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).