies should not be brick.”
Mansfield should know—his firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, has been involved with the business of building Bowdoin for the last 15 years. Mansfield himself has worked on many campus projects, including Kanbar Hall and the Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness.
Designing Buck, Mansfield and his team were directed by then President Barry Mills to create a building “of our time.”
“I could easily have designed that as a brick Georgian thing right next to Smith [Union], and you would have been like, ‘oh there it is, blah blah.’ But screw that,” said Mansfield. “I felt that that was an opportunity, especially because it’s set back from the quad—it’s kind of a background building—to give it some presence.”
The design of Buck exemplifies much of the way Mansfield thinks about Bowdoin’s campus and informs how he wields his power in building and shaping it. His designs are not supposed to blend in easily into the campus’ nineteenth century buildings. He calls these buildings “interventions.”
There is, however, a commonality, a consistency, threaded through all of campus. It starts with Massachusetts Hall, the College’s original piece of infrastructure built cheaply by a Brunswick housewright and dedicated in 1802, and ends with Roux (built not-so-cheaply by a Boston-area design firm and dedicated yesterday). All the buildings speak with the same language: the vernacular of authenticity.
An authentic building is one that is true to its time, that carries internal meaning, not one that blindly mimics the style of those that came before. An authentic building is one built to be what it is. Accordingly, the design and style of Roux is inextricably bound to the study of the environment.
“What we did in our design session is that we started to think of the story of the building—the study of the environment, and we took along with us the metaphor of the Bowdoin pines,” Mansfield said.
The pines are just a stone’s throw from Roux, off Federal Street and across Bath Road. It’s an old-growth grove of white pines, a place that Mansfield describes as the “spirit for the College.”
“We took the notion of the pine tree, the bark and the rings of the tree and thought about how the tree is a metaphor for the building,” said Mansfield. “When you open up the tree, you see the rings—how old the tree is—and we use that as a metaphor for the rings of knowledge.”
Roux’s wood siding, made from thermally modified poplars grown in a sustainable growth forest in Virginia, is the bark, and the layers of glass walls that divide the building from within are the rings: rings of growth, rings of knowledge.
The glass interior reflects a part of the building’s fundamental mission: the promotion and display of the interdisciplinarity of the Environmental Studies program.
“It allows this melting pot of engagement where faculty from different disciplines will bump into each other in the corridor,” said Mansfield. “They will see their partners doing research in the laboratories, because everything is transparent in the building.”
Each part of the building is specifically designed to draw students and faculty into the academic mission it represents. Classrooms are equipped with new methods of engaging students with technology and with each other: furniture on casters and monitors on walls. The architecture itself becomes an educational tool.
“We didn’t put ceilings in the classrooms. We wanted to expose all the ducts, the wires, the conduits, all the shit it takes to run a building,” Mansfield said. “We want you guys to understand what it takes to be a building.”
What it takes to be a building is changing. Roux meets the requirements for platinum LEED certification and embraces the latest technological innovations, as befits a center for the environment. Some design elements, however, remain important through the centuries: spaces for community, connectedness, gathering. On the building’s campus-facing side, behind a towering window wall, is one of Roux’s defining spaces. Mansfield calls it the Lantern.
“What I would love to see one day is to walk in … and see a whole bunch of happy students doing their thing—some working alone, some talking to friends—and then say a half an hour later, a faculty member comes in, a screen comes down, the shades drop and all of a sudden there’s a wonderful presentation of this new thing they discovered up at Kent Island,” Mansfield said.
Like Bowdoin’s campus, the Lantern doesn’t lend itself to one definition. It’s liberal arts, it’s interdisciplinary, it’s of its own time. A lecture hall, a performance space, a study spot or maybe just a place to sit and listen and watch the rain come down on a Thursday morning.
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I have read student, Alyce McFadden’s op-ed in regards to the coordinating, cooperative and bold presence of Roux Hall, the new building on campus. She has given life and form to the creative spirit of the Bowdoin community and its Campus by appreciating the creative atmosphere the new building provides for students and faculty. Well presented, indeed. Thank you, Alyce.
William J. Sager MD