Construction Projects and The Negotiation of Aesthetics

“Aesthetic(s)” as a term usually concerns itself with the nature, perception, and judgment of beauty. It is a loaded, complicated term, one thrown around as if beauty is inherently timeless and universal. We can probably blame Immanuel Kant for the debates that followed, since it was the 18th-century Enlightenment thinker who sought to identify the transcendent and timeless aspects of beauty.

While not without controversy, Kant’s ideas about aesthetics stuck in several ways, and they still resonate today. Of course, the problem with such a narrow view of aesthetics is that so often it is used to naturalize a hierarchical set of values, those which align with majority sentiment—or to put it in more political terms, with dominant (or ruling) forces.

Take James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance—an experimental novel that, upon its publication in 1918, was subject to mass-burnings in the UK and labeled “obscene” in the U.S. Today, however, it is viewed by scholars and critics alike as a worthy representative of modernist literature as art. The “Molly Bloom” soliloquy at the end of the novel now serves as a common go-to for examples of beautiful prose.

“Beauty” is largely ideological, a construct bound to specific needs, desires, biases. Interestingly, we can look to high-profile and often ambitious construction projects at private universities and campuses to gain insight into how beauty and aesthetics are not static but rather a reflection of values aligned with specific historical and cultural moments. To look at a newly minted construction project—a library, a new research facility, a campus welcome center, among so many others—is to engage with the immediate needs and desires of that particular institution. Often the most impactful and well-received construction projects are those that manage a juggling act of sorts—that is, to simultaneously meet the needs of the present while also offering a nod to the past by unifying campus aesthetics and aligning with an institution’s identity and core values.

Moreover, by taking a closer look at different campus-based construction projects, there are lessons to be learned about the challenges and resolutions that may surface during such endeavors.

Core Values and Challenging the Status Quo: The New School’s University Center

When building for colleges and universities, generally the most urgent concerns are budget and space. These undoubtedly inform at the planning stage the scope of any construction project. But when funding and space are less an obstacle and instead conducive to the possible realization of creative dreams, the more immediate challenge is to settle upon the character and functionality of the building.

University Center is located at the intersection of 14th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and this multipurpose facility is a prized feature of The New School. Since its founding in 1919, The New School has embraced its status as a rigorous, multi-disciplined institution that seeks to break down perceived walls between disciplines with the goal of nurturing progressive minds. It is a hub for scholars, artists, and designers to come together to challenge convention, and to do so in the vibrant and diverse expanse of New York City’s Greenwich Village. In fact, a central ethos of The New School is to think of New York City not as merely the home of the university, but as an extension of its campus and as an integral component of students’ educational experience.

The University Center, as such, is a striking representation of The New School’s mission of challenging the status quo. Its forward-thinking design reflects the institution’s allegiance to creativity, innovation, and social engagement. The 365,000-square-foot, 16-story building, which opened its doors in 2014, is designed to accommodate a decade of transformation and growth in The New School’s academic programs and student population.

Similarly, its versatility no doubt speaks to students’ desires for variety and on-site conveniences. The LEED® Gold building provides space for all aspects of a traditional campus, with 200,000 square feet of academic space on the first seven floors—among them, state-of-the-art classrooms, a two-level library research center overlooking a green room, an 800-seat auditorium, a 2,200-square-foot faculty resource room, 15 faculty offices, three student lounges, and also a cafeteria and event café with provisions for music performances. Students have access to a 600-bed dormitory on the levels above.

Congruent with the core educational philosophy of The New School, interactive spaces are included to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary learning; moreover, these spaces are dispersed vertically throughout to activate all levels of the building. Tying them together are three iconic stairways that weave their way through the building, providing plenty of chances for social encounters.

This structure embodies the idea—a popular one in current architectural trends—that getting an education should not be a solitary, quasi-monastic endeavor but instead an avenue for participating in public life. The staircases create a hive of activity that can be traced along the façade with large glass windows, and in between these interactive zones are long, loft-style spaces that house 50,000 square feet of design studios, classrooms, and computer labs. All of these flexible spaces can be reconfigured with no impact on power, data, or lighting.

The University Center includes an extensive academic program of 19 fashion studios, 17 drawing studios, 12 classrooms, and 7 science labs. Virtually all schools and departments are represented in the building, and program adjacencies are intentional so as to promote collaboration and spontaneous learning interactions.

The University Center’s Exterior Aesthetics

Designed by the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the building, equipped with a boxy brass base and capped by a 9-story dormitory tower, stands out even in the dense, competing spaces of the city. As far as buildings go, it is eccentric in design, deliberately so, for it invites attention and consideration.

As described by Nicolai Ouroussoff for The New York Times, “thick glass bands, tracing an elaborate double-decker internal staircase, carve diagonally across its façade like a chunky costume-jewelry necklace.” Ouroussoff’s description, as distinctive as it may be, perhaps undercuts the visual impact of the sweeping staircases, which from the streets give the impression of a flowing object on the building’s surface, something akin to an ocean wave or even a slithering snake. Whatever the design is meant to convey, it is both striking and aesthetically self-conscious. Most importantly, it aligns with The New School’s self-constructed image as an ideal space for innovation and creativity.

Emerson College and its 20-Year Renovation of the Cutler Majestic Theatre

Emerson College was founded in 1880 in Boston as a “school of oratory.” For this reason, it offers more than three dozen degree and professional training programs specializing in the fields of arts and communication with a foundation in liberal arts studies. Emerson is one of the founding members of the ProArts Consortium, an association of six neighboring institutions in Boston that are dedicated to arts education at the collegiate level.

Erected in 1903 as a Beaux Arts style theatre, the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College is a throwback to a different era. When the century-old performing arts venue was closed over twenty years ago for restoration, the scope of the project called attention to the immense challenges of preserving the past while meeting the specific desires and needs of the present. Adding further to the challenge of renovating were external pressures brought on by the building’s status as both a Boston landmark and the second oldest theater in Boston’s downtown Theatre District. Far more than the Emerson community were invested in the renovation efforts.

The renovation took place over the course of a 20-year, $14.8 million project that was completed in 2003. Its aesthetics take visitors back in time to the last remnants of a gilded age when opulence and grandeur could be detected in every detail: ornate gold leaf with intricately colored washes; plaster grape arbors, pomegranates, and leafy vines; classical pilasters, capitals, and cartouches; more than 5,000 replica lighting fixtures; restored marble, scagliola, marezzo, tile and brass; seating and carpeting replicating the 1903 originals; terracotta classical façade; marquee and canopy reflecting the 1903 originals.

But just as the task of recapturing the original look and feel of the Majestic was a priority, so was the endeavor of upgrading to modern standards of comfort, safety, and functionality. Such improvements included the following: wider, more comfortable seats; wider aisles; more leg room; safety rails; expanded washrooms in more locations; more lobby areas with food and drink amenities; improved heating and air conditioning; ticket sales by phone and Internet; expanded accessibility for audience and artists; new, more comfortable dressing rooms; and 21st-century stage systems.

As if renovating the Majestic was not daunting enough, Emerson’s leaders understood that the revival of the theater hinged on the renewal of the neighborhood it anchored. Emerson partnered with the City of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as local neighborhood groups to create special zoning for the district that preserved theaters and support spaces while also encouraging sensitive mixed-use development.

That Emerson took the project one step further is even more remarkable, for it began a phased move of its entire campus to the neighborhood. It preserved and reconfigured historic buildings for dorms, classrooms, a library, and offices. Students gave the streets new life, and neighbors in turn saw the rising potential for growth and responded by restoring the district’s theaters, restaurants, hotels, and bars. The renovation of the Majestic brought back an entire neighborhood, and Emerson’s role in this is a testament to the power of community, perseverance, and creative thinking.

Construction as Fierce Competition

Competition has always been fierce in higher education, and institutions are doing all they can to keep pace by building new facilities and modernizing/updating old ones for aesthetic and operational purposes, and of course to continue attracting students.

According to ARC, a technology and documents solutions company for facilities management, competition and changes in enrollment are impacting colleges and universities of all sizes. The firm says a survey commissioned in 2018 by the Association of University Directors of Estates reported that 67% of students viewed facilities as critical to making their college decision, whereas only 47% said reputation was most important.

Students, in short, pay most attention to recreation centers, dining halls, and other similar facilities. The rise in campus-based construction projects reflects the evolving desires of students. Further, the buildings produced—both inside and out—reflect evolving conceptions about what constitutes beauty and functionality, particularly in terms of how either may appeal to students in the present and future.

What institutions must be careful to avoid is investing in a construction project that ages so poorly that down the road it makes more economic sense to bulldoze and rebuild rather than to renovate and repurpose. Emerson College has managed with the Majestic to embrace tradition while also modernizing. Institutions can also bet on the lasting appeal of such projects as The New School’s University Center, which illustrates contemporaneity and forward-thinking while also adeptly reinforcing the institution’s core values.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.