Building Without Boundaries
On a sunny April afternoon, Sarah Lawrence talked with four people about the Monika A. and Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Visual Arts Center. The discussion was informal, but the participants packed a powerful SLC punch: art historian Joe Forte, a member of the Sarah Lawrence faculty since 1978; Demetria Royals, among the College's newest faculty, who arrived here last fall to teach filmmaking; Micheal Rengers '78, an alumnus and the College's director of operations; and architect Susan Rodriguez, whose design (for Polshek Partnership LLP) was selected by the College to become the Heimbold Center.
The conversation was polite at first, then took flight when Sarah Lawrence asked Forte, a specialist in architectural history, to talk stylistically about Rodriguez's design. Fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.
Sarah Lawrence: Joe, as a teacher of architectural history, how would you describe the Heimbold Center from that perspective?
Susan Rodriguez: I can't wait to hear this!
Joe Forte: It's important to think of the building as very intelligent high modernism, sensitive to the program and the site. Anyone who believes that this is an easy job is crazy, because it's a very big building on a very small site in a very small environment.
Micheal Rengers: And then all the components are large within it.
Forte: That's right. So this is an extremely difficult program to do, both externally and internally. The problematic of the external program was really trying to find a way to build a modernist structure here that would not violate the general spirit of the campus. Of course, the proof is always in the pudding, but certainly Susie's approach has been one which is more responsive to the scale and size of the campus than some of the earlier proposals for our arts building.
Rengers: Part of the challenge is that we really are putting what I refer to as the "messy" arts—painting and sculpture and those kinds of things—in with the high-tech arts—filmmaking and media. We've had discussions about what we think is going to happen and how they're going to intermix, but we have no track record on this because we have never been able to do it.
Rodriguez: Well, when I first came up here I thought it was impossible, because I thought there was no way to put 60,000 square feet on this site. And I came back and I said, "I just don't think we can go for this. I don't know how we'd do it." And then we started to really look at it and get a handle on the scale and what could happen, thinking mainly of what could be a wonderful addition to Sarah Lawrence. Then we realized the only way this could happen would be to cut it into the hill and basically reconstitute the landscape.
Earlier you were talking about sort of stylistic intent, but that's not what we as architects think about from first blush, the "what is it going to look like?" Instead, it was very much about how to make this building fit into the circulation and movement of the campus. How would we make a building that will encourage and activate that movement—to connect to the gym, and then to the historic part of campus.
And then you start to think about the program as it relates to the need for movement. So you have site, and then you have program. In the beginning they're separate entities, and the aim is to figure out how they all come together. And, in so doing, we realized the issues of teaching at Sarah Lawrence are about the integration of all the arts, the discussion and community about the arts.
Rengers: For years, everything has been scattered in pieces all over campus – the visual arts have had a very fragmented sense.
Demetria Royals: I came late to the program, from a school that had just finished building a visual arts building—yet we were still alive and talking to each other! Now I can look at the process with a kind of clarity, because my experience is not layered with Sarah Lawrence history. It excites me that this building is going to drive a new type of pedagogy in terms of teaching art. For me, teaching art is not talking about physical space, it's not talking about hardware. It's almost talking about a type of software, a methodology, a new way of thinking. Specifically the film program—that's a misnomer, because there's almost no such thing as film anymore and in ten years, I doubt we will have film as we've known it. And so we need to think of film in terms of new media, digital media; how do we teach the arts when we move from a linear type of thinking to a nonlinear, digital type of thinking? How will we as faculty retool ourselves to push the building to its limits? We haven't even begun to imagine the limits that we can push it to. I guess my question is—and I still don't know the answer—are we talking about living in the building or inhabiting the building?
Rodriguez: What do you mean?
Royals: The Native Americans have a saying that you not only plan for a generation but for seven generations forward. In thinking about this building and what our needs are, do we take the way of teaching now—which is valid, and Sarah Lawrence's reputation is well earned—and then have to transform it in the new building? Will the building help change the ways that we look at art, we see art, we make art, we think about art, the ways we construct reality, we deal with issues of time, we deal with issues of space, we deal with issues of identity? Given the digital quality of the building—its modern-ness and its technological sophistication—this becomes a new type of discussion that has to take place.
Forte: One of the unexpected things I liked about your design, Susie, was that it broke itself up in the ways that help us think about our engagement with the visual arts and visual art theory. What is the reality that people experience and express in their work when they occupy fractured, incidental spaces as well as inclusive, responsive space? What does that feel like?
Royals: That's what I'm saying, too. But it's not that we're all going to come together and sing "Kumbaya" in the new building —no. We're talking about something else that's really complicated, and exciting.
Rodriguez: I think the problem with the "Kumbaya" analogy is that there's a lot of personal independent thinking that goes on in the arts, and intimate thinking and consideration of what you're doing. It's not all about coming together. You don't always want to be on view, but at times it's helpful and celebratory to have the kinds of monumental spaces which are at the heart of this, but then to be able to retreat and go to a personal space—a sort of closing and opening, back and forth. But one of the things I notice about Sarah Lawrence, is that it's not a place of great monumentality in terms of residential character and quality—well, maybe in some of the outdoor spaces, but what's monumental is the College's topography. We try to capture that in the building, but also the opposite of monumentality—the intimate.
Forte: I think there's always been a tension in the College's plans for an arts building between the desire to make a monument and the desire to create intimate space. This tension is a constant reality, both in the ways that we work in our pedagogy and the ways that we build on our terrain. It's the spaces in-between our accepted forms that have not been well negotiated and not well thought out—one could call it somewhere between the extremes of the seminar and the conference.
Rodriguez: The use of glass to open up this building can help make the visual arts, in certain regards, more accessible. In many of the buildings here, there's a really clear distinction between what is a building and what is the landscape. In the new building there will be less of a distinction between inside and outside, so that people will really be drawn in. Even in some of the spaces that we've designed for new media, what we've talked about is to celebrate it and not just have a door and a solid wall—not only bringing the natural light in to create a building that's a wonderful environment to be in, but also bringing that transparency into the divisions between spaces. In both the cases of the second floor and on the first floor, people will actually have visual access into the editing spaces and the rooms that are filled with technology, the opportunity for a kind of interaction.
Royals: After one of our intense discussions about the building I remember thinking, were we creating a building that was going to enable the art program, or truly empower the art program. And I think that's going to be a question we're going to be wrestling with for a very long time. The possibility of empowering people in a whole new, different way is what's exciting to me.
Rengers: And what I love is that parts of these kinds of discussions probably occurred in 1928 as well: the tension between the individual and the group, between fifteen people learning together and one-on-one learning, and how does that play in a building. What is the mixture? I think Susie's building redefines what "mixed usage" really means at the College.
Royals: We're usually tucked away.
Rengers: There are 400 people that are probably going to pass through this building each and every day just because it's going to be easier to go through the building than it is to go around it. That's by design, and pretty phenomenal.
Rodriguez: And this building is intentionally trying not to be monumental. It's intentionally about access.
Forte: Right, and that's the experiential part of our education. I mean, in a strange way, it has reified the notion of access in that one is passing through it, even if one is going someplace else. It's much more than just a narrow definition of intentionality, but about chance, discovery, a flexible or unbounded intent.
Rengers: And it's bringing the outside in, successfully.
Rodriguez: When we designed a cultural resources center for the Museum of the American Indian, the virtual space was very important because so many Native communities couldn't afford to come to these places. The finite aspect was creating a visual symbol for them that resonated with their values and also presented a kind of assurance of protection for the special artifacts exhibited there—but it also visually represented how those artifacts could get out to the Native tribes. As an architect, we had to think about the ground from which the building itself emerges, of course, but also from which the thinking emerges. I think you start with a place, and you then start over with the real human aspects and material aspects that you need in order to feel comfortable in your environment and give you the access to technology that you need. Demetria said "empower," but this building can do even more: facilitate the complete creative potential of the students and faculty, with no constraints, no restraint, what they're able to do.
Royals: Susie, the ramifications of that have a resonance for me: to be an African-American woman and really be in a space that has no boundaries. And that, in turn, will have the potential to change the entire dialogue on the campus.
Rodriguez: We've come to realize something about Sarah Lawrence. There is a nurturing here that provides an environment that gives students the confidence to express themselves. It's so different from my own experience, having gone to a very large university and never having felt that intimacy and nurturing. This building will be in the ground, and students will understand their relationship to that ground; understanding, in this case, a containment in a positive way - feeling supported and having their faculty there. And they'll be able to create without boundaries. To have this mix, all of this, in one place is just—well, again, it sets one up for unlimited possibilities.